RNA conference marks 70 years amidst the shifting sands (Knives out!) of journalism

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Thirty years ago, religion reporters from around the country met in Las Vegas, concurrent with the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting, to have their annual conference. We followed preacher Arthur Blessitt dragging his cross down the Strip and cruised the casinos, exploring a bizarre world where there’s always an entrance, rarely an exit.

I was in my early 30s then; much thinner and part of a vanguard of young religion reporters making their mark. I was finishing up my third year at the Houston Chronicle and that year I came in second for the Templeton Award, at that time the top award for religion reporting in the country.

The Templeton no longer exists and the Religion News Association turned 70 this year, returning to Las Vegas this past week for their annual confab. A whole new generation of reporters has swept in and the RNA itself is quite different than the all-secular-journalists group it once was. Public relations folks and people from religious media are now members, giving the RNA a whole different feel.

In many ways, it was old home week for those of us long on the beat and there were plenty of old friends and the same inside jokes. Prizes were awarded for great writing, including a third place for our own Bobby Ross in the Excellence for Magazine Reporting Award.

But in other ways, it was a far edgier gathering judging from the unmistakeable social-justice vibe and some of the vicious tweets posted by those attending or listening in. To cut to the chase: The knives came out.

The vast divides among Americans were mirrored at our conference; not that anyone seemed all that upset about it. Only Paul Raushenbush, the founder and former executive religion editor for the Huffington Post, understood what’s at stake here. He told one panel, “We are increasing our diversity but not our pluralism. … We are at Civil War levels of distrust.” Something needs to change “or we’re not going to make it.” (Before I go on, know that tapes of all the sessions will be appearing on the RNA site. The quotes I’m running in this piece are as close as I could get while typing, so they are approximate).

Anyway, those divides appeared in living color on Saturday, when the Trinity Broadcasting Network sponsored a lunch on “The Future of Faith in the Media.” Headed by radio host and bestselling author Eric Metaxas, it was a vague presentation that mentioned some huge special TBN is planning for the near future (although we weren’t shown a preview) plus a panel featuring two religion reporters as well as TBN’s marketing director and a former booker for Fox News. The latter two got reamed on Twitter just for being there.

Metaxas apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that you’re supposed to allow journalists to pose questions after a presentation. (He wasn’t the only moderator to make this mistake; Emma Green of The Atlantic also failed to allow questions during her millennials/spirituality panel).

I didn’t see Metaxas at any of the other RNA panels, so I think he was flown in simply for this presentation, then left afterwards with little or no interaction with the reporters. Such distancing caused a lot of ill will, as TBN is a huge network that is notorious for not doing interviews with the secular press and this was our one chance to penetrate the shield.

Like I said, the knives were out.

Immediately after this was the “Abortion, Religion and the Courts” panel featuring Rabbi Harra Person, chief strategy officer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Elaina Ramsey, executive director of the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. Danae King, a writer for the Columbus Dispatch, was moderating (and in my photo with this post, she is on the far left). We all settled down for the inevitable cat fight.

Pavone went for the jugular right away, telling journalists how they were wimping out on reporting what abortion is really like.

“Do we describe the procedure?” he asked. “We are not going to resolve abortion in this country by pretending to debate it. We are talking about everything except abortion — reproductive rights, the constitution, women’s freedom. … In how many of your stories do these words appear: Arms, legs, blood, skulls, decapitation, dismemberment? … Unless we can face the truth of what we are actually talking about, we’re not going to resolve this matter.”

The other two panelists fought back; one calling abortion a “family value” and comparing abortion restrictions to “pure misogyny.”

“Abortion isn’t pretty but neither is being forced to carry a dead fetus to term,” the rabbi said. Whoa, I thought; since when is any woman forced to do that? If the baby dies, usually the body expels it but what she was saying was not physically possible.

So when the question time came up, I rushed up to the mike, as I wanted to be first in line. (I had a rental car to pick up before 3 and it was about 2:35 at that point). There was a woman in front of me; the woman behind me was visibly pregnant. There was discussion in the line about putting the pregnant woman first in line as a way of confronting Pavone as the nasty male — and a Catholic priest at that — on the panel.

I resisted, as the car rental office was closing soon. So I went first and I asked the rabbi what she was talking about. Even if the kid has genetic abnormalities and may die at birth, he or she is still alive in the womb, not dead for weeks like she was alleging. The rabbi insisted she was right. I challenged her to tell me where this had happened, but my time was up.

The tweets fell somewhere between colorful and vicious.

