For the past 30 years, a staple of the culture wars has been the notion that journalists in general, and elite journalists in particular, are either hostile to religion or ignorant of it or (most likely) both. By this account, they belong to the “knowledge class” responsible for leading American society to godless moral relativism. No matter that journalists are, according to the best surveys, as religious as Americans generally. No matter that, beginning in the mid-1990’s, newspapers devoted more space and staffing to religion coverage than ever before. The antireligion trope is a conservative article of faith.
A collection of essays, “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” is the latest and, I dare to hope, last hurrah of this misbegotten conviction. That’s not because I believe the culture wars are at an end, though they may be winding down. It’s because the idea of a coherent mainstream journalistic identity is in this era of old media implosion on the way out.
That news seems not to have penetrated the consciousness of the book’s essayists, most of whom are academics and think-tank denizens, though here and there a professional scribbler can be found. Their premise is that the robust journalism of yesteryear is still hale and hearty but that its practitioners have missed too many stories because of a failure to come to proper terms with religion. And their primary focus is on stories not covered by reporters who actually have the job of covering religion. Indeed, the biggest religion story in the history of journalism—the 2002-2003 scandal involving the Catholic Church’s cover-up of its sexual abuse by priests—receives nary a mention. Rather, complex events with religious dimensions, many of which have taken place in distant countries, grab the book’s attention.
While there have been, as always, mistakes in the coverage, the authors’ sins of commission and omission outweigh them. How does the book get this wrong? Let me describe a few of the ways:
- Allen D. Hertzke blames the press for failing to recognize that the campaign for international religious rights includes more than just evangelicals eager to make the world safe for evangelism. However, Hertzke fails to mention the fact that the prime legislative manifestation of the campaign, the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, arose from a desire on the part of President Clinton’s religio-ideological opponents to embarrass him.
- In castigating the press for focusing excessively on the question of anti-Semitism in “The Passion of the Christ,” Jeremy Lott ignores the ugly history of passion plays in Western culture. He also neglects to mention that the “group of liberal scholars” who expressed concerns about the representation of Jews in the movie was convened at the request of the official in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
- C. Danielle Vinson and James Guth take political reporters to task for casting religion and the 2004 presidential campaign too much in terms of the “God gap,” which describes the proclivity of the more religious voters to prefer Republicans to Democrats. As someone who, along with the eminent and continually quoted John Green, did a lot to alert the journalistic community to that gap, I beg to differ.
- Amy Welborn claims that while journalists covered to a fare-thee-well Pope Benedict’s criticism of Muslims in his speech at the University of Regensburg, he was actually tougher on the West. My reading of the speech is that he came down equally hard on both sides and that, more importantly, the speech demonstrated the pope’s woeful ignorance of the history of Islamic thought.
- Michael Rubin contends that journalists do not recognize the importance of religion in interpreting the politics in Iraq. But a fair reading of the reportage shows that the war correspondents did a far better job of conveying the country’s religious dynamics to the American public than did the political leaders who took the country to war.
I could go on giving such examples, and I could mention some ways the authors get it right, just as they occasionally grant that the journalists have. The main problem, however, is the usual one: When the journalists don’t tell the story the way “we” see it, then they’ve obviously missed the story. Yet as my comments suggest, it’s not hard to posit other plausible perspectives and informed points of view. Threading one’s way through the thicket, noting and parsing the interpretive differences, is what reporters have to do. The ideologically committed will always have bones to pick with reporting that seeks to find a fair balance.
But the authors of “Blind Spot” should breathe easier. In 21st century journalism, every person gets to play. Indeed, in no sphere of coverage today are there more online commentators, tipsters, reporters and screamers than the religious arena—or rather, the almost infinite number of arenas that engage the religious interests and commitments of humankind.
Though a faculty member at a small New England college, I am also a blogger on religion and politics (www.spiritual-politics.org). As such, I’m offered credentials to press conferences—and the presidential inauguration—and I’ve received phone calls this year from a White House official annoyed at my posts. Like many others among my blogging brethren, I think I know what the story of the day is in my corner of the news, and I do what I can to persuade journalists to take notice and tell their stories accordingly. Sometimes they do. The problem is, there are fewer and fewer of them to do it.
The pleasant thought that, yes, reporters would get it right if they only paid attention to me, is yielding to the reality of just a lot of voices, each shouting out his or her own version of the news. The churches are emptying and the streets are full of missionaries. Who are the passersby to listen to?
Mark Silk, director of The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1987 to 1996.