William Proctor

Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

For nearly three decades, I have taught journalism and mass media in colleges and institutions (even a seminary) linked to conservative forms of Protestantism.

As you would expect, I have heard lots of complaining about the state of journalism in America, especially mainstream media coverage of religion. That’s a topic, of course, that I have been studying since 1981, when I began work on my University of Illinois graduate project (click here to see “Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets,” the short version that ran in The Quill).

To cut to the chase: I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard a conservative of some stripe say that “journalists hate religion,” or words to that effect.

That is, of course, an inaccurate and simplistic statement. In my experience, many — perhaps most — journalists have no problem with forms of religion that support modernized forms of morality. Long ago, Harvard Law grad and former New York Daily News legal affairs reporter William Proctor put it this way, when I interviewed him about his book “The Gospel According to The New York Times”:

… Critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

This brings me to this week’s blitz of coverage of the all-but-announced White House bid of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The USA Today headline that really started things rolling stated, “Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator.” That USA Today piece, focusing on religious issues, followed a Washington Post reference to the gay politico’s open discussions of his faith.

Let me stress that this is a totally valid story and a quite important one, in part because Buttigieg is working hard to develop a more mainstream form of religious liberalism.

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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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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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Are there any culture wars inside the Great Gray Lady?

Here’s a safe prediction for 2014: Look for another year with tough culture wars cases — whether from courthouses in Utah or your local Christian university or parachurch ministry — rolling toward the church-state crossroads at the U.S. Supreme Court. If that’s the case, journalists will continue to face a numbing barrage of stories in which they will be challenged to accurately and fairly report the views of activists on both the religious left and Religious Right.

With that in mind, consider this interesting Quora.com comment by elite columnist Nicholas Kristof, in response to this question: “What is the culture like at The New York Times?”

There isn’t really a simple answer to this question, because the culture of the Times varies by section and even time of day. In my part of the building, where the opinion columnists have their offices, it tends to be a bit more relaxed, even sleepy, while the metro desk at deadline on a big story will be frenetic and full of electricity. When I started at The Times in 1984, it was mostly male, and we wore jacket and ties; there was plenty of smoking and drinking. These days, the dress code is much more casual, and somewhat more earnest; not a lot of whiskey bottles hidden around today. There are also lots of women, which means there’s less of a locker room atmosphere. …

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Clash of absolute truths in WPost coverage of Schaefer trial

The editorial team of The Washington Post has published a direct quotation from an outside voice, a figure of authority, who supports the doctrines and disciplines of the United Methodist Church, which reflect centuries of Christian tradition on marriage and sex. This is the first time that this old-school journalistic device — a throwback to the days in which balance and fairness were journalistic virtues — has been used in the newspaper’s national-level coverage of this local-news story in rural Pennsylvania.

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