July 16, 2004
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus...
... what would be different? It's a question best put to journalists and writers who know something of religion. So we did that, over at The Revealer, where a forum on the "R" word is underway: "In search of religion on the campaign trail." Journalists and bloggers on the god beat--plus an atheist--turn their attention to politics and its rituals. Here's the deep background.
To the truly religious person, Reality is unthinkable without reference to the metaphysical dream given to him by his religion. I think this is the main thing that journalists, who don’t even understand the idea of the metaphysical dream, though they too have one, lack when they try to report on religion — or for that matter, politics, culture, and anything that involves the world of ideas that motivate and inspire people.
— Rod Dreher, editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News, at The Revealer’s special forum on The “R” Word in Campaign Coverage.
Last week I wrote a lengthy analysis of convention news, and what has gone wrong with it. Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime… was published on the same day that news broke of bloggers getting credentials in Boston. It’s now the second most linked-to PressThink post, which of course tells us that bloggers are interested in bloggers.
But they are not the only ones. Yesterday the mighty New York Times, on its editorial page, was finding “reason to hope” that “this year’s one potentially risky innovation — accepting dozens of free-form online bloggers as accredited convention journalists — may lace the proceedings with fresh insight and even some Menckenian impertinence.” (H.L. Mencken, you see, would call a blowhard a blowhard.)
Fresh insight. Americans who pay attention to the news would welcome it. But how does something like that—a new source of insight—actually come into political reporting? And if you want impertience: why is political reporting, as practiced, incapable of renewing itself in this way? It must be in some kind of rut.
When 30 or so credentialed bloggers are invested with freshness hopes that 15,000 media people cannot credibly sustain—and this seemed to be what the Times was saying—that tells you something. We can urge the blogs to go get ‘em in Boston, but we also have a right to ask how it happened that all imaginable sources of intellectual renewal have disappeared from reportage on the campaign trail.
To me this is a good starting point for criticism of campaign news. The people who compile it are very smart (and they work extremely hard, meaning all the time) but the form seems to be somehow brain dead, for reasons that are never quite clear when journalists get around to complaining about it themselves— which they do, of course.
For example, it is baffling to me—but on the other hand it might explain some of the deadness—that the reporter chosen by the New York Times as lead correspondent in the 2004 campaign, Adam Nagourney, is week-to-week practicing the most predictable variety of journalism possible for someone in his position: poll-driven horse race coverage with an inside baseball feel, featuring quote-the-consultant, here’s-the-strategy stories that approach Absolute Typicality. (See my analysis of his insider-ish account in January. But the best example is this piece on the undecided voter) And Nagourney, let’s remember, is a great newspaper’s head writer for the story. I have asked people with Times connections about this, the Nagourney dead zone, and the only answer I get is a shrug: “For some reason, that’s what they want.” The editors, that is.
Last week, I wrote about journalists who peddle as “fresh” the insight that politics is scripted for television, for the media, for the audience— like a show. “What’s fascinating to me,” I said, “is that journalists will still offer this observation today, at least twenty years after its SELL BY date, as if it they were tuned to something the rest of us did not grasp: it’s a show, folks… ” And I quoted some examples of the press doing just that. Two days later, in a column intending to be critical of his peers, William Powers of the National Journal wrote:
That’s what modern presidential campaigns are, after all — elaborately staged big-budget productions in which every line that’s uttered, every piece of scenery, is carefully calculated to win over the public .
This basic point is the conventional wisdom about media age politics and especially campaigns for president. It has been that for at least 20 years among journalists. The narrative we get from the press is about everthing in politics that’s “carefully calculated to win over the public.” Adam Nagourney has claimed that as his beat! But to Powers, and many of his peers, it is still some big insight into Things as They Actually Are: “Hollywood seeks big box-office returns, while political parties are after big poll numbers, but otherwise the two games are remarkably similar.”
Powers says he’s aware: “This is not exactly news, of course, and on a superficial level, the media appear to understand how entertainment values have transformed politics.” Witness Judy Woodruff talking about John Edwards and his “star power” on CNN. Witness our awareness that campaign stops are like little movie sets.
