Liz Spayd

WABAC machine time again: Many Americans indifferent on politics? Ask different questions

WABAC machine time again: Many Americans indifferent on politics? Ask different questions

Wait! You mean all of America isn’t represented in the daily tsunami of acid that is political Twitter?

That’s the thesis of an interesting, but ultimately hollow, New York Times piece built on three days of Gray Lady representatives doing National Geographic-style heart-to-hearts with ordinary Americans who live in and around Scranton, Pa.

Why focus on this specific location, if the goal is to listen to the heart of America? Why, isn’t the logic — the political logic, that is — perfectly obvious? Here is the overture:

SCRANTON, Pa. — This hilly, green stretch of northeastern Pennsylvania is a critical front line in next year’s battle for control of the country. Donald J. Trump made huge gains among white working-class voters here, and Democrats want to win them back. Joe Biden, who was born here, can’t stop talking about it.

But just because Mr. Biden can’t stop talking about Scranton doesn’t mean everyone in Scranton is talking about Mr. Biden, the president, or politics at all. In three days of interviews here recently, many people said they were just scraping by and didn’t have a lot of patience for politics. Many said they didn’t follow the news and tried to stay out of political discussions, whether online or in person. National politics, they said, was practiced in a distant land by other people and had little effect on their lives.

This leads to this somber double-decker Times headline:

The America That Isn’t Polarized

Political institutions may be more divided than they’ve been in a century and a half, but how divided are Americans themselves?

So the goal is to learn why many average Americans are not as enraged about politics as are, well, New York Times editors and reporters who live on Twitter? Or think of it another way: Is this article, in part, a response to liberal and conservative critics (shout out to Liz Spayd, the Times public editor pushed out two years ago) who have complained that America’s most influential newsroom isn’t all that interested in covering half or more of America?

So what subjects were avoided in this epic piece? For starters, here are some terms that readers will not encounter as they work through it — “Supreme Court,” “God,” “abortion,” “schools,” “bathrooms” and, to probe recent fights among conservatives, “Drag queen story hour.”

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You know what? Peter Boyer does have some thoughts on religion news, Trump and the press

You know what? Peter Boyer does have some thoughts on religion news, Trump and the press

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.

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Spotting a religion ghost in New York Times water-cooler zinger on non-Trump GOP options

Spotting a religion ghost in New York Times water-cooler zinger on non-Trump GOP options

This had to be last weekend's chatter-producing headline in the tense territory defined by the DC Beltway. If you missed it, the New York Times proclaimed: "Republican Shadow Campaign for 2020 Takes Shape as Trump Doubts Grow."

Let me stress that this story was produced by the political desk, with zero visible contributions from a religion-beat professional. I would argue that this shaped the contents of the story in a negative way, creating a big faith-shaped hole. Thus, this is a classic example of a news story that's haunted by a religion ghost. We say "boo" to that, as always.

The key to the story is the chaos and political dirt that follows President Donald Trump around like the cloud that hovers over the Peanuts character named Pig-Pen. During the campaign, this led some Republicans to openly discuss running a third-party candidate against Trump. Others stressed that they were not voting for Trump, but against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Thus, the story opens like this:


WASHINGTON -- Senators Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse have already been to Iowa this year, Gov. John Kasich is eyeing a return visit to New Hampshire, and Mike Pence’s schedule is so full of political events that Republicans joke that he is acting more like a second-term vice president hoping to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a little over six months ago.
President Trump’s first term is ostensibly just warming up, but luminaries in his own party have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020 -- as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t involved.
The would-be candidates are cultivating some of the party’s most prominent donors, courting conservative interest groups and carefully enhancing their profiles.

Now, there are multiple parallel universes lurking in phrases like the "party's most prominent donors" and "conservative interest groups." Some of the powers hidden in those words are secular. Some of them are linked to groups defined, primarily, by moral, cultural and religious interests.

But let's start with one simple question: If you were looking for the most vocal supporters of Sasse and Cotton, where would you start?

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Disturbance in the Journalism Force? New York Times spikes its public-editor post

Disturbance in the Journalism Force? New York Times spikes its public-editor post

If you are a journalist or a news consumer who is concerned about the survival of old-school reporting and editing in this troubled day and age, then you probably felt a disturbance yesterday in what could be called the Journalism Force.

