Religion and the Press: Always Complicated, Now Chaotic: In a Time of a Blogging Explosion, '.The Idea of a Coherent Mainstream Journalistic Identity Is in This Era of Old Media Implosion on the Way Out.'

By Silk, Mark | Nieman Reports, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Religion and the Press: Always Complicated, Now Chaotic: In a Time of a Blogging Explosion, '.The Idea of a Coherent Mainstream Journalistic Identity Is in This Era of Old Media Implosion on the Way Out.'


Silk, Mark, Nieman Reports


Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion

Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, Roberta Green Ahmanson, Editors

Oxford University Press. 240 Pages.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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