We all know this is how it works. But our knowledge of the game doesn’t diminish its power. To me, the mystery is why these elements don’t get more attention from the media. As a culture, we are extremely sophisticated about the way image and sound work together in the movies to make us think and feel a certain way. Yet our political journalism feels like a remnant of the 1940s, with its creaky emphasis on electoral mechanics — the swing-state obsession — and earnest discussion of which Big Issue, the economy or the war, will matter most.
“Earnest discussion of big issues” is a strange way of characterizing political journalism these days. That today’s campaign coverage has a 1940s feel—an era when the parties, not the candidates and their handlers, were still kings—is just a weird statement to make. Television wasn’t even a factor then; now it is the factor, we’re told. In the 1940s, political polling was in infancy. Today the polls are treated—by politicians and journalists alike—as the base line reality in politics, and everything that happens is read in that light.
I doubt there is a reporter on the beat today who doesn’t see campaign politics as one big media game, poll-driven and filled with fakery. Yet here is Powers trying to get critical traction this week with, “it’s the election movie itself, the enormous, costly multimedia production we’ll all be watching every day for the next four months, that will really decide this campaign.” (Not the voters, the “movie.”) If only this part of politics were “taken seriously and dissected on its own terms, the way we dissect Hollywood products,” then campaign reporting might come alive, he says.
I don’t think so. Powers is recommending as cure what amounts to more disease. I doubt that’s going to inspire anyone; and it won’t lead to fresh thought. The late Michael Kelly, writing in the New York Times magazine eleven years ago, made the same points Powers makes today. Kelly’s ostensible subject was David Gergen, the media advisor, pundit, and consummate insider, described as “master of the game.” But the real subject was how “image” had become “the sacred faith of Washington.”
In bitter prose Kelly described the shared assumptions of the nation’s political class: the “pollsters, news media consultants, campaign strategists, advertising producers, political scientists, reporters, columnists, commentators,” all of whom had come to believe that what a politician is and does are not important. “What is important is the perceived image of what he is and what he does.” In this view, described as the dominant one in 1993, politics
is not about objective reality, but virtual reality. What happens in the political world is divorced from the real world. It exists for only the fleeting historical moment, a magical movie of sorts, a never-ending and infinitely revisable docudrama. Strangely, the faithful understand that the movie is not true— yet also maintain that it is the only truth that really matters.
Strangely, that is what Bill Powers did last week, repeating Kelly’s point, which Kelly said was obvious back then. By now what’s obvious is the sense of intellectual exhaustion as the same “insight” is pounded home year after year, cycle after cycle. It’s all a show, folks, one big media production… This is an idea with nothing more to give, but we keep getting it from the press. The answer to every single problem in reporting on campaigns cannot be: de-mystify the process!
When any reasonably informed American can chat with friends about the “convention bounce” when the big show is over for the Democrats, things are pretty well de-mystified. During the past week I have been interviewed by a good cross section of the American press, which jumped on the bloggers-to-Boston story as one of the few “new” factors at the conventions. (See this in USA Today.) And the more I thought about their questions (“what can the bloggers bring to this?”) the further back in the coils of press think I had to go. The problem isn’t how to cover the conventions— or the campaign. You have to start before that, at the point where conventions get defined by journalists as “newsless in advance.”
Why are they newsless? Because nothing happens, as any reporter will tell you. But what does that mean: nothing happens? Nothing substantive. No new information revealed. Nothing said that hasn’t been tested for acceptability to voters targeted long ago. No conflicts allowed, no intra-party debate. No surprises. No news. Just rah-rah and spectacle.
That’s how the game is played, right? “But our knowledge of the game doesn’t diminish its power,” Powers wrote. Michael Kelly said almost exactly the same thing in ‘93. Both were mystified by it. Perhaps this is because knowledge of the “game” side of politics is not only an incomplete understanding, it is fatally so— finally so.
Maybe irony, backstage peaking and “de-mystify the process” only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I’m heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism’s contempt for ritual—and if “contempt” is too strong, then the difficulty the press has in understanding the conventions as ritual—was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true? Maybe there’s another story the press cannot tell unless it learns to take ritual seriously.
