Ken Stern

Former NPR CEO visits Jesusland! Returns with sobering media-bias truths for left and right

Former NPR CEO visits Jesusland! Returns with sobering media-bias truths for left and right

Oh my. What's a GetReligionista to do?

There are so many journalism and Godbeat think pieces from the past week that I would like to run in this Sunday slot. Some of them are going to turn into daily pieces, methinks. Some are headed into my large "file of guilt" for later.

But let's start with a very unusual byline atop an op-ed essay at The New York Post. This byline is so strange that the copy desk decided to celebrate it right there in the headline: "Former NPR CEO opens up about liberal media bias."

Then again, it helps to know that former National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern is about to release a major-publisher book with this title: "Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right." An essay in the libertarian Post made lots of sense.

Now, as a non-Republican, I care little about the political language of the book title. As someone who has spent his life studying media bias issues linked to religion coverage, I am interested in the methodology that Stern used.

Brace yourselves. He went out into flyover country (also known as "Jesusland") and talked to people.

Journalists -- hopefully on the left, as well as the right -- will want to know that his stated motive for writing this book was his horror at the current state of public discourse in our nation. This is not a "Yea Trump!" essay. It's an essay by someone who is concerned about the press and its old -- now dying, I fear -- role as a fair-minded middle ground in American life. Here is a key passage:

Spurred by a fear that red and blue America were drifting irrevocably apart, I decided to venture out from my overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood and engage Republicans where they live, work and pray. For an entire year, I embedded myself with the other side, standing in pit row at a NASCAR race, hanging out at Tea Party meetings and sitting in on Steve Bannon’s radio show. I found an America far different from the one depicted in the press and imagined by presidents (“cling to guns or religion”) and presidential candidates (“basket of deplorables”) alike.

Now, what does this have to do with religion-beat work?

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Painful think piece: Has the year of Donald Trump killed off traditional journalism?

Painful think piece: Has the year of Donald Trump killed off traditional journalism?

This weekend's think piece is not about religion-news reporting, at least not directly.

Rather, this Vanity Fair piece -- "Maybe the Right-Wing Media Isn’t Crazy, After All" -- is about the degree to which the loaded-dice political coverage of this year's White House race has pushed our elite media in a dangerous direction, towards open advocacy coverage in favor of Democrats and against Citizen Donald Trump, the sort-of Republican candidate.

It's crucial to note that the author of this piece is one Ken Stern, the former CEO of National Public Radio. This is not your normal wingnut critic of media bias. The thesis: Many elite newsrooms in mainstream journalism have become almost as unhinged as the alternative press on the right, making the latter -- tragically -- a more viable alternative source of news for millions of heartland Americans.

If that sounds familiar, it should. This essentially the point of view voiced -- over and over -- in the past decade or so by readers' representatives at The New York Times. At some point, the leaders of great Gray Lady simply started preaching to their choir, on many key subjects, and wrote off their responsibility to do accurate, balanced, respectful coverage of news and trends in much of America.

Yes, say hello to former Times editor Bill Keller and the doctrines of what your GetReligionistas call "Kellerism." This is where we make contact with many crucial stories in mainstream religion news, especially those related to marriage and sexuality.

Before I offer a slice or two of the Vanity Fair piece, let's flash back to "Is The New York Times A Liberal Newspaper" essay in 2004, written by readers' representative Daniel Okrent. He is focusing on how issues of morality, culture and religion are at the heart of most complaints about bias at the Times.

If you're examining the paper's coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn't wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you're traveling in a strange and forbidding world.

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