When I say "old-school journalism," I am referring to what textbooks often call the "American model of the press," which stresses that journalists should strive to honor standards of accuracy, fairness and balance when covering the news. The key: When reporting on hot-button issues, journalists should strive to treat people on all sides of these debates with respect.

This classically liberal approach to news emerged, and evolved, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The goal was to produce news that was as independent as possible, thus exposing readers to genuine diversity. Citizens could then make up their own minds.

An older, advocacy model built on clear editorial biases -- often called the "European model" -- has remained a crucial part of modern journalism, primarily in magazines and journals of opinion (think The Nation, National Review, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard).

So what happened yesterday? Here is the top of the Associated Press report:

NEW YORK -- The New York Times is ditching its public editor position, created in 2003 as the paper sought to restore its credibility with readers after a plagiarism scandal.
Publisher Arthur Sulzberger wrote in a memo Wednesday that the public editor's role "has outgrown that one office" and that the paper is instead creating a "reader center" to interact with the public and will allow more commenting on stories. The paper's current public editor, Liz Spayd, will leave Friday.
Margaret Sullivan, the well-regarded former Times public editor, now a media columnist at the Washington Post, tweeted that she was not surprised that the Times dropped the role, which she characterized as a "a burr under the saddle for the powers that be" and capable of holding managers' "feet to the fire."

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Just listen for a while: What Spayd said @NYTimes. OK, even what Bannon said ...

Just listen for a while: What Spayd said @NYTimes. OK, even what Bannon said ...

For the past several days, I have been in transit from New York to Baltimore to Washington, D.C., and finally home -- all while getting sick as a dog, as we would say in East Tennessee. So I confess that I'm a bit out of touch, when it comes to what's been happening in news and social media.

But let me try to pull things together from my fevered point of view. It seems the hot media items have something to do with President Donald Trump's bluster-maestro Stephen K. Bannon saying something about America's elite media needing to "shut up" and/or do some listening. In fact, if you search for "Bannon," "mouth" and "shut" right now on Google News you get a mere 238,000 hits.

Oh my. What did this man actually say to The New York Times

“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Mr. Bannon said in an interview on Wednesday.
“I want you to quote this,” Mr. Bannon added. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”

Oh my, again. Never use a flyswatter when a baseball bat will do. But let's assume that this quote should not be read with the kind of hyper-literalism the Times team would be tempted to call "fundamentalism" in another context. (As usual, turn to M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway at The Federalist for a stunning summary of the online storm.)

Instead of jumping straight to the nuclear option -- Trump aide tells press to shut *$^@#*+ up (some of that was implied, to be sure) -- I think it's possible that the actual content of that quote could better be stated as: "The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut for a while and just listen."

Right, right. All I did was move the words "for a while." I think that's what Bannon meant, since everyone knows that the press -- when it comes to listening to Americans on tense topics such as politics, culture and, YES, religion -- is supposed to be listening all the time. I think that's an essential part of their job. 

Is the actual content of this acidic Bannon comment radically different than what ordinary readers said in letters to Times Public Editor Liz Spayd in the hours after Trump won the White House race? Let's flash back to that, while remembering (hello editor Dean Baquet) that discussions of this kind, at the Times and in other elite newsrooms, often include references to the need to "get religion."

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Thanksgiving podcast break: But lots of GetReligion links in radio visit with Metaxas

Thanksgiving podcast break: But lots of GetReligion links in radio visit with Metaxas

There is no "Crossroads" podcast this week, seeing as how our friends at Issues, Etc., are off for the holidays. Lutherans do need to party every now and then.

However, I saved something that I thought may be of interest to GetReligion readers/listeners on this Black Friday, a day in which my family has a sacred tradition of staying as far as we can from shopping malls.

This is a radio interview between my self and a man -- Eric Metaxas, by name -- who has been my friend for two decades. The subject of the interview is the debate inside The New York Times staff about the quality and direction of its coverage of, well, non-New York City America during the recent election. Click here to tune that in.

Metaxas is, of course, a New Yorker and a Yale University man. I am a prodigal Texan who has spent most of his life and career -- other than a decade-plus as an outsider in Washington, D.C. -- deep in "flyover country."

What makes the interview interesting, I think, is that Metaxas and I are coming from two different points of view about the status of Citizen Donald Trump. (We also disagree on the Bee Gees.)

