Bill Keller

Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

The news media vs. Donald Trump.

Donald Trump vs. the mainstream news media.

Who will win in this epic life and death steel-cage wrestling match?

Well, you can argue that the media has already lost this battle, in that Trump now resides in the White House.

One could also argue that Trump has successfully rewritten the rules of public discourse in a way that has forced journalists to abandon many of their most important standards linked to fairness, objectivity and even accuracy. The more journalists veer into a Trump-style screaming match, the more they fit into the stereotypes that The Donald has created for them.

This brings us to an important Esquire piece written by magazine-pro Peter Boyer. If you know this work — including his years at The New Yorker — you know that he has a reputation as a reporter with an uncanny knack for covering both sides of tense, angry arguments. (See this classic New Yorker piece on Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ.)

So what does this Esquire piece have to do with religion-beat reporting? Read the following and think of former New York Times editor Bill Keller and his statement that the Times was attempting to do balanced, accuracy coverage of the news, “other than” many topics linked to culture, morality and religion.

So the 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?”

There is more, of course:

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.

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

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

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:

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Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Anyone who knows anything about human nature knows that everyone — journalists included — have biases that influence how they see the world. Everyone has some kind of lens, or worldview, through which they view life.

Honest people know this. Thus, lots of news consumers tend to chuckle whenever they hear journalists say that “objectivity” is at the heart of their reporting and editing.

Far too many people, when they hear the word “objectivity,” immediately start thinking in philosophical, not professional, terms. They hear journalists saying: Behold. I am a journalist. My super power is that I can be totally neutral and unbiased, even when covering issues that one would need to be brain dead, if the goal is to avoid having beliefs and convictions.

Hang in there with me, please. I am working my way around to issues discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on my recent post about some of the challenges facing GetReligion and, thus, affecting this website’s evolution in the future.

Truth be told, no one in journalism ever seriously believed that news professionals were supposed to be blank slates when doing their work. No, the word “objectivity” used to point to what has been called a “journalism of verification,” a core of professional standards that reporters and editors would sincerely strive (no one is perfect) to follow.

With that in mind, let me quote the end of that famous 2003 memo that former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll wrote to his staff, after a very slated, even snarky, story appeared in the paper about a complex issue (.pdf here) linked to induced abortions. This passage talks about “bias.” When reading it, pay special attention to the journalistic virtues that Carroll is trying to promote.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

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A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

Stop and ask yourself the following journalism puzzler (I apologize for the length of this thing).

Why did the Covington Catholic High School “smirk” incident with Native American elder Nathan Phillips seize the American media and even cause waves overseas, while the effort by Phillips and his drummers to march into and interrupt a Mass at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (security personnel stopped them) drew a radically mainstream media response (something like this, click here)?

The answer is clear: The gatekeepers in key, elite newsrooms thought the first story was big news and the second one was not.

But why did they feel that way? Why ignore one story and carpet-bomb the other?

That gets us into the media-bias minefield that I have been exploring my entire professional career, starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s (click here for my 1983 cover story for The Quill, a professional journal). But that answer only raises more questions: Why do so many journalists ignore, downplay or even mangle religion stories? What kind of bias is involved? As for that topic, click here for my second cover story at The Quill, in 1993. There is no one bias linked all this — there are four of them.

Welcome to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which — #DUH — returns to the Covington Catholic story. Click here to tune that in.

I want to point readers to a new mini-essay by one of my favorite writers, David French of National Review. He is a Harvard Law School graduate who specializes in religious liberty cases. As an outspoken #NeverTrump #NeverHillary conservative, he has been caught in the middle of many media flash fires in recent years.

The headline on this piece: “We’re Plagued by a Partisan Press. Here’s One Cure.” It focuses on the lack of intellectual and cultural diversity in many newsrooms. This reality affects decisions about what is and what is not news.

But before we get to French, let me remind readers of the following language in the amazing 2005 self-study conducted by the New York Times, during a time of turmoil over journalism ethics. The title: “Preserving Our Readers' Trust.

