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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.

Religion reporters are part of a larger newsroom culture and well-entrenched there—nearly always coming to the beat from a different one.

That positioning makes them journalists first, and religion beat specialists second. The journalistic values of reporters writing about religion—complex and evolving as they are—do not generally differ from those who cover politics, medicine, education, or cops.

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.

However, bloggers, with few exceptions, don’t add reporting to the personal views they post online, and they see journalism as bound by norms and standards that they reject. That encourages these common attributes of the blogosphere: vulgarity, scorching insults, bitter denunciations, one-sided arguments, erroneous assertions and the array of qualities that might be expected from a blustering know-it-all in a bar.

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.

However, if history is any indicator, such earnestness will attract those who would exploit it, and they include some canny, inventive people.

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?”

The burnt skin, the crushed heads. Corpses without limbs. Images without explanations. But we need stories. The press needs to sell them; the public needs to buy them; and, apparently, politicians need to tell them.

The story we have now is of a contest, between two bitter enemies. One side claims God’s backing, the other hints that it may be the standard-bearer of a more inclusive religion. Both say they champion democracy; both claim to speak for the people. Both insist that only one side can win, and that the world hangs in the balance. This, of course, is not Iraq. It’s the campaign.

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.

So, is the Convention a ritual? From the outside — and from the way it gets covered — it seems to be a mere ritual, going through motions because the motions used to mean something. Is a roll call vote anything more than a chance to elbow your way into your 15 seconds? The voting itself merely makes official a decision that was made in the primaries. Or does the shell of action somehow invigorate the spirit? I don’t know, but I’m suspecting it does because, no matter how ordinary we want to make our public lives, it seems we can’t quite keep the extraordinary out of it.

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.

The job of Democrats is to identify their symbols with America - perhaps the America that took the downtrodden masses, the America that believed all men were equal, the America that is the land of opportunity for everyone, and to identify their leaders with those images.

What would a religion writer write of the convention? What America Kerry and Edwards were presenting to their followers. What symbols, what meanings they had attached to that America.

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.

I want to speak with the delegates that have had to beg borrow and scrape to get to Boston because they believe that their participation is crucial for the well being of this country. I want to speak with those who have a missionary’s zeal for converting the unbelievers to participatory democracy. I want to help them reach as large an audience as possible.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 16, 2004 7:27 PM