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Concerning truth and lies, fake news and 'snake news,' Pope Francis and St. John Paul II and more

Concerning truth and lies, fake news and 'snake news,' Pope Francis and St. John Paul II and more

A long, long time ago -- as in 2004, GetReligion's first year -- I wrote a piece linked to one of the most interesting articles I have ever read about journalism and, in a unique way, religion. I am referring to the PressThink essay "Journalism Is Itself a Religion," by Jay Rosen of the journalism faculty at New York University.

I would like to urge GetReligion readers (I have done this many times) to read this Rosen piece. I do so again for reasons linked to this week's "Crossroads" discussion (click here to tune that in) about the much discussed document from Pope Francis about fake news, "snake news," journalism and the twisted state of public discourse in our world today.

The pope, you see, traces "fake news" back to the Garden of Eden, stressing that it's impossible to communicate when the process is built on lies. This document was the subject of my column this week for the Universal syndicate and a previous post here at GetReligion.

The minute you start talking about lies, that means you're discussing the conviction that it's possible to say that some statements are true and others are false. Your are discussing the belief that there is such a thing as absolute truth and that flawed, imperfect human beings (journalists, for example) can, to the best of their abilities, seek and articulate truth, as opposed to lies.

Yes, this makes me think of one of the greatest works of St. Pope John Paul II -- Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). But that is a topic for another day.

Now, here is passage in Rosen's piece that I wrote about back in the early days of this blog. This is long, but there really isn't any way around the details:

Here and there in the discussion of religion “in” the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy,” wrote David Samuels.
This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:

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Not sure what to think piece: If news is our 'New Religion,' what's the impact of this faith?

Not sure what to think piece: If news is our 'New Religion,' what's the impact of this faith?

For years now, I have been pointing GetReligion readers toward a classic 2004 PressThink essay entitled "Journalism Is Itself a Religion," by Prof. Jay Rosen of New York University.

This is not an essay about the state of religion-news coverage, at least that is not the primary topic that Rosen takes on. He is talking about the ways that journalism wrestles with concepts of truth, which often results in journalists assuming an authoritative role in public discourse that can evolve into a semi-religious state of mind.

You can, of course, hear echoes of this in our current discussions of politics in a "post-truth" age (in which the old standards of journalism have been splintered by the Internet, among other things). Who is supposed to be in charge of determining what is "true" news and what is, well, "fake news?"

That would be the journalistic establishment, of course.

So, more than a decade ago, Rosen tossed around some ideas for a proposed course at NYU or Columbia University. The title would be "The Religion of the Press.” A key issue would be the nature of the "priesthood" in modern news. Something like this:

Understanding the Priesthood of the Press. This course will examine the priesthood of the journalism profession in the United States, especially those at top news organizations in New York and Washington. Among the questions we’ll be asking this term: How does this elite group create and maintain its authority over what counts as serious journalism? What sense of duty goes along with being one of the high priests? What are the god terms and faith objects in journalism, and how are they derived? ... 
You get the idea.

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So are most journalists truly secular? No, many seem to practice their own one true religion

So are most journalists truly secular? No, many seem to practice their own one true religion

It happens almost every time I write a GetReligion post about former New York Times editor Bill Keller and how the great Gray Lady -- the world's most influential newspaper -- handles coverage of controversial events and trends tied to religion, culture and morality.

Someone, either in email, online comments or even in face-to-face chatter, will say that Times people struggle with these topics because (a) elite journalists know that religious people are stupid and deserve to have their beliefs mangled or because (b) the Times newsroom is full of people who, truth be told, hate religion.

Obviously, belief (a) tends to show up among liberal readers (and critics of this here weblog) and belief (b) is popular on the cultural and religious right. Truth be told, both of these beliefs are wrong and fail to explain the patterns seen day after day in the hallowed pages of the Times.

I bring this up because of the recent post that ran with the headline, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends: 'Why Readers See The Times As Liberal'." That post was also the hook for this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

During my chat with host Todd Wilken, I mentioned a famous article that is highly relevant to this topic, a PressThink essay by journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University entitled "Journalism Is Itself a Religion."

Wilken asked me to take a shot at explaining what that headline means. Actually, it's easier to let Rosen do that.

So let's look at two parts of his essay. First, there is a discussion of "The Journalist's Creed," which references an oath written by Walter Williams, dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism from 1908-1935. Basically, Rosen argues, we are dealing with a very idealistic form of secular faith. This first statement is, he noted, rather "tame" and points toward some brand of civil religion.

Let us attend.

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Once again: Do journalists believe there is good religion and then bad religion?

Once again: Do journalists believe there is good religion and then bad religion?

This week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on one of those nasty Godbeat topics that I have been wrestling with since, oh, 1980 or so. The question: Does the press hate religion and/or religious people?

This subject, of course, came up in a post here at GetReligion recently, in which I reacted to a classic M.Z. Hemingway piece at The Federalist that ran under a flaming headline: "Dumb, Uneducated, And Eager To Deceive: Media Coverage Of Religious Liberty In A Nutshell."

In her piece, M.Z. made a reference to the "modern media’s deep hostility toward the religious, their religions, and religious liberty in general." While affirming the rest of her piece, I stressed that I remain convinced that the majority of elite American journalists believe that there are good religious groups and bad religious groups and that the goods tend to be led by clergy and intellectuals "whose moral theology fits naturally with Woodstock and the editorial pages of The New York Times."

As William Proctor -- a Harvard Law graduate and former legal affairs reporter for The New York Daily News -- put it in his book "The Gospel According to The New York Times," the world's most influential newsroom doesn't reject all forms of religion, but does reject what he called the "sin of religious certainty." They reject claims by Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., who claim that their faiths affirm eternal, transcendent, revealed truth.

Now, is this a debate that has something to do with core journalism discussions of accuracy, objectivity, truth telling, etc.?

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