Covering 'flyover' America: Did CNN's Brian Stelter say the press just doesn't 'get' religion?

Every year, I write a mid-April column linked to the anniversary of the creation of my national “On Religion” column, which started out as a weekly feature for the Scripps Howard News Service (while I was working for The Rocky Mountain News) and is now carried by the Universal syndicate).

This annual column always focuses on patterns and trends in religion news. I guess you could say that I use this as an update on why I ventured into religion-news work in the first place. This often turns into a “Crossroads” podcast, as well (click here to tune that in).

I’ve been doing that for 31 years now. That’s getting close to a third of a century and, as you would expect, I have this drill down pretty well. Thus, somewhere around the first of the year, I start looking for an event, a book, a provocative op-ed page piece or something else to serve as a hook for this anniversary piece.

This year, I ran into a CNN podcast — the Feb. 20 episode of Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — featuring Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, discussing his new book “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.” This discussion set off all kinds of alarms in my head — so many that it was hard for me to pick one hook for the 31st anniversary column.

Well, then Notre Dame Cathedral caught on fire and, well, lots of journalists started writing pieces that sounded like they were covering a disaster in a museum or some kind of government building — as opposed to a holy place. I simply had to write about that. One thing led to another, and the Notre Dame fire turned into my anniversary column for this year. Here’s a sample:

… American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" — to both.

OK, so what happened to the piece I had planned about the chat between Carney and Stelter? Logically enough, I had to delay it for a week.

So that’s how we ended up with a 31st anniversary column one week (click here) on one topic and then a 31st anniversary podcast the next week (click here) on a completely different news hook.

Strange, I know.

So what drew me to the Reliable Sources podcast in the first place? Well, that’s easy to figure out if you read the following passage near the end of this week’s column, which was built on an interview with Carney, passages from his book and, yes, the podcast itself.

The context should be familiar to GetReligion readers by now: Why are national journalists so obsessed with the mythological monolith of white evangelical Protestant voters who, you know, are so, so, so in love with Donald Trump?

In his book, Carney digs into some case studies that indicate that — if the goal is to find the Make America Great Again core — then reporters need to look outside sanctuary pews. The key is to focus on primaries, when voters had non-Trump options, as opposed to the general election, when the only real options was Hillary Clinton.

Carney’s work focusing on zip codes in coal-country Virginia, the most Mormon corner of Utah and Dutch Calvinist territory in Iowa (Trump didn’t win a single precinct in state’s most evangelical county).

He noted: “So you can boil the anti-Trump places in the early primaries down to two categories: (1) the highly educated elites and (2) the tight-knit religious communities.”

Also: “To explain Trump’s core supporters, many commentators pointed to the factories that were closing, but they should have been pointing to the churches that were closing.”

One more: “Economic woe, social dysfunction, family collapse and community erosion all characterized the places where Trump was strongest. ... So did empty pews."

Thus, there is this crucial material in my column from Carney and, note well, Stelter. This is long, but essential, to understand the material in this week’s podcast:

Religious convictions among voters in some communities across America – in Iowa, in Utah and elsewhere – clearly had something to do with their rejection of Trump and support for other GOP candidates. These fault lines have not disappeared.

"That's not something the national media know about," said Carney. "Most of the national media don't know that there's a difference between the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church and that there's a difference between types of evangelicals and this was a central story to what happened in 2016."

Stelter said the problem is that religion is "like climate change." This topic affects life nationwide, but it's hard for journalists to see since "there's not a bill being introduced in Congress or there's not a press conference happening in New York."

This media-elite blindness skews political coverage, said Carney, but it affects other stories, as well — especially in thriving communities in flyover country between the East and West Coasts.

"Far too many journalists know little or nothing about the subjects and issues that matter the most to religious believers in America," he said. "It's not just that they make egregious errors about religion. It's that they don't understand that there are religious angles to almost every big story and that, for millions of Americans, religion is at the heart of those stories."

Sound familiar?

Enjoy the podcast.

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