And that’s what leads me to the forum now happening at The Revealer. (I’m the publisher, Jeff Sharlet is the editor, the Pew Trusts are the funders.) If a religion writer covered the presidential campaign, would campaign coverage be any different? My reasons for asking this months ago, when we started planning the forum, were vague. Now they’re much clearer.
The least interesting part of that question is how journalists on the god beat, or with some feel for it, might handle the assorted religion stories that pop up in election campaigns. The more interesting part, to me, is how religion-aware reporters and writers would cast a different light on normal politics, the rough and tumble of the campaign, the rhetoric of candidates, the way issues are framed, the pack behavior of the press, the “master narrative” their peers advance as if it’s the only narrative, the character issue as it is called (with journalists as the uneasy judge of character), the feeding frenzy, the ads for god’s sake, and yes, the “game,” which is a legitimate part of politics.
Here’s William Powers again advocating for Hollywood-style coverage of the conventions:
Inside the journalism trade, entertainment coverage is not taken very seriously. It’s the realm of fluff and hype, while politics is the major-league beat, the place where brainy, meaningful journalism supposedly occurs. But to me, entertainment coverage, the media’s obsessive treatment of movies and TV, often feels a lot smarter than our old-fashioned, boys-on-the-bus political coverage.
Religion writers have similar status in newsrooms. But maybe toward some things in politics they are better tuned. It’s not implausible. But not a journalist of religion myself (or a very religious person) I wanted to know from some who are:
In our invitatation to writers, I asked them how the journalist of religion might deal differently with such elusive matters as:
Better questions, I thought, than “how big a bounce is Kerry going to get coming out of Boston?” The answers are starting to come in, as different journalists (and some religion bloggers) take up the invitation as I’ve sketched it here. There are many more to come, as the Revealer’s Campaign Forum continues during the summer months.
Amy Sullivan, an editor of The Washington Monthly and author of the weblog Political Aims says that reporters on the beat are not interested in “the nuances of how religious faith informs a candidate’s political thought and behavior.” They treat most professions of faith “as a cynical political tool.” Journalism like that cannot answer “a crucial question for voters: Why should we care about a candidate’s faith?” Sullivan writes:
What Republicans have learned is that if a candidate asserts his religiosity vigorously enough, political writers will label him a “religious man” without asking what that really means or why voters should care. This hands-off approach usually favors Republicans, who get a pass from reporters reluctant to engage in Scripture-quoting contests, but it can also be seen in the treatment of African-American politicians, who are assumed to be more sincere about their faith, and in the way the press approached Joseph Lieberman’s religiosity.
If you’re seen as sincere, you get a pass from reporters looking for signs of fakery. But as Sullivan points out, reporters who “fail to ask tough questions of candidates who bring their religion into politics and make their religiosity one of their selling points for office” are shirking their duty. Checking for fakery, and calling it out, just isn’t enough. A believer ought to be questioned even more closely, she argues.
Jason DeRose, a reporter for Chicago Public Radio who has religion in his beat, discovered on one assignment why campaign ads are so bad. They don’t “capture the imagination of the electorate,” as one derisive ad exec told him. This led him to ask: in a religious country like the United States, don’t candidates have to capture the religious imagination of the country? DeRose writes:
By religious imagination, I mean an ability to deal with sacred texts—hymn and history, story and sermon, prophesy and poem. I also mean an ability to understand contemporary religious realities as part of that same, unfolding body of sacred texts: Religious institutions, the faithful, the vaguely spiritual and the faithless are living human documents imagining themselves into existence and being imagined into reality by institutions, the faithful, the vaguely spiritual and the faithless.
Perhaps the Democratic National Convention in Boston is important because members of a political party will be “imagining themselves into existence” as Democrats there. This is part of what ritual is about. There’s a reality there, but it cannot be understood or even seen if “symbols” are the opposite of “substance,” an idea that political journalists have adopted uncritically.
The Revealer Forum was led off by Debra Mason, a Ph.D., and Executive Director of the Religion Newswriters Association, the major professional group for reporters on the beat. She thought my questions touchingly naive, and slightly obtuse:
Well-meaning preconceptions by people who haven’t worked the beat in the daily newspaper trenches year after year don’t quite hit the mark in terms of a religion writers’ reality—or their desire or ability to change longstanding journalistic tradition.
