Info-silos and urban bubbles: What's wrecking public discourse on religion and culture?

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It was in 1993 that a Washington Post reporter — in a news report about religion and politics, naturally — wrote one of the most unfortunate phrases in the history of American public discourse.

Discussing the rise of cultural conservatives inside the D.C. Beltway, he opined — in an hard-news story, not an opinion column, and with zero attribution for his facts — that evangelical Christians are known to be “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."

Fax machines in the Post newsroom were soon humming as evangelicals sent in surveys noting that this was not true. Some provided photocopies of their graduate-school diplomas and similar credentials. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, writing for the Los Angeles Times syndicate, had this to say:

The Post ran a correction the next day, saying the conclusion had no "factual basis," but the damage had already been done. … The caricature of evangelical Christians as inherently stupid because they believe in an authority higher than journalism, the government or the culture (the unholy trinity of rampant secularism) would be repugnant to all if it had been applied to blacks or women or homosexuals. But it seems Christian-bashing is always in season.

At the post, ombudsman Joann Bird made a crucial point about this fiasco, one that — as quarter of a century later — remains sadly relevant to the conversation that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I had this week while recording the podcast. (Click here to tune that in.)

I quoted Byrd in a piece for The Quill journal at the time of that nasty train wreck, in a piece entitled “Religion and the News Media: Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage?

… Byrd made the following point: ``When journalists aren't like, or don't know, the people they are writing about, they can operate with no ill will whatsoever and still not recognize that a statement doesn't ring true. It may be even harder to see how deeply offensive a common perception can be.''

What's the problem? In the Lichter-Rothman media surveys in the early 1980s, 86 percent of the ``media elite'' said they rarely if ever attend religious meetings and 50 percent claimed no religion, at all. Polls indicate about 40 percent of the U.S. population regularly attends worship services, while about 90 percent claim some religious affiliation.

Some of those statistics have changed a bit, of course, and I think it’s safe to say that very few mainstream journalists these days are willing to answer lots of survey questions about their views on religion and morality.

But the media-bias debates go on, even as America — and our increasingly partisan news media — divide into warring armies with blue-zip codes squaring off with those flyover country red-zip codes. This brings us back to that heat-map analysis at The Atlantic that ran with this double-decker headline:

The Geography of Partisan Prejudice

A guide to the most — and least — politically open-minded counties in America

That ended up being the hook for this GetReligion post: “Looking for strong political prejudices? The Atlantic offers a U.S. map packed with revelations.”

Wilken’s first question was totally logical: What does all of this have to do with religion news?

The link, of course, are all of the hot-button “political” issues in American life that, for millions of believers, are actually questions about the doctrines preached in their churches, synagogues and mosques. Doctrines linked to abortion, marriage, sexuality, etc., then become woven into public debates about free speech, religious liberty and, well, politics.

With that in mind, here’s the key paragraph in the Atlantic essay:

… (The) most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. …

We see this dynamic in the heat map. In some parts of the country, including swaths of North Carolina and upstate New York, people still seem to give their fellow Americans the benefit of the doubt, even when they disagree. In other places, including much of Massachusetts and Florida, people appear to have far less tolerance for political difference. They may be quicker to assume the worst about their political counterparts, on average.

So where does one find lots of highly educated, very urban, highly partisan people who have little or no contact with people whose religious and cultural views are radically different than their own?

Can you say “Acela”? I knew that you could.

Now, let me stress that the Atlantic essay doesn’t argue that blue-zip code liberals are intolerant and conservative Americans are not. To be honest, lots of conservative Americans live in their own partisan-media silos that tell them what they want to hear. They have their own biases.

But stop and think about it. If you live in, oh, the suburbs of Dallas, can you completely ignore the views of New York, Boston, D.C.., Hollywood and the Bay Area in Northern California? If you live in the middle of West Kansas can you ignore the stories and information produced in those powerful urban bubbles?

Now, if you live in New York City, how easy is it to have next to zero contact with the worldviews found in Kansas, Texas, Utah, Alabama, rural Illinois, etc.?

You see, some info-silos and zip codes are created more equal than others.

Also, what the Atlantic heat-map attempts to chart is the DEPTH of anger and intolerance in certain parts of America and the degree to which people in those zip codes are disconnected to other Americans.

Now, which zip codes have the most impact on what Americans read and view, when it comes to news about religion, culture, morality and, yes, politics?

I’ll end with a piece of an essay — much quoted here at GetReligion — written in response to that famous self-study that The New York Times sponsored in 2005. This piece, called “Assuring Our Credibility,” no longer appears to be available online.

The issue is intellectual and cultural diversity in the Times newsroom:

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. This is second nature for many of our reporters, especially on the national staff, and there have been some exceptional successes. … I intend to keep pushing us in this direction.

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.

The author? That would be Bill Keller, who was editor at that time. Yes, that Bill Keller.

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