Especially present in the self-flagellation performed by many journalists after November’s election is the refrain that the media just don’t get religion. Thus, they missed the story of the moral voters. They failed to understand the outpouring of support for Terri Schiavo’s parents, and the popularity of Mel Gibson’s all-Aramaic feature. But Washington & Lee University journalism ethics professor Edward Wasserman tells Brooke that what’s lacking in journalism isn’t piety, it’s quality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We've heard it quite a bit lately - we heard it last year, when The Passion of the Christ was number one at the box office. We heard it again after the election of President Bush. And then we heard it yet again, just last week on CNN.
PEGGY WEHMEYER (TAPE): I think people often miss the spirit of the people they're covering; they miss the key - the most important things about religion, and instead they look at religion through the scope of politics, power - the kinds of things the media cares about - and that's not usually what most of the people of faith are thinking about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was former ABC correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer, speaking on the program Reliable Sources, telling us that journalists just don't get religion. But what does that even mean? Ed Wasserman asked that question last week in his column in the Miami Herald, and he joins me now - Ed, welcome to On the Media.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: Hi, Brooke. Pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you seem to be rebelling against the idea that we in the media are religion-challenged. What prompted you to write that column?
EDWARD WASSERMAN: Well, I heard that program, and I was sort of puzzling as to exactly what the criticism was that we were supposed to be paying attention to. It seems to me there are good reasons to reproach the press for its coverage of religion, and there are some bad reasons. I mean we've just come through an election cycle where, by common agreement, the religious vote had real impact. And it's certainly reasonable to ask such questions as how important was the evangelical vote, how important were the neocons in blunting the traditional affiliation of Jewish voters with the Democratic Party - these seem to be very important questions the good political reporters ought to be asking. The problem is that the kind of coverage that the media are being reproached for not providing is not critical, skeptical coverage. It's the lack of sympathetic coverage that the people who are congregants would like to see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you've suggested that people who make this complaint ought to be careful what they wish for.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: Well, exactly right. I mean when you look at what the components are of news, it's not normally the things that people being covered are welcoming. There's another component to this I want to call your attention to, Brooke. This has to do with whether this, then, becomes another front in the war in favor of diversity in newsrooms, and has it become appropriate to ask - do we have enough of the faithful in our newsrooms - and I think that we have to sort of take that out and examine that a little more closely. Do you want science writers who are creationists? In the interest of diversity, do you want science writers who believe that fossil evidence is basically bunk? Do you want people covering the AIDS epidemic who believe that AIDS was an affliction of an angry god - punishment for moral turpitude? Now, these are real questions, and the people that you're talking about diversifying your newsroom with are people who embrace those beliefs, just as the-yeah- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes-I want to take exception to one thing you said there. You said "These are real questions." I actually think they're pretty phony questions. We're talking about people who go to church every week and believe in God. They aren't necessarily fundamentalists. It seems you are drawing no distinction between somebody who is merely faithful and somebody who has bought a literal interpretation of the bible.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: You know, Brooke, you're right, and to some degree it's a cheap shot. But think about it this way - if you're going to work in a newsroom, there's a kind of bottom line belief. You have to submit to the supremacy of empirical fact. And you have to be prepared to set your beliefs aside and to gather information to try to tell the truth based on what you can gather and what you can infer to be true. And I think that there is a different principle at stake when you're talking about religious truth, when you talk about revealed truth. And that is the bedrock conflict between the two world views that I think we see exemplified in some of the debate that we're hearing now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that the complaints have generally come from religious extremists who feel that they don't have a large enough voice in the culture. Why, then, do you think journalists have been beating themselves up over this question?
EDWARD WASSERMAN: What I'm saying is I do not disagree with the criticism that the media have not picked up on the degree to which religious motivations and religious groupings are being assimilated into political movements. I strongly agree with that. That's a separate kind of critique from the one that holds the media responsible for this kind of creeping secularization, from this denial of the role of values as wellsprings in public life, and from these other things that are basically proxies, that are basically ways to force the media into covering more sympathetically the events that the religious people want, want covered. So, I think there are two different issues involved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You think the journalists really don't need to be defensive about this issue.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: I think journalists need to be respectful of religion, and I think that they need to be willing to actually sit down and find out what's happening within churches without fear of offending the people there. If there's distance between journalists and churches, it takes the form not of hostility or indifference, but of excessive deference. So there's an absence of the kind of skepticism that would come if they felt a little bit more familiar and a little bit more surefooted when it came to questioning church leaders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Ed, thank you very much.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: My great pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ed Wasserman is the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, and a columnist for the Miami Herald.
BOB GARFIELD: NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin wrote this week about the reaction to our network's coverage of the pope. He said that listener Bruce Bradbury expressed a view held by many. Quote, "In your understandable attempt to show respect to beliefs that many of us may not share, I believe you are tending to lose both your objectivity and your vital mission to intellectually question any belief systems. While I don't wish to see important leaders or their followers kicked while they are permanently down, I hope that NPR will refrain from patronizing their views quite so generously."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, an ideological tug of war at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and a new do it yourself cable TV network.