Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

For weeks, I have been hearing from readers asking me when GetReligion was going to address the Catholic News Agency report about the $120,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to the Religion Newswriters Foundation, which owns Religion News Service.

In one article, CNA noted that the grant listing said that its purpose was to "recruit and equip LGBT supportive leaders and advocates to counter rejection and antagonism within traditionally conservative Christian churches." When announcing the grant, Arcus officials said this grant would help foster a "culture of LGBT understanding through the media” by funding news reports and blogging “about religion and LGBT peoples of color.”

RNS Editor Kevin Eckstrom defended his wire service's editorial independence, stressing that this public relations represented "Arcus’ description of their funding, not ours.” It is also crucial to note that the funding connections between RNS and the Religion Newswriters Foundation are complex, to the degree that CNA needed to correct some fine details. Please read that whole report carefully.

In that story, Eckstrom also noted that GetReligion frequently criticizes RNS because its work does not meet our blog's "standard of theological orthodoxy.”

I did not respond, although there is much to be said on these matters. First of all, please note that GetReligion frequently praises the work of RNS and we certainly recognize its crucial role as the only mainstream news operation dedicated to covering the religion beat. Second, let me acknowledge that -- over the past decade -- RNS frequently took interns from the Washington Journalism Center (which is now being rebooted in New York City). Eckstrom and his team, frankly, did a fantastic and gracious job working with my program's students and I will always be grateful for that.

So what can I say about the "theological" issues involved in this discussion? Let's start with some background on journalism "theology."

When the people who run newsrooms talk about the "separation of church and state," they are often not talking about tensions between our government and actual religious institutions with pulpits, altars and pews. No, they are talking about struggle to separate "church" and "state" in the supposedly secular religion called "journalism."

Most of the time, this division between "church" and "state" is defined as a wall between the holy, or at least idealistic, effort to independently report the news in a balanced and unbiased manner (the "church" of journalism) and the worldly, some would say tainted, business side of journalism (the "state" powers in advertising and the corporate offices). Of course, the owners of the news operation also tend to drive its opinion/editorial pages, so you will also hear journalists talk about this "church-state separation" in terms of keeping the news operation separate from the biases and doctrines supported in the editorial pages.

Was there a time when this worked to perfection? The honest answer is "no," while the complex reality is that journalists committed to what historians would call the "American model of the press" certainly believed it was important to do their best to maintain a wall between journalism church and state.

The rise of the Internet has, of course, threatened this model. Why? First, let me suggest that readers click here and read "Breaking Down the Wall," an essay at the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. There is much there to digest, but I think that the key fact is that the Internet, as a form of technology, is devastatingly effective at dividing people into self-reinforcing niches of true believers. These readers want what they want -- which tends to push the editorial product back toward the older, "European" model of journalism in which newsrooms were openly tied to specific causes and even political parties.

Can you say "MSNBC"? Can you say "Fox News"? Can you nod in the direction of Bill Keller and the doctrines of "Kellerism"? And finally, can you grasp what Arthur S. Brisbane was talking about when, in his farewell column as public editor for the New York Times, he worried that much of the newspaper's coverage is being shaped by what he called a "hive" mindset among Times journalists that, whether editors will admit it or not, is committed to defending their own progressive  cultural and moral norms?

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

Stepping back, I can see that as the digital transformation proceeds, as The Times disaggregates and as an empowered staff finds new ways to express itself, a kind of Times Nation has formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview, an audience unbound by geography (as distinct from the old days of print) and one that self-selects in digital space.

Now, it is one thing for columnists to have a strong point of view that readers can see in their work. I say that, as a columnist in his 27th year of doing that kind of thing. It is also perfectly normal for bloggers working for advocacy websites -- such as GetReligion (see our old credo here and 10th anniversary updates here and here) -- to crank out editorial pieces representing an editorial strong point of view.

As I have stated before, I think the crucial question facing Religion News Service these days is the same as the one that troubled Brisbane and the authors of that crucial New York Times self study in 2005 ("Preserving Our Readers' Trust"). How can editors in this day and age (a) draw clear, bright lines between the "church" (their news offerings) and their "state" (the views in their editorial, advocacy blogs and columns) and (b) manage to hire a culturally and intellectually diverse news reporting staff in an era when the business side of the operation is struggling and financially dependent on the financial good will of others. Again let me say that plenty of newsrooms are struggling with that puzzle. Some appear to have surrendered and have decided to go "European" and preach to their choirs.