Our paper's commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable. We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason — to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it.

The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting. We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar).

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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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Concerning the New York Times: 'Fake' news? No. 'Flawed' or 'flavored' news? From time to time ...

Concerning the New York Times: 'Fake' news? No. 'Flawed' or 'flavored' news? From time to time ...

It's the question many journalists are hearing right now from family and online friends as discussions of "fake news" keep heating up: "OK, where am I supposed to go to find balanced, accurate reporting these days?"

As you would expect, when I hear that question there is often an editorial twist in it, something like this: "OK, where am I supposed to go to find balanced, accurate reporting on religion news these days?" That's the question that loomed in the background during the latest "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), as host Todd Wilken and I discussed the fact that GetReligion marked it's 13th birthday this week.

It's crucial, for starters, to recognize that there are online sources that seem to welcome fake news and then there are established media brands that seem, every now and then, to catch a fake-news virus that affects one or two stories or issues. You can see my colleague Paul Glader of The King's College (he also directs The Media Project that includes GetReligion) striving to make that distinction in his Forbes piece, "10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts."

Glader is absolutely right on this basic issue of ethics and quality. At the same time, the minute I read the headline on his piece I could hear the voices of skeptical online friends saying, "Is that '10 Journalism Brands Where You WILL Find Real Facts' or is it '10 Journalism Brands Where You CAN Find Real Facts'?"

As we have stressed many times here at GetReligion, the quality of mainstream media coverage of religion news is consistently inconsistent. There are professionals who do fantastic work and then, in the same newsroom, there are reporters and editors who -- when it comes to getting religion -- think up is down and down is up. They don't know what they don't know.

For example, contrast the informed and nuanced religion-beat coverage of issues linking politics and religion at The Washington Post with the tone-deaf material produced throughout 2016 by the political desk in that newsroom.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of The New York Times, which remains one of the world's top two news organizations (I put BBC in that mix, as well) in terms of its reach and ambitions?

Anyone who ignores the high quality of work done at The Times is, well, ignoring the facts.

Yet it is clear, as the newspaper's own editor has stated, that the great Gray Lady struggles when it comes to grasping many basic facts about life in ordinary America -- starting with the role of religious faith in the life of millions of ordinary people (including in New York City).

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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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New request from Pope Francis: Pray for journalists to seek truth, cling to ethics

New request from Pope Francis: Pray for journalists to seek truth, cling to ethics

Yes, I'm following the Donald Trump hurricane on Twitter. No, I am not planning to watch the debate.

It's Sunday, for heaven's sake.

I feel like pointing journalists toward some think-piece material that is a bit more uplifting before we all dive back into the hellish White House race that has done so much to validate the concerns of (a) the feel the Bern folks worried about big banks and the power of the top 1 percent and (b) the many theologically and culturally conservative believers who have stood up to members of the old-guard Religious Right who -- even if some were reluctant -- bowed the knee to Donald Trump.

So, troops, who is Pope Francis requesting special prayers for this month?

Did you see this Catholic News Agency headline? "The Pope's latest prayer intention? That journalists be truthful." Here is the top of that:

Vatican City, Oct 4, 2016 / 09:27 am (CNA/EWTN News) -- In his latest prayer video Pope Francis dedicates the month of October to praying for journalists --  specifically that their work would always be motivated by strong ethics and respect for the truth.
The video, released Oct. 4, opens showing scenes of a television studio, recording studio, writing desks and satellites, which flash across the screen as the Pope speaks. Addressing viewers in his native Spanish, the Pope says he often wonders, “How can media be put to the service of a culture of encounter?”
“We need information leading to a commitment for the common good of humanity and the planet,” he said, and, as the faces of different journalists around the Vatican flashed across the screen, asked if viewers would join him in praying for those who work in the field of communication.
Specifically, he prayed “that journalists, in carrying out their work, may always be motivated by respect for the truth and a strong sense of ethics.”

Ah, there's the rub.

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