I recently wrote a think-piece post about an Esquire piece by Peter Boyer on how Donald Trump has successfully baited many elite mainstream journalists into switching from classic American Model of the Press journalism and into advocacy mode.
If you didn’t see that GetReligion post, please click this link: “Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels.”
Boyer, of course, is best known for his years of work with The New Yorker. I have always thought that he has an incredible ability to write about hot-button topics while showing respect for the beliefs of people on both sides of those emotionally charged issues. Yes, that includes religion. Check out this example from 2005: “Jesus in the Classroom.”
In my earlier post, I wondered how Boyer might apply his thesis about Trump and the press to, well, the whole issue of journalists not “getting” religion. It helps that Boyer started reading GetReligion back in 2005 and that we’ve been in touch over the years.
Now, I have something to share, from Boyer, about that religion-news question. But first, here is a crucial section of my earlier post to help introduce readers to this discussion. In the Esquire piece, a key scene opens with Boyer interviewing Trump:
… Amid those passing controversies was one story that Trump himself remembers clearly still. “Yep, very famous story,” he remarked to me in a recent interview. “It was a very important story...” Trump was referring to a front-page New York Times article published on August 8, 2016, under the headline "The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity." The opening paragraph posed a provocative question:
“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”
Here’s another key statement:
Reporters who considered Trump “potentially dangerous,” [Jim] Rutenberg wrote, would inevitably move closer “to being oppositional” to him in their reporting — “by normal standards, untenable.” Normal standards, the column made clear, no longer applied.
This reminded me, of course, of the famous remarks that Times editor Bill Keller made several days after his retirement — the 2011 remarks that led a GetReligion reader (a D.C. area scholar) to create our “Kellerism” term.
Boyer’s piece also reminded me of the column written by Times public editor Liz Spayd in the days after the 2016 election. Her thoughts on how the Times wasn’t committed to cover the lives and beliefs of about half of America led to a series of GetReligion posts on the religion-news implications of her writings. You can see some of those posts by clicking right here.
Soon, Spayd was pushed out the door of the Times newsroom for writing things like this, concerning that White House race:
Readers are sending letters of complaint at a rapid rate. Here’s one that summed up the feelings succinctly, from Kathleen Casey of Houston: “Now, that the world has been upended and you are all, to a person, in a state of surprise and shock, you may want to consider whether you should change your focus from telling the reader what and how to think, and instead devote yourselves to finding out what the reader (and nonreaders) actually think.”
Another letter, from Nick Crawford of Plymouth, Mich., made a similar point. “Perhaps the election result would not be such a surprise if your reporting had acknowledged what ordinary Americans care about, rather than pushing the limited agenda of your editors,” he wrote. “Please come down from your New York City skyscraper and join the rest of us.”
I sent some of those URLs to Boyer and asked how GetReligion questions about the Times and the Acela-zone press, in general, fit into his Esquire framework.
Boyer wrote back with interesting news. The original version of the Esquire piece included a block of material about religion and the news. He sent me that and gave me permission to share it.
So here goes:
[Since the 2016 election] there has been very little testing of the shared assumptions inside the media-political establishment that led to the biggest miss on the biggest story of the century.
I’d suggest that's because there may be even less intellectual and ideological diversity in our newsrooms than in our universities. This matters, in ways both subtle and obvious. If, as Pew study after Pew study tells us, very few folks in our newsrooms are regular churchgoers, or own guns, or identify as Republicans, or (God forbid!) voted for Trump, how then, can there not be bias, however unintended, in the shaping of the news product?
Consider, by way of random example, the angle of Trump and evangelical Christians. The enthusiastic evangelical support of a crass New York loudmouth with questionable personal morals is an obviously great story. But if no one in your newsroom knows or regularly talks to evangelicals (much less actually is an evangelical), how are you going to cover the story? The way you’d cover any foray into an alien subject — you’d seek out a couple of experts, possibly even an “evangelical leader.” What they’d tell you is that, yes, Trump is a deeply flawed character, but his policies (on abortion, judges, whatever) align with evangelical goals. Thus, your storyline would suggest that when it comes to Trump, evangelicals are transactional, and even a bit hypocritical.
True enough, as far as it goes, and it’s a storyline that is certainly companionable with attitudes in most newsrooms toward both Trump and evangelicals. But what your readers or viewers won’t get from it is real understanding.
Evangelical Christians believe that their country is in the late stages of an all-out culture war, which they are losing. At stake are deeply held values — regarding marriage, religious freedom, the sanctity of life — that are central to their faith, but have been depicted in the culture as intolerance, and even hateful. Donald Trump is seen by them as a blunt instrument smashing the political correctness that would consign the beliefs of devout Christians to the margins of our culture. That added measure of understanding makes the story far more interesting, whatever your views of Trump, or evangelicals.
Yes, that does sound a little bit GetReligion-esque.