You’ve got the wrong idea, she’s telling me: “Good or bad, religion reporters writing about politics fall into the same traps and journalistic mannerisms as non-religion reporters.” Oh well, nothing but intellectual exhaustion there. But she’s right: well-meaning people “who haven’t worked the beat in the daily newspaper trenches year after year” don’t quite understand why that’s inevitable.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….
The Revealer Forum will continue through the summer, so check it out.
Future authors in include: Rod Dreher (columnist, The Dallas Morning News), Kim Pearson (College of New Jersey, author of Professor Kim’s News Notes), Shahed Amanullah (columnist, Alt.Muslim), Bob Smietana (contributor, Christianity Today, and God of Small Things weblog), Gaston Espinosa (Northwestern University), the Raving Atheist, A. K. M. Adam (AKMA’s Random Thoughts), Terry Mattingly (syndicated columnist, Scripps Howard) and Jeff Sharlet (The Revealer, Killing the Buddha).
Writers who have some expertise and want to participate should e-mail PressThink.
Let’s Be Clear, says Alex Jones, Bloggers Are the Sizzle, Not the Steak… Alexis S. Jones of Harvard’s Kennedy School and a former reporter for the New York Times, in the Los Angeles Times (July 18, 2004) on what distinguishes blogs at the convention:
Political conventions have become festivals of faux harmony and candidate image-building, which makes them marvelous targets for blogging’s candor, intelligence and righteous wrath.
Now Jones on the bloggers “air of conviction” and how this makes them targets, potential dupes:
In these early days, blogging still has the charm of guileless transparency, which in the blogosphere means that everyone — no matter how cranky or hysterical — is presumed to be speaking his or her mind with sincerity. It is this air of conviction that makes bloggers such potent advocates.
It’s all there in the LA Times: Bloggers Are the Sizzle, Not the Steak: Convention seats do not turn Internet gossips into journalists.
Jeff Sharlet, Don’t Forget the Bodies: On losing count of the dead. (The Revealer, July 16)
A year and more into the occupation, nothing seems to change. Schools get built, city halls get bombed. Troops return home, troops go to war. And the pictures, they keep coming. All these photographs of bodies. So many that nobody bothers to read the captions anymore. All we say is — “Did you see? Those pictures?”
David Weinberger comments on this post at Joho:
Some things always happen at a Convention; speeches and roll calls, for example. But they are mere, and not true, rituals if they don’t accomplish something more than what they seem to be accomplishing. I’d like to reserve the term “ritual” for actions that connect us to something larger and more meaningful than us individuals.
The Religious Lens: In a reply, Ian Welsh of BOP News comments:
There are many Americas - many things America means. The Republicans have taken one vision of America, identified it with Bush and themselves and used it as their shield.
A reader’s comment: “It’s fine to realize that politics is all show. But then the story is how the show is connected to the real world — because it is.”
“The high priests of journalism may dismiss this as heresy… Aldon Hynes of Greater Democracy, who will be going to Boston as a blogger:
I don’t want to spend time speaking with party officials and DNC members that have been to innumerable conventions. I don’t want to speak with the people for whom being a delegate is a reward for flipping a lot of burgers at county party picnics.
Posted by Jay Rosen at July 16, 2004 7:27 PM Print
It's always nice to post a comment first and then let the deep thinkers get into the subject, but I do have a couple of thoughts about the convention and religious coverage. I have noticed over the years that when an industry or a business or a government gets itself into trouble with greedy practices or secret activities, the action that comes in to protect that organization is to try to buy enough advertising and PR influence so as to influence a change in attitude, not to change the actual practice that is creating the impression in the minds of observers who are paying attention. In other words, image is considered everything throughout our society, not just in politics. This, I think, is also true in religion and religion coverage. Very few people in this country think very hard about religion and most of those who do are skeptics or outright atheists. The rest accept what is fed to them and the religious establishment does its best to create and image of itself that is seen as favorable to its control of its congregations. Again it is not the media that is the message, rather the image is the message and the only way to determine the accuracy of any presentation is to try to get through the image. Journalists or to be more factual, reporters, like most of the rest of the population are quick to accept the image and not look any deeper. Which may be just what you are saying in different words. So why would religious writers see things any different in politics?
