It's one of the questions that non-journalists ask me all the time: What makes some events "news," while other events are not "news"?
Long ago, a caller in Charlotte wanted to know why it was news that a downtown church replaced a window, while it was not news that her church built and dedicated a new building.
Well, I explained, that window was in an Episcopal Church downtown and that sanctuary is an historic site. It was controversial to put in a modern window. Now, if there had been a zoning fight about that new megachurch sanctuary, then the newspaper would have covered it. She was not amused or convinced.
So here is a more modern news-judgment puzzle, one with a twist that combines cutting-edge technology and the old demons of media-bias studies. This puzzle was at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).
To wade into this, start with the top of this interesting Crux piece that ran with this headline: "Fears of anti-Catholic bias rise on both left and right."
NEW YORK -- Of late, California Senator Diane Feinstein has come under fire for questioning judicial nominee Amy Barrett’s commitment to her Catholic faith during a senate confirmation hearing last week.
“I think in your case, professor … the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern,” declared Feinstein.
That same week, another story prompted Catholic furor when former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said he thought the U.S. bishops had been “terrible” in their support of DACA and “They need illegal aliens to fill the churches.”
These two cases -- which happened in the span of one, shared 24-hour news cycle -- have prompted some to wonder if anti-Catholic bias on both the political left and the right in America is on the rise.
In my mind, there's no question that both of these events were worthy of mainstream-media coverage.
However, stop and think about it. Bannon is no longer "in power," in terms of a role in American government. There are those who insist he still has President Donald Trump's ear, but that's the stuff of Drudge Report headlines.
The Feinstein remarks, and others during the same hearing, pointed to an emerging conflict with deep roots into the U.S. Constitution and its ban on religious tests for those seeking public office or other major roles in public life.
Two stories, as the Crux piece noted:
According to Adrian Vermeule, professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, “hostility comes in different varieties.”
“Feinstein’s hostility is a kind of myopia, blind to the fact that liberalism is itself a structure of dogma,” said Vermeule.
“Bannon’s, on the other hand, is a depraved cynicism. Anyone who thinks that Archbishop [Jose] Gomez [of Los Angeles], for example, acts or speaks from some sort of venal motive, urgently needs a moral recalibration,” he added.
So which of these stories exploding into the bloodstream of American press news coverage, while the other did not?
I brought that question up the other day in my third GetReligion post on the "loud dogma" drama in the Senate and I've been following Google News ever since.
The verdict? The Barrett story was "opinion," not hard news. Conservative media made a big deal out of it and, eventually, the mainstream press featured op-ed pieces or late, late, late news coverage.
On the other hand, the Bannon vs. the U.S. bishops story was dead-serious hard news, from the get go.
The question is: Why?
The Crux piece featured a logical voice (with Clinton White House era ties), in light of this journalist's book-length thoughts on topics related to these stories. This is linked to our larger questions:
... CNN political analyst and USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers told Crux, “I don’t know that Catholics have been singled out, but it’s definitely an anti-Christian thing.”
Asked to make sense of this atmosphere of heightened bias, Powers attributed it to “increased polarization and that people are operating in such different paradigms.”
“If you don’t live in a world where people are making decisions based on deep religious beliefs,” said Powers. “it’s easy to caricature it based on what you see in the newspaper, versus even having a real understanding or respect for it, even if it’s not for you.”
Addressing the Feinstein controversy, Powers said, “If they were to step back and say would we be okay with someone asking a Muslim this question, I think the answer is pretty obviously no.”
I am convinced that there is something else going on here, as well.
Check out the graphic at the top of this post. Here is an explanation of what's going on in that image and what it reveals about the Twitter-verse and social media in general.
Fig. 3. Network graph of moral contagion shaded by political ideology. The graph represents a depiction of messages containing moral and emotional language, and their retweet activity, across all political topics (gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change). Nodes represent a user who sent a message, and edges (lines) represent a user retweeting another user. The two large communities were shaded based on the mean ideology of each respective community. ...
As always, red means conservative (as in "Jesusland") and blue represents the world of progressives.
Notice how few Twitter signals there are from the blue folks to the red folks and vice versa? In other words, these two worlds are not listening to one another.
The crucial question in our discussion is this: Which pack of tweeters is best represented in the key decision-making chairs in powerful, media-establishment newsrooms? Think about it.
Thus, Bannon's outrageous words zoomed around in the blue zone -- sounding mainstream-media sirens that signal "big news"! Of course, you could also read about Bannon's comments in alternative, conservative news sources.
But what about the "loud dogma" remarks? Did the anti-Catholic overtones and Constitutional questions raised by that event tick off people in the blue zone to the same degree as in the red zone?
Perhaps this diagram says a lot about news values in this digital age.