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CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

There he goes again. “He” in this case is Brian Stelter at “Reliable Sources,'“ the CNN show that covers a wide range of news about mass media, including mainstream journalism.

In the past few months — while discussing press struggles with normal America — Stelter has asked some interesting questions about the fact that many journalists in elite zip codes struggle to, well, get religion. He hasn’t said “GetReligion” yet, but he has mentioned that there are websites that keep track of this problem. Maybe I can picket his office next time I’m camped out in New York City?

This came up recently when I wrote an “On Religion” column about the new “Alienated America” book by Timothy P. Carney, who leads the commentary section at The Washington Examiner (click here for the column and here for the GetReligion podcast that discussed this). That column included material from a Carney appearance on “Reliable Sources” that included comments about You Know What.

The context — #DUH — is a discussion of why so many journalists missed the rise of Donald Trump in flyover country. A key point: Core Trump voters talked about religion, while those whose daily lives revealed deep religious convictions tended to oppose Trump in the primaries. Here’s a chunk of that column:

Religious convictions among voters in some communities across America — in Iowa, in Utah and elsewhere — clearly had something to do with their rejection of Trump and support for other GOP candidates. These fault lines have not disappeared. …

Stelter said the problem is that religion is "like climate change." This topic affects life nationwide, but it's hard for journalists to see since "there's not a bill being introduced in Congress or there's not a press conference happening in New York."

This media-elite blindness skews political coverage, said Carney, but it affects other stories, as well – especially in thriving communities in flyover country between the East and West coasts.

"Far too many journalists know little or nothing about the subjects and issues that matter the most to religious believers in America," he said. "It's not just that they make egregious errors about religion. It's that they don't understand that there are religious angles to almost every big story and that, for millions of Americans, religion is at the heart of those stories."

In other words, way too many journalists notice religion — when it shows up in New York City and Beltway events that they believe are connected to their The One True Faith, which is politics.

The other day, Stelter returned to this subject while discussing the evolution of American values and public life with a very controversial author — Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro.

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Covering 'flyover' America: Did CNN's Brian Stelter say the press just doesn't 'get' religion?

Covering 'flyover' America: Did CNN's Brian Stelter say the press just doesn't 'get' religion?

Every year, I write a mid-April column linked to the anniversary of the creation of my national “On Religion” column, which started out as a weekly feature for the Scripps Howard News Service (while I was working for The Rocky Mountain News) and is now carried by the Universal syndicate).

This annual column always focuses on patterns and trends in religion news. I guess you could say that I use this as an update on why I ventured into religion-news work in the first place. This often turns into a “Crossroads” podcast, as well (click here to tune that in).

I’ve been doing that for 31 years now. That’s getting close to a third of a century and, as you would expect, I have this drill down pretty well. Thus, somewhere around the first of the year, I start looking for an event, a book, a provocative op-ed page piece or something else to serve as a hook for this anniversary piece.

This year, I ran into a CNN podcast — the Feb. 20 episode of Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — featuring Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, discussing his new book “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.” This discussion set off all kinds of alarms in my head — so many that it was hard for me to pick one hook for the 31st anniversary column.

Well, then Notre Dame Cathedral caught on fire and, well, lots of journalists started writing pieces that sounded like they were covering a disaster in a museum or some kind of government building — as opposed to a holy place. I simply had to write about that. One thing led to another, and the Notre Dame fire turned into my anniversary column for this year. Here’s a sample:

… American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" — to both.

OK, so what happened to the piece I had planned about the chat between Carney and Stelter?

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Looking for strong political prejudices? The Atlantic offers a U.S. map packed with revelations

Looking for strong political prejudices? The Atlantic offers a U.S. map packed with revelations

A quarter of a century ago, America was already a bitterly divided nation — especially on matters of religion, culture, morality and politics.

Thus, liberal theologian Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School (author of the ‘60s bestseller, “The Secular City”) was shocked when he invited to lecture at Regent University. It’s hard, he noted in The Atlantic (“Warring Visions of the Religious Right”), to titillate his sherry-sipping colleagues in the Harvard faculty lounge, but accepting an invitation to invade the Rev. Pat Robertson’s campus did the trick.

Cox was pleased to find quite a bit of diversity at Regent, in terms of theological and political debates. He was welcomed, and discovered lots of people testing the borders of evangelicalism — other than on moral issues with strong doctrinal content. He found Episcopalians, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers.

Politically, too, the students and faculty members I met represented a somewhat wider spectrum than I had anticipated. There are some boundaries, of course. I doubt that a pro-choice bumper sticker would go unremarked in the parking lot, or that a gay-pride demonstration would draw many marchers. But the Regent student newspaper carried an opinion piece by the well-known politically liberal evangelical (and "friend of Bill") Tony Campolo. … One student told me with obvious satisfaction that he had worked hard to defeat Oliver North in the Virginia senatorial contest last fall. If there is a "line" at Regent, which would presumably be a mirror image of the political correctness that is allegedly enforced at elite liberal universities, it is not easy to locate.

The bottom line: Cox found limits to the diversity at Regent, but they were limits that left him thinking about Harvard culture. In terms of debates on critically important topics, which school was more diverse?

I thought of that classic Cox essay a computer click or two into a must-read new essay at The Atlantic that ran with this double-decker headline:

The Geography of Partisan Prejudice

A guide to the most—and least—politically open-minded counties in America

So where does one find diversity that matters, people who are trying to be tolerant of their neighbors who represent different cultures and belief systems? You wouldn’t know that by reading that headline.

So let’s jump-start this a bit with the headline atop the Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher take on this piece, which has been updated several times (including his detailed reaction to a criticism from one of the authors). That headline: “Least Tolerant: Educated White Liberals.”

Where is Dreher coming from? Here is a key passage in the interactive Atlantic piece:

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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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What a shocker: Republicans have sex more often than Democrats (religion ghost alert)

What a shocker: Republicans have sex more often than Democrats (religion ghost alert)

It doesn't take a graduate degree in family-life studies or anything like that to be able to spot the religion ghost in this week's think piece.

In fact, author Nicholas H. Wolfinger of the Institute for Family Studies finally points it out, over half way through this short piece on the institute's website. The headline: "Sex in Red and Blue America."

Frankly, I thought the headline on this one would attract some press coverage, especially since it (a) is about sex, (b) is framed in terms of politics and (c) it's a perfect topic for those trendy lifestyles and features sections that seem to run ANYTHING that pushes buttons about (a) and (b).

So I have kept this think piece stashed away for a few weeks, figuring that I would eventually see mainstream news coverage of some of the hot-button material in it.

Guess what? I haven't seen anything. Have you? Ready for some of the steamy details? Here is a solid slice of core info:

... Republicans have more sex than Democrats and cheat less on their spouses. Political independents have sex even more often than Republicans but cheat at the same rate Democrats do. Republican sexual frequency is entirely explained by the fact that they’re more likely to be married than are Democrats. On the other hand, there’s no obvious explanation for the partisan difference in adultery.

Really now? Can anyone thing of some rather obvious statistical differences between people in red-state, flyover country and the power elites who are at the heart of the modern Democratic party?

At the center of the study is lots of data -- 25 years worth -- from the omnibus General Social Survey. The question isn't perfect, but it's blunt: “About how often did you have sex during the last 12 months?” Yes, that has lots of loopholes. Just ask Bill Clinton.

So why are the Republicans and red-zip-code people having sex more often than the folks whose lives get made into steamy novels, movies and pop songs?

Hint: It's time to start looking for religion-news ghosts.

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