It happens almost every time I write a GetReligion post about former New York Times editor Bill Keller and how the great Gray Lady -- the world's most influential newspaper -- handles coverage of controversial events and trends tied to religion, culture and morality.
Someone, either in email, online comments or even in face-to-face chatter, will say that Times people struggle with these topics because (a) elite journalists know that religious people are stupid and deserve to have their beliefs mangled or because (b) the Times newsroom is full of people who, truth be told, hate religion.
Obviously, belief (a) tends to show up among liberal readers (and critics of this here weblog) and belief (b) is popular on the cultural and religious right. Truth be told, both of these beliefs are wrong and fail to explain the patterns seen day after day in the hallowed pages of the Times.
I bring this up because of the recent post that ran with the headline, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends: 'Why Readers See The Times As Liberal'." That post was also the hook for this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.
During my chat with host Todd Wilken, I mentioned a famous article that is highly relevant to this topic, a PressThink essay by journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University entitled "Journalism Is Itself a Religion."
Wilken asked me to take a shot at explaining what that headline means. Actually, it's easier to let Rosen do that.
So let's look at two parts of his essay. First, there is a discussion of "The Journalist's Creed," which references an oath written by Walter Williams, dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism from 1908-1935. Basically, Rosen argues, we are dealing with a very idealistic form of secular faith. This first statement is, he noted, rather "tame" and points toward some brand of civil religion.
Let us attend.
“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than public service is a betrayal of that trust.”
Now, what do you think of this second statement?
I believe that the journalism which succeeds the best -- and best deserves success -- fears God and honors man; is stoutly independent; unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power; constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of the privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance, and as far as law, an honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship, is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.
Trust me, there is more. But Rosen's main point is simple: You can debate whether journalists know what they are talking about when they use this kind of language. However, it's hard not to read statements similar to these (and there are plenty of others) as semi-religious or vaguely spiritual in nature.
Stop and think about it: Might preachers and journalists have quite a bit in common?
Consider the Sojourners magazine article that I quoted long ago in my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the version of that project that ran in The Quill, I quoted writer Jim Stentzel as noting:
"Myth says that journalism is 'objective,' religion 'subjective.' Journalism is the public's business, religion supposedly a 'private affair.' In the press one turns over a rock to expose the dirt, in the pulpit one turns over the dirt to expose the Rock. In this corner we have the bad news bearers; in the other, the preachers of the Good News."
This leads me to journalist William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for The New York Daily News, and his book "The Gospel According to The New York Times," which set out to analyze 6,000 articles from the Times on topics related to religion, morality and culture.
Here is the crucial point, for our discussion today, from my 2001 column about his work:
... Critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."
"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."
What is Proctor talking about, when he says that the Gray Lady's leaders oppose the "sin of religious certainty"?
This question leads us back to Rosen's essay and his discussion of "The Orthodoxy of No Orthodoxy."
It's crucial to understand that many journalists believe there is good religion and then there is bad religion. In good religion, truth is highly personal and it's always evolving with the times (no pun intended). Bad religion is built on eternal, transcendent, even dogmatic truth claims.
Yes, you are hearing echoes of sociologist James Davison Hunter and his thesis in the influential book "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America."
This next passage is long, and even repeats some earlier information, but I think it's crucial to let Rosen speak for himself:
Ninety percent of the commentary on this subject takes in another kind of question entirely: What results from the “relative godlessness of mainstream journalists?” Or, in a more practical vein: How are editors and reporters striving to improve or beef up their religion coverage?
Here and there in the discussion of religion “in” the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy,” wrote David Samuels.
This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:
"This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist’s convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the “world that most of us inhabit” cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages."
Rosen then focuses on this argument:
But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward “fundamentalists.” Thus, when listing the “deadly sins” that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world’s most influential newspaper condemns 'the sin of religious certainty.”
In other words, it’s against newsroom religion to be an absolutist and in this sense, the Isaiah Berlin sense, the press is a liberal institution put in the uncomfortable position of being “closed” to other traditions and their truth claims -- specifically, the orthodox faiths. At least according to Mattingly and his source:
“Yet here’s the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths,” said Proctor. Its leaders are “absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.”
The apparent orthodoxy of forbidding all orthodoxies is a philosophical puzzle in liberalism since John Locke. Journalists cannot be expected to solve it. However, they might in some future professional climate (which may be around the corner) come to examine the prevailing orthodoxy about journalism -- how to do it, name it, explain it, uphold it, and protect it -- for that orthodoxy does exist. And it does not always have adequate answers.
In other words, many elite journalists (and in some newsrooms perhaps most) are not secularists. When push comes to shove, they are believers in a faith in which people who practice orthodox forms of religion -- faiths built on transcendent truth claims -- are seen as, well, crazy heretics.
Thus, in the news, liberal religious believers are often seen as prophets whose faith can be affirmed by many elite journalists. Orthodox religious believers, however, may be portrayed -- to quote Bob Dylan -- as "Infidels" who have rejected the true faith of the modern world. These heretics are on the wrong side of history, you see.
All clear? Thus, the dilemma: How are journalists supposed to do fair, accurate, respectful coverage of heretics whose faith is seen as backward and dangerous?