Posted by: Chuck Rightmire at July 16, 2004 10:34 PM | Permalink
After reading Jacob Bronowski's "Magic, Science and Civilization", I'm doubly leery of the religious perspective on political circumstances. Bronowski said:
"My definition of magic is very simple. It is the view that there is a logic of everyday life, but there is also a logic of another world. And that other logic works in a different way and if you can only find the secret key, if you can enter into some magical practice -- particularly if you can find the right form of words -- then either the almighty will be on your side, or you will collect all the votes, or people will believe that because you call it peace, that it's not the same word as war, and all those other things that Orwell has portrayed so brilliantly but which really always come to the same thing: trying to command the world and particularly the opinions of other people by some formula which is other than the truth." -- Pp. 11-12.
Brownowski believed that the problem with magical views is that they somehow set up a world in which there are people who "know" and ordinary people who either don't or can't know... so with magic you must put your soul or your future in the hands of an expert -- a priest or a politician.
If the purpose of the press or the blogger is clear representation of a fair map of reality, then having a religious perspective on politics may be interesting, but less than useful.
Everyone is welcome to religious belief. But when it comes to planning a future, you have to be able to explain your position in language that translates to others clearly outside of the religious experience.
By religious imagination, I mean an ability to deal with sacred texts--hymn and history, story and sermon, prophesy and poem. I also mean an ability to understand contemporary religious realities as part of that same, unfolding body of sacred texts: Religious institutions, the faithful, the vaguely spiritual and the faithless are living human documents imagining themselves into existence and being imagined into reality by institutions, the faithful, the vaguely spiritual and the faithless.
Oh My God!
That is the most inane thing I have ever read. You either believe or you don't.
Unfolding of texts? Viva postmodernity!
Posted by: panopticon at July 17, 2004 12:43 AM | Permalink
Posted by: Ben Franklin at July 17, 2004 5:00 AM | Permalink
three anti-religious posts in a row. You must have touched a nerve somehow. I'm sure you've run accross it (probably written about it?) but I have found World Magazine to be probably the best example of journalism, political and otherwise, from an evangelical/calvinist POV, which is more or less where I am. I haven't been a subscriber for a few years, so I don't know how far they may have drifted in different directions (or how far I have drifted since then).
I like the fact that you mentioned Mencken. I read Mencken because he was funny (the same reason I read O'Rourke and D. Barry), but he was also quite knowledgeable about religion, or at least biblical Christianity. For instance, here is an obit he wrote on J Gresham Machen, founder on the modern conservative presbyterian movement:
Posted by: Paul Baxter at July 18, 2004 8:15 AM | Permalink
How one sees "religion", as the above writers have hinted at, is going to have an enormous impact on how the questions you have asked get answered. For instance, in the perspective I have been cultivating, under the influence of Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas, I tend to see politics as a temptation to trust to men (politicians) what I should only expect from God, e.g. justice.
But this is different than the question of political journalism. Perhaps the journalism question is just as imprtant to us christians as how we see politics itself, since what we see on tv or in the papers is part of what forms out mindsets on these issues.
Anyhow, lots of directions to go from here.
Posted by: Paul Baxter at July 18, 2004 8:23 AM | Permalink
Mencken put religion in its place. If one felt the need for it, he suggested Roman Catholicism, for its pagentry.
Ask Terry Teachout what he thinks Mencken would say about this. Teachout wrote the book on Mencken.
My guess is that he'd let 'em in the press box, but not base his own articles on what they wrote.
And I find it... ah... typical that someone with the point of view Paul Baxter calls my post anti-religious. It is not. Religion, requiring as it does a Leap of Faith, is relativistic. That makes it hard to integrate with other ways of living. I merely suggested that it was not a good basis to plan your very best future or to convey useful information for others on how best to plan. That doesn't mean you can't extract useful ideas from religion or that you shouldn't.
