As I have said many times here at GetReligion, it is helpful if -- every now and then -- journalists listen to the voices of people who have been on the other side of a reporter's notepad.
This also applies, of course, to television cameras and any other form of technology used in modern newsrooms.
Thus, I would like to share a think piece that I planned to run this past weekend, only the tornado of news about Archbishop Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick got in the way and rearranged my writing plans for several days (while I was traveling, once again).
Here is the overture of a recent essay by Mark Bauerlein, published in the conservative interfaith journal First Things, that ran with this headline: "Dr. Peterson and the Reporters." This is, of course, a reference to the now omnipresent author of "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos."
The crucial question from the other side of the notepad: Would it be a good thing if journalists actually read what Peterson has written and listened to what he is actually saying?"
One ingredient in the astounding fame of Jordan Peterson is his capacity to show just how lazy, obtuse, unprepared, smug, knee-jerk, and prejudiced are many journalists at leading publications.
In a tendentious New York Times profile, for example, Peterson is held up for ridicule when he cites “enforced monogamy” as a rational way of fixing wayward, sometimes violent men in our society. If men had wives, they’d behave better, Peterson implied, and they wouldn’t “fail” so much. The reporter, a twenty-something from the Bay Area, has a telling response to Peterson’s position: “I laugh, because it is absurd.”
Her condescension is unearned. With no background in social psychology or cultural anthropology, she doesn’t get the framework in which Peterson speaks. But that doesn’t blunt her confidence in setting Peterson’s remarks into the category of the ridiculous. And the category of the sexist, too, as the subtitle of the profile makes clear: “He says there’s a crisis in masculinity. Why won’t women -- all these wives and witches -- just behave?”
The problem, of course, is that Peterson is using language from his professional discipline and his own writings.
Now, here is the rub: Is it realistic to expect journalists to have done background reading on this kind of subject? Let's read on:
By “enforced monogamy,” though, all Peterson means is a society that prizes stable one-to-one relationships, not a society that forces women into domestic servitude. It’s a term drawn from sociology (hardly a right-wing, patriarchal zone). But the reporter ... casts it as pernicious nonetheless. She didn’t bother to do any homework in the fields in which Peterson works.
Then there is a discussion of an audio feature at the Economist, which is about as elite (that's a compliment) a publication as we have in our rushed, digital world.
This is long. However, it is the whole First Things essay in a nutshell:
... Peterson sat down with the Economist for a long interview largely on the issue of male-female relations. At one point (around minute 43), Peterson notes that everyone in society is “controlled” in one way or another. The conversation shifts into the ways in which women sometimes get out of control, acting in a “bullying, detestable manner” (Peterson’s words) toward other women. It’s hard to “cope” with that, he observes, because it can be “unbelievably vicious,” and it usually takes the form of “reputation destruction, innuendo, and gossip.”
It isn’t hard to imagine the interviewer, a liberal female, growing irritated at a man talking about women behaving badly. When Peterson concludes that women engage in those kinds of tactics much, much more than men do and states, “That’s what the data indicate,” she has to interrupt.
“Where is that data on innuendo and gossip?” she asks, in a tone blending mockery and annoyance.
Clearly, she thinks that no such data exist. Peterson pauses for a moment, as if he has just understood that she has no awareness of the context of his remarks. The area of adolescence studies has probed these tactics thoroughly, he tells her, and “it’s a well documented field.” Researchers have studied aggressive behavior and found clear differences in male and female expression. Women prefer verbal forms of it, men physical forms.
“There’s a whole literature on that,” he continues.
But the interviewer still has a hard time accepting it: “Just to be clear, you think that is predominantly a female modus operandi.”
Peterson rightly picks up on her choice of words. “It’s not that I think it. It’s that the clinical literature indicates that. … I’m not making this up!”
She still acts as if the whole outlook is new to her, and rather offensive, too. Once again, we have a journalist who didn’t read anything of the background material when she prepared for this interview.
So here is the question: When interviewing professionals in highly technical complicated fields -- let's say Catholic canon law or Southern Baptist church polity -- is it important for reporters to. uh, know anything about the subject at hand? Should a non-scientist be expected to offer accurate coverage of science? Should a political reporter who is covering the U.S. Supreme Court be expected to accurately quote material from relevant court decisions?
This is, of course, Reason No. 1 for editors seeking out trained, experienced religion reporters. Do editors grasp that this issue is linked to controversies about news consumers losing respect for journalism, as a force in public life?