Fresh Air

One-sided story about Mike Pence needing to find his conscience is true enough -- for today's journalism

One-sided story about Mike Pence needing to find his conscience is true enough -- for today's journalism

A snippet from Mike Pence’s life as vice president has appeared twice in recent major-media writing about him, both times at the end of a piece and both times as though this information offers keen insight into an empty soul.

As has become too common in journalism today — especially when The New York Times discusses Donald Trump’s White House — journalists need to look carefully at the origins and attribution of one person’s subjective experience.

This story seems the most damning in the version passed along by Peter Baker of the Times, reviewing reporter Tom Lobianco’s book “Piety and Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House”:

When an evangelical pastor who once prayed with Pence in his congressional office ran into him at a ceremony last year, he told him: “You know, Mr. Vice President, more than anything, we need you to find your conscience, the country desperately needs you to find your conscience.”

“It’s always easier said than done,” Pence replied cryptically, and then walked away.

The mind reels. Who was this unnamed evangelical pastor who once prayed with Pence? Franklin Graham? Pat Robertson? Fellow Catholic-turned-evangelical Larry Tomczac? Did this language about Pence finding his conscience have a context? Was it focused on a specific moral issue? Would readers like to know if this pastor is a conservative or progressive evangelical?

Maureen Groppe, describing the same book 20 days earlier for USA Today, named the pastor and grounded the confrontation in a specific event:

Robert Schenck, who had prayed with Pence in his congressional office years before, watched his old friend administer the oath of office in 2018 to Sam Brownback, Trump’s new ambassador for religious freedom. 

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New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever

New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever

You know what, your GetReligionistas did hear something about an interesting quote from New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet during yesterday's Fresh Air program on National Public Radio. We have also seen the blitz of Twitter reactions to his words.

It was something about elite journalists struggling to "get religion," right?

The headline for this interview was highly relevant, in light of the ongoing mainstream media meltdown in the wake of the White House win by Donald Trump. That would be: " 'New York Times' Executive Editor On The New Terrain Of Covering Trump." (That link includes the transcript and a link to the audio file.)

The interview includes all kinds of interesting material, including Baquet's take on the "fake news" phenomenon and life with a president-elect who is overly fond of Twitter. 

The Times editor also explains why he believes that it's a recent phenomenon for journalists to feel obligated to cover both sides of heated public debates, especially when journalists believe they already know the key facts. Thus, they should just print what they believe is true and that's that. Is Baquet advocating a return to the candid advocacy (often called the European Model of the Press) that dominated American journalism until late in the 19th Century?

But we are, of course, primarily interested in the quote that launched waves of emails and tweets in this direction. That would be the section in which Baquet addresses a particular news beat that has given his newspaper problems:

I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don't quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she's all alone. We don't get religion. We don't get the role of religion in people's lives.

You can see how some folks would think that we'd be interested in that. However, I think it's crucial to see the wider context of where that quote appeared in this interview.

Baquet and host Terry Gross are talking about Trump and his link to truly dangerous elements in American life, over on the fringes with racists and nationalists. That, for Baquet, links directly to anger in the American heartland and that links directly to, yes, religion.

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