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Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Nostalgia for a journalistic golden age has gushed forth from an HBO documentary about New York City tabloid columnists Pete Hamill and the late Jimmy Breslin, combined with simultaneous obituaries about the era’s wry counterpart at The New York Times, Russell Baker.

It’s a pleasant distraction from current realities.

Pew Research data documents the “hollowing out” of the nation’s newsrooms, as lamented in the Memo last Nov. 15. Further developments require The Religion Guy to revisit the struggles in the news business.

Why? Let me state this sad reality once again: When times are tough, specialized beats like religion get hit first, and worst.

In just the past two weeks, a couple thousand media workers lost their jobs. The ubiquitous Gannett, known for eyeing the bottom line, enacted its latest round of layoffs even while facing a takeover threat from a colder-eyed print piranha. Particularly unnerving are the drawdowns at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Vice and Yahoo, because online operations were supposed to make enough money to offset jobs lost at declining “dead tree” newspapers and magazines.

As Farhad Manjoo commented in a New York Times column (“Why the Latest Layoffs Are Devastating to Democracy”), there’s a “market pathology” at work. Digital advertising is simply unable to fund hardly anything except “monopolistic tech giants.” And those big players are “dumping the news” in favor of easier ways to make money. Results: “slow-motion doom” and “a democratic emergency in the making, with no end in sight.”

All this occurs as a U.S. President emits unprecedented public hate toward reporters, with Main Stream Media outlets then taking the bait to become ever more hostile and partisan, thus sullying their stature.

On the MSM facts front, don’t miss Glenn Greenwald’s list of the “10 Worst, Most Embarrassing” blunders regarding Donald Trump and Russia. And my goodness did you see those lapses about First Lady Melania in the respected London Telegraph?!

Now along come two important insider accounts of what’s been going on across the industry: “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” (Farrar, Straus) by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of Britain’s The Guardian, and “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts” (Simon & Schuster) by Jill Abramson, former Washington bureau chief and executive editor of the Times. Note that both of their dailies have fared relatively well in online competition.

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R-rated 'Game of Thrones' is also grist for debates about a second 'R' -- religion

R-rated 'Game of Thrones' is also grist for debates about a second 'R' -- religion

Last week, the New York Times magazine produced a fawning piece about George R.R. Martin, fantasy’s “reigning king” because of his seminal “Game of Thrones” series, now at five (immense) books.

I say “fawning” because the story was only on the series’ amazing success and not on the major problems Martin is having at finishing up his series. More on that in a bit. The goal, eventually, is to discuss whether the Times or any other publication has has shown any interest in the role of religion in this global hit.

These books started coming out in 1996, then continued in a (sort of) steady clip until 2011 with the release of book five. Book six, “The Winds of Winter,” was supposed to be out by 2016 at the latest, but the writer got caught up with helping produce the HBO drama (starting in 2011) Game of Thrones.

I read the first two books some years ago, but, annoyed with non-ending violence, I dropped them. I picked them up again in the fall of 2014 and finished the series while teaching in Fairbanks so as to have something to occupy me during that cold, dark winter. Now I’m making my way through the HBO drama and am nearly finished with the fourth season. As the Times says:

After the HBO show premiered, the world Martin had created became a global phenomenon, and his readership reached heights few authors have ever found — his American peers now include other household names of genre fiction, such as Tom Clancy and Stephen King.

The plot of “ASOIAF,” as fans call it, is concerned largely with events unfolding in and around the continent of Westeros around the year 300 A.C. (“after conquest” of the seven kingdoms in the books). The inciting incident of the series is the death, under suspicious circumstances, of Jon Arryn, who had been serving as hand of the king (chief of staff, basically) to a royal named Robert Baratheon. Arryn’s demise sets in motion a chain of events leading to the murder of King Robert himself, which in turn creates a power vacuum, destabilizing the prevailing political order. After centuries of relative calm, chaos erupts into a full-blown war, involving several of the realm’s great family houses.

Millions of people, of course, knew all of that already.

One reason it’s been taking me so long to get through the HBO series is because I can’t watch the stuff while the kiddo is awake because the violence/gore/explicit sex content is off the charts. Maybe that’s why — of the reams of material written about the book and wildly successful series — comparatively little has been written about the role of religion in the Game of Thrones books.

Not to say there isn’t any.

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Is Israeli TV drama Fauda a harbinger of the news industry's coming iteration?

Is Israeli TV drama Fauda a harbinger of the news industry's coming iteration?

The cable television and online streaming explosion has produced a golden age of visual, fictionalized, but ripped-from-the-headlines story telling. Some religious and political conservatives may disdain the liberal-leaning views that many of the shows unabashedly embrace, but for those who create the programming it's an unprecedented era of opportunities.