As GetReligion readers know, I was outspokenly #NeverHillary #NeverTrump. Metaxas was, of course, portrayed in the mainstream press as one of the Donald's strongest evangelical supporters (forgetting this lovely bit of classic Eric satire in The New Yorker). However, anyone who was paying close attention knew that Metaxas was a strong advocate of VOTING for Trump, based on his conviction that Hillary Rodham Clinton was a uniquely dangerous threat to religious liberty in this country.

Eric and I disagreed on the wisdom of voting for Trump. You'll hear hints of this in this Eric Metaxas Show hour, even though that isn't the subject of the interview. What we agree on is that this whole campaign was not a shining hour for the mainstream press and the great Gray Lady in particular.

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More letters, even from the left, mourning the Gray Lady's slide into advocacy journalism

More letters, even from the left, mourning the Gray Lady's slide into advocacy journalism

There she goes, there she goes again.

Right there in the sacred pages of The New York Times.

You remember, I hope, Liz Spayd -- the pro-American Model of the press scribe who is currently serving as public editor at the Times. During the media meltdown after the election of Citizen Donald Trump as president, she wrote a column addressing the fact that the Gray Lady, as well as the rest of America's elite media, missed this story for some pretty obvious reasons.

The headline for her column said it all: "Want to Know What America’s Thinking? Try Asking."

In my second post about the MSM meltdown, I underlined this passage from her Times column:

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.”

Well, bless her heart, Spayd is back with another column on this topic and, in it, she offers more insights from the flood of letters and emails continue to swamp her desk. This time the headline reads: "One Thing Voters Agree On: Better Campaign Coverage Was Needed."

First, a bit of factual information about this wave if feedback:

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Meltdown update: Does the New York Times want to cover America's heart and soul?

Meltdown update: Does the New York Times want to cover America's heart and soul?

The leaders of the New York Times have, for more than a decade, known that many of their critics -- loving critics and otherwise -- believe that the world's most powerful newsroom lacks intellectual, cultural and religious diversity.

After all, that was one of the main conclusions in the visionary "Preserving Our Readers' Trust" document (.pdf here) released in 2005 after a sweeping self-study of ethics issues in the newsroom (to state things mildly).

Anyone who wants to understand the back story to the current Times meltdown over Donald Trump and the lives of many Americans who voted for him must read that document. Yes, that document also meshes nicely with the latest pro-journalism sermon ("Want to Know What America’s Thinking? Try Asking") from Liz Spayd, the public editor at the Times. Hold that thought.

After the release of the 2005 self study, then editor Bill Keller released his formal response, "Assuring Our Credibility (.pdf here)." Like the self study, this document was haunted by issues linked to coverage of religious and cultural issues. One more time, let's look at Keller's conclusion:

First and foremost we hire the best reporters, editors, photographers and artists in the business. But we will make an extra effort to focus on diversity of religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class.
Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported -- and understood -- in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation.

See the connections to the current debates? #DUH

And finally:

I also endorse the committee's recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

Amen. However, note that Keller -- for some reason -- feared that hiring more professionals with training or experience in religion-news coverage might be seen as appeasing "believers" or pandering to "conservatives." That's one way to read that paragraph.

Let's move on.

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Meltdown flashback: Once more into the New York Times 'spiritual crisis' breach

Meltdown flashback: Once more into the New York Times 'spiritual crisis' breach

Please hang in there with me for a moment, or several moments. There is much to discuss and it will require more than one post.

I was going to write a post this morning about the much-discussed letter to readers from New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and executive editor Dean Baquet. That's the letter that is being interpreted as a mild act of journalistic repentance, stating, sort of, that the Times team -- after missing the whole Donald Trump and middle America thing -- promises to go back to doing basic news coverage, rather than advocacy journalism.

The problem, however, is that this is not what the letter actually says. It says the Times needed to turn "on a dime" in order to react to election night developments, but that the newsroom then did what it has "done for nearly two years -- cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity." Then there was this:

As we reflect on the momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.

So there is the issue once again. The Times leaders believe that they have been producing journalism that shows understanding and, dare I say, respect for "all political perspectives and life experiences" in America, as opposed to here in New York City (I am writing this while looking out a window towards the World Trade Center). #REALLY

I wanted to write a post about this remarkable letter, but then it hit me. In a way, I have already written a recent post about this issue -- back on August 1. So before we look at new materials linked to the Times culture, religion news and the newspaper's critics, please let me do something that I have never done before in the nearly 13-year history of this blog -- republish a whole post and urge you to read it. Then we will move on in the days ahead.

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