I'd like to change the emphasis to a different part of your argument. I think you're implying that mindset matters more than medium, and I certainly agree with that. If you look at the political blogs in the BlogStreet Top 100, with a few exceptions they are devoted to the "horse race" paradigm of politics. They discuss who's going to win (with heavy reliance on the latest polls), what tactics each side is using and should use, and what political points their team has scored in the recent past. In other words, they provide the same kind of information as Adam Nagourney does, only much more of it. They do differ from the Times in one respect: they spice up their tactical discussions with lots of partisan jabs. Thus they're like a merger between Adam Nagourney and Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken. In any case, they're highly derivative of conventional political commentary as seen in the mass media. They have no more to say about the role of citizens, or the substance of issues, than the New York Times--probably less. So if they are the bloggers who are invited to the conventions, I don't believe they will challenge the basic paradigm that you have described in your post. I think we'd be more likely to get new insights from a bunch of old folks with Selectrics and steno pads than from bloggers, if the former looked at the conventions from a different vantage point. Religion is just an example; we could also get insights from anthropology, performance studies, American history, or even serious policy analysis.
Posted by: Peter Levine at July 18, 2004 10:27 AM | Permalink
Dear Paul Baxter,
Posted by: Ben Franklin at July 18, 2004 12:34 PM | Permalink
Posted by: Ben Franklin at July 18, 2004 12:43 PM | Permalink
"Rituals, routines, and ruts have some things in common, but they are not precisely the same." - The Ambiguity of Ritual
I hope bloggers or religion journalists can find something in the interstices of convention events, the penumbra of the "script", to reassure me or capture my attention or expose a crack by which to pry open the political regimes I'm dissatisfied with.
And I am dissatisfied.
The spin masters' carefully scripted conventions lack vitality - joie de vivre - and journalists reminisce of Mencken.
But before I ask bloggers and/or journalists to do something different, I should be able answer the question of whether the old ritual of quadrennial conventions has now become a routine - disconnecting the participants (public at large, delegates) from the political Powers That Be? - or has it gone past routine and become a rut?
I wonder how realistic any expectation is that the "fresh insight" of bloggers, or journalists from outside the political tribe, differ to accomplish any renewal?
Political journalists seem to only look for the convention undertones in terms of vote counts, winners and losers, alliances and paybacks. Their writing seems influenced by a worship of the Machiavellian. Are we only lacking heretical political journalists that practice a different political religion? Are they only missing among the MSM? Is that what bloggers and other types of journalists might bring new, or reborn, to the table?
Is that what I find appealing in these essays? That hope?
Has political reporting become so gray, so objectified, as to disallow seeing past the Machiavellian machinations and make journalistic judgements based on New Dealism, Great Society idealism, federalism and/or republicanism?
Are the conventions, and political journalism, cold and unfriendly because Machiavelli has replaced the Politics of Friendship - and we are looking to bloggers and other genre of journalists to provide it?
Is that longing being misinterpreted into a reminiscence for Mencken lampooning Machiavellian politics and political narratives?
I have long heard the complaint of the disconnect between public and politics -- the public apathy. Has post-9/11 + Iraqi regime change equation increased interest, and dissatisfaction, among a public that sees ruts in existing politics and political journalism? Is there a desire for the return of rituals?
Posted by: Tim at July 18, 2004 4:04 PM | Permalink
It's interesting that Ben mentions the Christian Science Monitor. That newspaper has always been more attuned to certain things, in comparison to the national press, even though it is staffed by people who are, more or less, in the same class of educated, secular professionals.
The Monitor's greater emphasis on human rights and humanitarian crises would be one example, a lesser devotion to realpolitik another. If there was a debate about "just war theory" and the U.S. actions in Iraq, the Monitor would be more likely to report on it.
The differences are in emphasis, selection and shading rather than any distinct doctrine of journalism. But even slight deviations from a norm illustrate that the norm is just a norm and not, say, the "nature" of journalism.
They ought to drop the print edition, go all web, triple the number of columnists, and out-RSS everyone.
Ben and Peter mention anthropology. It would make for an equally good--maybe better--forum: What if anthropologists rode the campaign bus? However, there aren't any reporters on the anthropology beat in newsrooms, while there are religion reporters already there.
It may be that you're right, Peter, and the bloggers in Boston will reproduce the world view of the press, but with more opinion-- or snark, as it is called. If those are the only differences, I will be disappointed, but not shocked.
Still, it remains significant that many in the mainstream press not longer expect any changes in approach from themselves, and look to bloggers to "spice" things up.