Sarah Jones is a writer for New York magazine, by the way. So we’re not just talking about a few millennials writing for out-of-the-way publications with their trigger fingers on Twitter. Pavone, you may notice, fought back.

Not all the conference was as confrontative. The Thursday morning panel on anti-Semitism dealt with the recent uptick around the world and how Jewish rituals involving animal slaughter and male circumcision was really riling folks in Europe. A lot more non-Jews in the U.S. circumcise their kids than Europeans do, I learned and one panelist remarked that more people in the Netherlands were concerned about animal rights than religious rights.

They also talked about recent anti-Semitic attacks in Brooklyn, which the panel attributed to the locals resenting gentrification (thus blaming new Jewish residents) or “a climate of hate,” as one rabbi put it. Two videos I saw online involving the attacks in Brooklyn both revealed the attackers to be black, yet no one on the panel talked about race being part of the discussion.

There was also some good survey data on millennials and religion released at the conference plus one I liked on religion, socialism and economic justice that unfortunately was scheduled just after lunch, when most of the people in the room seemed quite sleepy. To save money, the RNA only had coffee served in the morning; which was bad for the afternoon panels. The panel on Hindu nationalism was livelier, especially when it got to a near shouting match over U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s friendship with Hindu nationalist (and Indian Prime Minister) Narenda Modi.

One of the most diverse groups was a millennial panel that included the female director of an Orthodox Christian institute for high school students in Massachusetts; the co-founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Masjid al-Rabia, a woman-centered Islamic community center; the leader pastor of the non-denominational Block Church in Philly and a retired Mormon fashion model (although she still appears to be in her 20s) who has founded an LDS women’s clothing line.

As someone who has put together more than one of these panels, I'll remind folks that the RNA doesn’t pay for peoples’ travel or hotel expenses to the conference and thus panels are made up of people who can get there on their own dime — or have groups willing to fund them.

Speaking of which, the Freedom From Religion Foundation showed up for the second year in a row to sponsor a panel; this time on “Christian nationalism in an age of Trump.” It was as far to the left as the TBN panel was to the right; perhaps even more so. However, I didn’t hear complaints about that or see any nasty tweets.

One of the more telling panels — in terms of reporting trends — was a panel on opinion journalism. I noticed that all five panelists were either presently contributing to Religion News Service or had done so in recent years, which loaded the panel 100 percent in favor of one outlet.

Cathleen Falsani, who has worked for several newspapers as well, said there’s too much opinion mixed with journalism that and that she has returned to doing hard news.

A columnist for the National Catholic Reporter asked Falsani how she keeps reporting and opinion separate.

“If I was traditionally involved in advocacy for something, my editors would not be comfortable in covering it as a straight news,” Falsani said. “That might be different now. … It used to be that you could not advocate for something and report on it. I think that has changed…”

Well, yes. That change has played right into President Donald Trump’s characterization of “fake news” coming from what he sees as hopelessly biased writer/advocates for pet causes.

Co-panelist Jacob Lupfer, who besides contributing to RNS is also a political strategist living near Baltimore, joked that what opinion journalists need is a spouse with a six-figure income because there’s no money in it.

The tension, he said, was not drawing a line between opinion journalism and news writing (which I assume he considers to be a battle already lost); it’s holding the line between opinion and advocacy.

People want columnists to admit their biases, he said, adding: “I am satisfied when writers offer disclosure. The most problematic part is if we’re giving an advocacy pitch and seeming we’re further away personally from it than we are.”

Sitting next to him was Simran Jeet Singh, who makes no secret of his advocacy and even describes himself thus in his Twitter handle. No one on the panel seemed to be at all upset as to how a lot of journalism has degenerated into this news/opinion/advocacy mix and how that advocacy genie got let out of the bottle ages ago.

A lot more happened at the RNA conference that I’ll pick up on later, including the upheaval the organization is experiencing with its COO, Tiffany McCallen, and its business manager, Amy Schiska, both resigning this fall. There was a number of arguments during the business meeting over whether the Religion News Foundation can still be counted on to support the RNA and if not, whether the RNA even has a future. I can’t do justice to the debate in a few paragraphs but a lot of the unpleasantness from 2018, which I wrote about here, is quite alive.

I will close by mentioning what may have been the most thoughtful of all the panels: The Ansari Institute’s hosting of a sit-down with New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi in a session on “extreme coverage” in times of war.

Most of us could not imagine going to the risks that she had in covering ISIS and related bad guys around the world. Then again: If she can do it, why not us?

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