Urbana

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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The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary

The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary

This is how I will remember him: Articulate, witty, with a probing intellect, He was a strong First Amendment liberal, a lover of music, magazines and books. And there was the pipe, of course. He'd look over the top of his glasses, puffing on the pipe, while he was thinking.

I'm talking about Theodore Peterson, of course, the legendary journalism professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign whose class on modern magazines was a rite of passage for thousands of young writers and editors.

Take Hugh Hefner, for example.

If you took Peterson's class (as I did in graduate school), you learned quite a bit about the back-story on Hefner and the class-project dream that years later turned into a magazine celebrating sex and grown-up toys, linking consumerism with moral libertarianism.

Peterson had a theory about modern magazines, which was that -- while providing niche content for readers and advertisers -- they needed to make some kind of statement about the personality and beliefs of the founder. They needed to sell a worldview. Hefner was the perfect example and the key was the Playboy-in-chief's desire to shed his past and escape.

Escape what? That is where morality and religion -- the old Methodism -- is an essential part of the Hefner story and, thus, any obituary that attempts to sum up his life. I'm not joking: Editors may want to consider allowing religion-beat reporters to take part in the coverage of Hef and his legacy. After all, the Sexual Revolution was a new take on a very ancient religion.

As you would expect, the Hefner obituaries are packed with colorful symbolic details. There's speculation on the number of women he bedded. What about the implications of his emotional immaturity, when linked to a 152 IQ? Do the math and you end up with the 2,500-plus volumes of his personal scrapbook, which probably featured images from the $40,000 video-camera system above his 7-foot round bed.

News consumers can expect, in the follow-up coverage, lots of debate about Hefner as feminist or anti-feminist. Was he a figure of liberation, oppression or addiction? Was his fierce support of abortion rights rather self-serving? Someone should ask fake-bunny Gloria Steinem, or perhaps Holly Madison, author of "Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny."

In most of the obituaries, there is some kind of reference to Hefner's parents and their religious convictions. The Associated Press feature, as one would expect, had less room with which to work, but did manage this telling passage:

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