ew York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof dropped a bombshell in a recent column: He wrote, "nearly all of us in the news business are completely out of touch with a group that includes 46 percent of Americans."
He's talking about Evangelical Christians, who, in Kristof's description, "are increasingly important in every aspect of American culture." Kristof said he disagrees with Evangelicals on "almost everything," but observed that "liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at Evangelical-backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself. Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable." He went on to say that "liberals sometimes show more intellectual curiosity about the religion of Afghanistan than that of Alabama."
Now, you may be saying, "This is news?" Yes, actually, it is, because this column appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times, the most highly prized piece of journalistic real estate in the nation, and the newspaper that, more than any other, sets the agenda in newsrooms across America.
"It's the location, more than what he said," says Terry Mattingly, a syndicated religion columnist and journalism professor. "It was in the Bible of those who put down all the people in the red states, going to their Evangelical megachurches. Reading this gave Evangelicals a tremendous sense of validation. They haven't cheered this loud for anything in the Times's pages since the days when Abe Rosenthal was writing about the persecution of Third World Christians."
The Kristof column is a small but significant sign of progress toward what one hopes is a more fair and balanced approach to journalism in American newsrooms. Media-savvy religious conservatives tend to have favorite examples of the worst bias against our sort. Everybody remembers the astonishing paragraph from a news story of a decade ago in the Washington Post, in which a reporter remarked that religious conservatives were "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command" a statement that was not only insulting, but factually untrue. Fewer are aware of a classic 1999 quote from a New York Times Magazine story about an anti-abortion fanatic, in which the writer observed, "It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy."
Got that? If those who report the news consider religious conservatives (who are usually, but not always, political conservatives) to be part of a lunatic fringe, there's no reason to take them or their views seriously. In fact, the people this writer considered "most of us" are in fact a minority. But it says a great deal that this writer, and his editors, took this worldview as normative. That was only one writer in one newspaper, but in my professional experience, that viewpoint is common in newsrooms.
Two examples. When I was at the New York Post as a columnist, people thought of me as the "religion guy" because as far as anyone could tell, I was the only writer on this major daily who had an interest in religion. I penned a column once that had something to do with Evangelicals here in New York. It was shot down by a top editor, who told me, "New York is not a religious city." Now, in this editor's own neighborhood, there are at least three Catholic churches, two Episcopal churches, a synagogue, a congregation of Hispanic Baptists, and one of Hispanic Pentecostals. And a few blocks beyond his neighborhood, a rather famous mosque. But this editor didn't know anyone who would attend these religious institutions; ergo, "most of us" don't live in that world.
Before that, I worked for a fairly large paper that was particularly proud of its diversity program. I got into a peppery exchange with the newsroom executive in charge of running it. She said to me, "Don't you think this newsroom should look like our city?" by which she meant that it should more or less mirror the area's race-gender-ethnicity demographic. I told her that it was more important that the newsroom represent the diversity of belief and experience in the city.
"How many conservatives do we have working here? How many Pentecostals?" I said. "You have people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds working here, you have gays, you have a lot of women but everybody went to pretty much the same journalism schools, and as far as I can tell, everybody thinks more or less alike on most issues."
She didn't have an answer for that, but more to the point, I don't think this had even occurred to her as a question worth asking. And media executives continue to wonder why they continue to lose reader confidence, and ultimately customers.
"Nicholas Kristof's column is right on point," says Aly Colon, diversity director at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "We need to be more knowledgeable about religion and faith and values so we can write about that not only accurately, but authentically."
"It's really what I call 'complete journalism,'" he continues. "Too often we're engaged in niche journalism, in which we think that covering areas of our personal interest are all that matters."
There have been a number of studies and polls in recent years showing how dramatically different the opinions and lifestyles of the media class are from that of the people they ostensibly serve. Everybody knows that reporters at the Washington Post are very different from folks in Tulsa. But Peter Brown, an editor at the Orlando Sentinel, has done research showing that this phenomenon holds true even at the local level.
A decade ago, working with a polling firm and a market research outfit, Brown surveyed reporters in Dallas-Forth Worth, a major regional media market, and five middle-sized media markets around the country, and compared their views, values and lifestyle choices with those of their readership. "The data clearly show that journalists, although living geographically in the same markets as their readers, really do have a completely different mindset, and for the most part different values and behavior," Brown says.
He also found that journalists were "much less likely" than people in their markets to pray daily, attend religious services regularly, or even to belong to a church or synagogue. Says Brown, "Many journalists will acknowledge that there's a big demographic difference, but they say it doesn't affect coverage. I don't think that's true."
Brown and other critics say that bringing more Evangelicals into the newsroom not only makes journalistic sense, but business sense. "Evangelicals should make an outcry for diversity," Mattingly says. "I'm not talking about affirmative action, but a call for bringing people with different life experiences into the newsroom." Religious conservatives, he says, "have the information in their heads to see stories, valid journalistic stories, that need to be reported, that others will not see, stories that will help those newspapers to be more balanced, fair and competitive."
But where are the Evangelical reporters? Mattingly, who has been teaching journalism in Evangelical colleges for years, says that there is a relative lack of interest in secular journalism among students who are also religious conservatives.
"Most of them have been raised in homes and in churches where the adults are so mad at newspapers that people don't read them anymore. Many of them are brought up without a respect for the role that journalism is meant to play in our culture," Mattingly says. "If you don't have an appreciation for that, it's hard to know what you can do about it. It's hard to call a newsroom to accuracy and fairness if you basically hate journalism."
When I speak to classes of Evangelical college journalists, I tell them that yes, they will face prejudice in newsrooms. But journalism is not a field for shrinking violets and people afraid to have their feelings hurt. But if you prove your mettle as a writer and reporter, you will win the respect of your peers, and open their minds. In my experience, the bias against religious conservatives in newsrooms is mostly a matter of ignorance, not outright malice.
The only interaction most journalists have with Evangelicals (and conservative Catholics too, for that matter) comes in nasty phone calls, e-mails, or letters denouncing the newspaper's "bigotry" often in terms that reinforce the negative stereotype newsrooms already have of religious conservatives. Rarely do editors and reporters hear from religious conservatives when they've done right by them.
Then again, MSNBC doesn't seem to have learned much from a tsunami of phone calls it received from grateful Evangelicals several years back, when it was the only cable network to air live coverage of the massive Promise Keepers rally in Washington, D.C. Terry Mattingly was hired by MSNBC to do expert on-air analysis, and was present when the producers were told the switchboards were lighting up like Christmas trees with people calling to praise the coverage.
"During one of the breaks, [the host] said, 'Aren't there any people complaining about this? Where are our liberal callers?'" Mattingly remembers. "I leaned over and said to him, 'You've just hit a big new demographic. They're there, if you want them."
They didn't, apparently. Fast forward to the present day. MSNBC is in the ratings toilet. Fox, which is open to conservative voices and opinions, has them on the ropes. Lo, this past week, an unnamed MSNBC producer was quoted saying, "We don't want people who just read the New York Times. We've got plenty of those types. We want people who read and understand National Review, the Drudge Report and Lucianne.com."