Ben, I wasn't suggesting that "religious perspectives on politics" are somehow lacking in American discourse. As you say, they are abundant. I'm just searching for something that could renew, enliven, alter the "dead" quality of so much campagin reportage. One of my own sources of critical traction as a press observer is simply to expect better.
In that connection, I find it dismaying--but again significant--that Debra Mason, head of the association of religion reporters, goes out of her way to insist that there is nothing distinct about their lens, and that only someone out-of-touch with the newsroom (like me) would suggest otherwise.
Ben and sbw,
my apologies if I mischaracterized you. Obviously you know your own hearts and I do not. For sbw I based my opinion on your statement about being leery of religious perspectives on political circumstances. For Ben it was the uncharitable characterizations of Falwell and Robertson, not to mention "Calvinist contempt for the poor". As a Calvinist myself I'm troubled by that, but I don't want to make this personal.
The idea, so prevalent in America, that everyone is entitled to religious beliefs as long as they are kept private is completely antithetical to my own religious tradition and I'm sure many others as well. I always see it as a not a question of whether religion lays a role in journalism (or politics or education or what have you), but of which religion.
All of this to say that whatever your own ideas and motives, your statements came accross as anti-religious to this religious person. I'm neither angry nor offended, but I thought it might be of some use to bring another perspective.
Posted by: Paul Baxter at July 18, 2004 10:31 PM | Permalink
we also have a right to ask how it happened that all imaginable sources of intellectual renewal have disappeared from reportage on the campaign trail.
Religion is a memento mori. Death pervades religion. Religion, when successful, is about how not to let the knowledge that you must die turn you into a nihilist. Reporters might benefit from that memento mori.
Ritual is about renewal. Party rituals are born of the democratic certainty that eventually you must lose (die) and the other side win.
If the democratic ritual seems empty, it is perhaps because the losers no longer lose, even when they lose (e.g., Al Gore, presiding over the his own defeat in the Congressional suppression of the Black caucus).
The challenge for the religious reporter would be to present the dynamic between the memento mori that gives rise to the joyful gratitude that one is still here, with the memento mori that devolves into the nihilistic sense that one has been left behind.
Posted by: panopticon at July 18, 2004 11:12 PM | Permalink
Posted by: Ben Franklin at July 19, 2004 4:55 AM | Permalink
Perhaps we'll take this offline :)
Posted by: Paul Baxter at July 19, 2004 7:27 AM | Permalink
"The differences are in emphasis, selection and shading rather than any distinct doctrine of journalism. But even slight deviations from a norm illustrate that the norm is just a norm and not, say, the "nature" of journalism."
"... Debra Mason, head of the association of religion reporters, goes out of her way to insist that there is nothing distinct about their lens ..."
Is PressThink journalism, or reporting, fundamentally a practice of positivism? Or stated another way, isn't positivism the philosophy of objective journalism - in that it minimally ignores, or remains mute, about the metaphysical?
If a journalist does report the the impact of the political on the metaphysical, isn't that just a form of "religious perspectives on politics"?
Posted by: Tim at July 19, 2004 11:47 AM | Permalink
As a current religion writer and a politics afficionado, I think religion writers have a sense of exploration of the human that is completely lacking in most political coverage. Religion writers realize that their subject touches on people's lives, weaving throughout their experience and affecting every aspect of their existence. Good religion writers try to explain how people's beliefs affect their life.
To be like political reporters, religion writers would have to show up for the sermon, comment on the preacher's suit, the quality of the choir and his speaking voice and leave out the sermon's content, its context and how it affected the lives of the people leaving the church. After all, what was said, what it means and what it means for people, isn't really important in most political journalism that I have seen.
Political decisions have real-life consequences for people but political writers seem increasingly reluctant to even try to explain what the candidates are actually proposing or what their actual track record is on issues, instead defaulting to the "he said/she said" of campaign functionaries, and the completely frivolous.
I find it ironic that someone thinks political journalists are giving the steak, while bloggers are giving the sizzle. Instead, political journalists are writing about the ambience of the restaurant while occasionally commenting on the smells coming from the kitchen and guessing what those might mean for the taste of the steak on the plate.
