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Journalism: What It Is, and What It Was

"“A new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else." –Barri Weiss

Terry Mattingly reflects on the mission of his soon-to-be-shuttered webpage "Get Religion"

Doug LeBlanc clicked “publish” on the original GetReligion website on February 2, 2004, and the GetReligion team has published at least one piece of new content every single day ever since.

That streak will end in just over a month, on our 20th anniversary. The website will close, although some of our features will live on — to one degree or another — on other websites. We will share more details before we close, so hold that thought.

The plan is to keep online as a massive archive of Godbeat life over a stunningly complex 20 years in the news business, as the realities of the digital age have rocked the landscape of hard-news journalism. The goal is to find a reference-materials home with an academic institution that values the study of religion, mass culture and the First Amendment.

We want to keep this archive online as a way of stressing the three goals that led to the creation of in the first place. We have tried to:

(1) Promote religion-news reporting in the mainstream press, arguing that journalists on this beat deserve the respect given to those covering other complex topics in the public square. If newsroom managers want to improve religion-beat coverage, they can use ordinary journalism logic — hiring experienced (maybe even award-winning) religion-beat reporters and then letting them do their work.

(2) Note that far too many journalists (especially those at political desks) tend to miss obvious religion angles in important stories, often mangling basic facts and history in the process. The result is news coverage “haunted” by what we call “religion ghosts.” Why does this happen? As the liberal journalism icon Bill Moyers once told me, many journalists are "tone deaf" to the music of faith in public life.

(3) Defend the traditional “American Model of the Press,” with its emphasis on professional standards that stress accuracy, fairness and even balance. Many journalists seem to believe that these old-school standards do not apply to coverage of hot-button subjects linked to religion, morality and culture. After all, politics is real. Religion? Not so much.

Why close GetReligion now? I will admit that I have, in recent years, struggling to accept the many ways in which the digital age has changed the business model for the mainstream press. What we have here is a classic example of the mass-media doctrine that “technology shapes content.”

Many researchers predicted that the Internet would make journalists more “liberal,” whatever that label means in this postmodern age. It has become more and more obvious to me that the old-school “liberal” values of the American Model of the Press have evolved into something else, a niche-based advocacy journalism that is increasingly “illiberal” when handling complex, divisive subjects (like religion).

Yes, I wrote about that in my recent essay at the journal Religion & Liberty: “The Evolving Religion of Journalism.” Then, many of the themes that dominated my piece appeared in that massive essay — “When the New York Times lost its way” — written by journalist James Bennet for The Economist. That byline is especially symbolic since Bennet led the Gray Lady’s editorial pages during the 2020 newsroom meltdown ignited by the publication of Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed in which he backed the use of troops to stop violent riots (as opposed to legal protests) after the death of George Floyd.

Bennet thought his job was secure, since he was defending liberal values he learned during his New York Times career. But he was wrong, he said, because “I was the one ignorantly fighting a battle that was already lost. The old liberal embrace of inclusive debate that reflected the country’s breadth of views had given way to a new intolerance for the opinions of roughly half of American voters.”

The bottom line? He added this killer thesis: “The reality is that the Times is becoming the publication through which America’s progressive elite talks to itself about an America that does not really exist.”

Faithful readers of GetReligion will see obvious ties to this website’s work over the past two decades. The role of religious faith in American life (and the First Amendment) is part of that equation. Many of America’s most influential journalists simply do not “get” religion.

What has been lost in this move away from the American Model of the Press? Bennet noted:

…. There was a compensating moral and psychological privilege that came with aspiring to journalistic neutrality and open-mindedness, despised as they might understandably be by partisans. Unlike the duelling politicians and advocates of all kinds, unlike the corporate chieftains and their critics, unlike even the sainted non-profit workers, you did not have to pretend things were simpler than they actually were. You did not have to go along with everything that any tribe said. You did not have to pretend that the good guys, much as you might have respected them, were right about everything, or that the bad guys, much as you might have disdained them, never had a point. You did not, in other words, ever have to lie.This fundamental honesty was vital for readers, because it equipped them to make better, more informed judgments about the world.

There were plenty of dramatic twists and turns during the newsroom combat caused by the Cotton op-ed, which eventually led to Bennet’s forced resignation. Readers who want his take on that drama can find lots of details — with many direct quotes from memos, emails and conversations — in the pages of The Economist.

But here is one stunning passage that has appeared in many reports about the Bennet piece:

The bias had become so pervasive, even in the senior editing ranks of the newsroom, as to be unconscious. Trying to be helpful, one of the top newsroom editors urged me to start attaching trigger warnings to pieces by conservatives. It had not occurred to him how this would stigmatise certain colleagues, or what it would say to the world about the Times’s own bias. By their nature, information bubbles are powerfully self-reinforcing, and I think many Times staff have little idea how closed their world has become. … And sometimes the bias was explicit: one newsroom editor told me that, because I was publishing more conservatives, he felt he needed to push his own department further to the left.

The drama at The New York Times was part of a larger earthquake in journalism, as a whole — with revenue from advertising shrinking year after year. Eventually, news executives realized that survival would require more and more dollars from loyal readers.

Thus, Bennet noted:

As the country became more polarised, the national media followed the money by serving partisan audiences the versions of reality they preferred. This relationship proved self-reinforcing. As Americans became freer to choose among alternative versions of reality, their polarisation intensified. …As the number of subscribers ballooned, the marketing department tracked their expectations, and came to a nuanced conclusion. More than 95% of Times subscribers described themselves as Democrats or independents, and a vast majority of them believed the Times was also liberal. A similar majority applauded that bias; it had become “a selling point”, reported one internal marketing memo. Yet at the same time, the marketers concluded, subscribers wanted to believe that the Times was independent.

Let’s wrap this up, with one or two quotes from my earlier Religion & Liberty piece. I think it’s easy to see some of the shared DNA with the new Bennet opus, with its emphasis on how evolving technology and a logical change in the business model at the New York Times (and, obviously, other newsrooms) began to affect the content of the news.

Thus, I wrote this near the end of my piece:

When media-reporter Ben Smith arrived at the New York Times, he immediately grasped that he had signed on with an institution that was experiencing a revolution. … [C]hange was on the way, with internet realities forcing Times managers to veer into a business model in which selling consumers content, in a variety of forms, was the key to survival and then explosive growth. Questions about the old divide between advertising and editorial content, which journalists have long called the separation of church and state, were replaced by questions about the importance of pleasing faithful readers — a loud, fervent online flock. Smith said a former Times executive stressed that this particular newspaper is “a business wrapped around a church.”

This journalism church has embraced new doctrines, with faithful readers demanding that editors, to use a Bible Belt expression, “preach to the choir.” In this new era, it isn’t wise — financially — for newsroom managers to listen to the media-bias complaints of their critics. What matters is that their readers are happy and, thus, keep writing checks.

So let’s end here, for now:

… In the brave new world of digital journalism, news organizations will need to be honest about the impact of their readers on the news product. … This was the reality that former Times editorial-page editor Bari Weiss addressed in her much-discussed resignation letter in 2020. …“A new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else,” wrote Weiss, whose old-school First Amendment liberalism became heresy in the newsroom. “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.”

That statement was written, of course, before Twitter fell into apostasy and became Elon Musk’s X, forcing many of the platform’s progressive users to flee to more comfortable online bunkers.

The journalism times have changed and, thus, it is time for the GetReligion team to call it a day. Why keep trying to defend old-liberal journalism standards on the religion beat? Many members of the GetReligion team through the years would answer that question in different ways. However, the reality in today’s America is that many, many readers have simply moved on.


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