It's also an era of unprecedented, and often confusing, crossover between news and entertainment. From shows dramatizing or spoofing Washington politics, to those cherry-picking storylines from current international intrigues, it’s often hard to tell the two apart, where fact takes leave and artful fiction enters.

As traditional news platforms continue to implode -- and loose their ability to devote adequate resources to in-depth, reporting-based investigative journalism -- it’s a trend that, for the foreseeable future, is likely to continue, for better or worse, but more likely the worse for informed civic debate.

Personally, I find great artistic merit in many of these shows. I also appreciate their willingness to highlight some of the social ills that plague our -- and virtually every other -- nation. That and because I relish a well-written and well-acted product. It helps to remember that I'm an ex-Los Angeles reporter who spent time on the Hollywood TV and film beats, and who also briefly worked in the feature film industry.

Still, I limit my watching because, well, because the shows are binge-watching addictive and I don't want to spend too much time watching TV, no matter how good and entertaining it may be. I’m old-fashioned. I’d rather waste time reading non-fiction, which my reactive mind argues is somehow healthier for me. But that may just be my generational snob appeal.

In a sense, all the fictional dramas I’m drawn to are some writer’s fantasy, but I tend to be drawn to the show's based on the possible, meaning that while I have little interest in a “Game of Thrones,” a series such as “Big Love,” the departed HBO show about polygamy-practicing, fringe Mormons, quickly sucked me in because of my interest in religious groups and the show’s artistic mastery (and a fantastic cast).

Likewise, my deep interest in Israel’s fate and that of the Middle East in general, has drawn me to the Netflix (in the U.S., anyway) show “Fauda,” which I have allowed myself to devour in binge-size bites.


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Guilt folder chatter: What happens when newsworthy topics are 'covered' in entertainment?

Guilt folder chatter: What happens when newsworthy topics are 'covered' in entertainment?

Faithful GetReligion readers are familiar with our "folder of guilt" concept. If you live online, you have one, too.

It's the large stack of emails that you know you need to deal with, but more urgent (or less complex) emails keep arriving, day after day, week after week. The digital layers between you and the "guilt" emails get bigger and bigger.

The difference here at GetReligion is that some of us have -- literally -- created "guilt" folders in our email software to protect certain stories or op-eds or online discussions that we know we should deal with, somehow, someday. Like today.

This brings me to a 5-star "guilt" discussion that took place recently among the GetReligionistas. This one was important because it cut to the heart of what we do here and, to be blunt, what we may or may not be doing in the future.

The basics: GetReligion has, for 14-plus years, attempted to critique the good and the bad in mainstream coverage of religion. We have deliberately tried to avoid writing about opinion and analysis journalism, other than making references to add depth or perspective to posts about hard-news coverage. We also have the weekend "think piece" feature that points readers to all kinds of journalism about issues linked to religion and, thus, religion news.

Meanwhile, trends in the Internet age have weakened the wall between straight news and advocacy news (#DUH). We know that and we have struggled to cope with that.

But we also know that many of our culture's most important discussions of religious issues and events are taking place OUTSIDE of the journalism world -- in entertainment. That's one of the reasons I left a newsroom in 1991 to teach mass-media studies at a seminary.

So what is GetReligion supposed to do with debates about "news" topics that take place, to cite one example, in a show like HBO's "Silicon Valley"?

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Can anyone explain celebrity news to me? #ConfusedAboutCurryTebowDuggarsDunham

Can anyone explain celebrity news to me? #ConfusedAboutCurryTebowDuggarsDunham

Let me start with a personal confession. I love sports, college and pros. I love almost all kinds of jazz and popular music. I love old movies, and a few modern ones, and while I'm not a fan of most mainstream television, I love series mini-series from BBC and now the "binge" television era in cable land.

So I am a media-savvy guy, in some ways -- but not others. They key: I have absolutely zero understand of "celebrity culture" at the level of entertainment-news shows, the morning talk shows on major networks, the grocery store tabloids, etc. In other words, I don't know anything about anyone whose last name is or has ever been "Kardashian."

You get the picture?

So with that in mind, let me ask the following question -- which is directly linked to this week's "Crossroads" podcast about recent media storms, large and medium-sized in this case, about the Duggars and Tim Tebow. Click here to tune that in.

My question: In terms of actual talent and importance in American culture at this moment in time, name the hottest, the most significant, "celebrity" powerhouse brand out of the following three options (hyperlinks are to recent GetReligion posts):

(1) Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar.

(2) Tim Tebow.

(3) Stephen Curry.

Ah, you say, but Curry is not a "Christian" celebrity.

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Is the 'New Evangelization' a laughing matter?

In America there are two career fields that have a disproportionate number of agnostics and atheists: scientists and stand-up comedians.

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