Posted by: John Clark at July 19, 2004 12:46 PM | Permalink
Glenn Reynolds has been posting quite a bit on the blogger v. journalist and politics debate.
This may be an interesting one stop shop.
Posted by: Tim at July 19, 2004 1:27 PM | Permalink
F. Scott Fitzgerald made the oft-contested observation that "there are no second acts in American life."
But he was speaking of the conditions that prevailed in the social hothouse of 1930's Hollywood celebrity. For us regular working class folks, Hollywood itself frequently produces narratives of second chances.
While the rituals of renewal in politics and organized religion have been steadily drained of their power over the last forty years, other secular and religious mythologies of renewal have proliferated, and even interwined, for instance, in the gnostic literature of self help.
Now there is the internet, which is promoted as a virtual framework on which the construction of the self can reach its materially-unemcumbered apogee.
Not only the self, but the entire social field can be reproduced, progressively, including the institutions of religion and politics.
To the civic boosters of the blogosphere, the internet offers the promise that our rituals of renewal themselves may possibly be born again.
Once when I was a child, my family drove past a church that had been built in-the-round. I asked my parents why the church was round. "So the devil can't hide in the corners," they explained.
In a similar way, the would-be architects of the blogosphere are attempting to build it in-the-round. It is a circle of circles. The devil is excluded.
Unfortunately, on the internet, the devil is always only another person, or his avatar, his bot, his viral script, his newly constructed self.
For example, someone might attempt to make a second career as a journalist, take some online courses, put up a blog, particpate in blog discussions - all in an attempt to construct that second (or third or forth) self that, this time, will really be it.
But the internet is not really that frictionless non-place where these constructions can seamlessly take form.
The internet has memory. It can preserve and even reproduce the most trivial of enmities, and the selves we thought we could effortlessly construct are subject to reconstruction, desconstruction, and even the destruction by other fragile constructs made hysterical and vindictive by the awareness of their own mortality, and through their subjection to the dictates of the superego Law. The remarkable proliferation of sadistic discourse online bears witness to the utter passivity that online inter-"action" can produce: the sadist is a passive figure who derives enjoyment from his mere instrumentality as an agent of the supergo: he is merely doing his duty.
That the construction of self online either fails destructively or only succeeds through exclusion (and the demand for exclusion is amplified by commodified growth - authentication/trust), also leads to doubts whether the progressive project of democratic renewal of failing institutions online is similarly fated. Will the internet's capacity to archive the totality of the past result in an inability to live a civic life, or a good life, let alone a second one? Will the next Bill Blythe be unable to transform into Bill Clinton, due to the undying virtual memory of the sins of the no longer nomadic father?
Instead of progress, will there be reaction?
Will we be limited to wishing, like Kilgore Trout before he stepped through the looking glass, for something to "make me young again" - spoken from a cartoon graveyard, or the ruins of a virtual hothouse?
Is this a born again dystopia?
Transparency is an effect of computer technology. Internet boosters convert this effect into a demand: "Transparency, people! Transparency!".
This is the demand of a quite literal overseer.
It is the computerized version of the productive change that accompanied the division of labor and the assembly line: "Speed People! Speed!"
The effect becomes a demand.
The internet is a church where confession is *required* and enscripted.
"universals of communication" ought to make us shudder. It's true that, even before control societies are fully in place, forms of delinquency or resistance (two different things) are also appearing. Computer piracy and viruses, for example, will replace strikes and what the nineteenth century called "sabotage" ("clogging" the machinery) . You ask whether control or communication societies will lead to forms of resistance that might reopen the way for a communism understood as the "transversal organization of free individuals." Maybe, I don't know. But it would be nothing to do with minorities speaking out. Maybe speech and communication have been corrupted. They're thoroughly permeated by money – and not by accident but by their very nature. We've got to hijack speech. Creating has always been something different from communicating. The key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication...
So my advice to religious journalists covering politics: find the silences.
Posted by: panopticon at July 19, 2004 5:07 PM | Permalink
Pro-life Article September 2004
From history we learn nations, civilizations come and go ........ but God, life, religion (the
Posted by: keith wilbur at July 27, 2004 2:31 PM | Permalink