Now, before someone raises this issue in our comments pages, let me also note that Eckstrom has recently announced his departure from RNS and, in doing so, outed himself -- as an Episcopalian. Effective June 1, he will be serving as chief communications officer at the Washington National Cathedral. With this move, he also began openly discussing what Facebook friendly professionals on the religion-news beat (like your GetReligionistas) have known for years, which is that he is gay, married and, with his husband Grant, has two children.

In a National Catholic Reporter feature, by Sister Maureen Fiedler of Interfaith Voices, Eckstrom discussed how he handled that during his RNS tenure:

Eckstrom said he never "outed" himself professionally when covering a story because some conservatives on LGBT issues might have made an issue of his sexual orientation no matter how he reported a story. But, he said, there were personally awkward moments.  Someone might ask him if he was married, and, of course, he said, "Yes." But then they might ask a question about his wife, and he had to answer in a very vague way. He never lied, he said; he just changed the subject.
What was truly difficult, he said, was listening to the religious conservatives who criticized gays and lesbians for being intrinsically disordered, dangerous around children, or for harming society -- all charges he knew were not true.  But in spite of it all, he kept his cool and reported the charges in news stories as one side of the ongoing public debate.
But there is one more revealing angle to this story. Eckstrom was brought up an evangelical but converted to Catholicism in 2003. He was impressed with the theology of the Catholic church, developed over centuries. He was a Catholic for most of the time he covered LGBT issues and was, of course, acutely aware of the official hierarchical stance on these questions. And that's what eventually led him to the Episcopal Church.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the alleged "theological" agenda of GetReligion and this blog's criticisms of RNS? How is this linked to RNS coverage of doctrinal issues linked to sex, marriage, the First Amendment and other related topics? How is this related to the sometimes blurry line -- again, this is a struggle in many newsrooms these days -- between the news reports offered by the wire service and its many, many commentary and advocacy products?

This is where the discussion must remain focused on journalism, on the products produced in digital ink.

As I have said many times, I have known all kinds of professionals -- secular and religious -- who have done fabulous work on the religion beat. I know, from personal experience, that there are some atheists and agnostics who thrive on this beat (and some who cannot grasp the views of believers). There are evangelicals who thrive on this beat (and some who cannot seem to grasp the views of others). And so forth and so on. I have had great colleagues, gay and straight, who disagree with everything I believe, in terms of moral theology.

We are talking about journalism. I am not interested in the personal lives and beliefs of journalists on this beat; I am interested in news reporting. Do I have my doubts that the Religion Newswriters Foundation would accept a large check from a Hobby Lobby foundation to improve news coverage of evangelicals, leading to a sharp rise in editorial products sensitive to the views of conservative evangelicals? Frankly, yes. That would surprise me and folks on the religious left would have every reason to be skeptical about the effects of that grant.

There are, you see, journalism "theology" issues at play there, linked to the separation of "church" and "state."

So, in the end, the journalism "theology" of GetReligion -- our openly stated editorial bias -- is that we will continue to defend the old school "American model of the press" approach that, especially on controversial debates, calls for the balanced, accurate coverage of voices on both sides, with believers on both sides being shown respect.

This is hard work, especially in the age of Internet niches and "brands." The goal is to strive toward this standard, even if it is impossible to reach it 100 percent of the time. When my students ask me about the challenge of journalists covering the lives of those whose beliefs are radically different than their own, I will continue to recommend the book "A Jew Among the Evangelicals" by Mark I. Pinsky -- a Jewish liberal whose work, for years, was praised by many of the evangelicals he covered in Orlando and elsewhere.

If you see a GetReligion post that argues for showing favoritism to one side of a debate, please let me know. Send me the URL, pronto.

However, if you are upset when we call for balanced, accurate coverage of voices on both sides of crucial doctrinal debates in the news, such as the many firestorms about sexuality, then please stop and think -- in journalism terms -- about what you are saying. Feel free to debate us on issues of accuracy and balance. That's what we are here for, theologically speaking.

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