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Manhattan media melancholia: Get Religion, December 1, 2012 December 1, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The New York Times‘ provincialism was the principal object of my harrumphing in last week’s Issues Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio.  Host Todd Wilkin and I discussed three of my recent GetReligion posts concerning Media Coverage of Adultery, Gays in Pakistan, and same-sex marriage in Spain.

I was not aware that Lutherans had such a keen interest in sex — my stories about Bulgarian bishops behaving badly do not generate the same degree of excitement it seems.

Todd opened the show by teeing one up for me, asking why I described a recent item from the Gray Lady as being a “mid week sermon” rather than a news story. This provided an opportunity for me to be self-righteous, puff out my cheeks and tell “you kids” to “get off my lawn.” I also decried the Times‘ failure of imagination.

The gist of my criticism of the adultery story and Times‘ article detailing the gay sub-culture of Pakistan was that the conceptual universe presented in these stories is circumscribed. A news article on adultery laws is written from the perspective of an anthropologist peeping through the bushes at an exotic tribe. How quaint and colorful these primitive people are.

The same attitude is displayed in the story about Pakistan’s gay subculture. There is only one way to be gay and that is the New York Times‘ way, we learn. Men and women with same-sex orientations or relationships are not gay until they conform to Western standards (or stereotypes).

And, the Times appeared to have forgotten the role religion plays in shaping Pakistani culture. I argued this was a failure of imagination and reporting — a failure of reporting in that no mention of the role of militant Islam in governing sexual mores was mentioned, nor of the changing nature of Islam in Pakistan. The Sufi-dominated past has been replaced by a Saudi-dominated Wahabbist present — Sharia law and all that.

While were going on about sex, Todd rounded out the show with an article I wrote on the coverage of the gay marriage decision handed down by Spain’s constitutional court as reported in Madrid’s El Pais. However, the conversation took a different direction as the host asked me why I was tolerant of El Pais‘ bias in reporting on gay marriage, but cut the Times less slack for the same sins.

My response was that El Pais made no secret of its biases — it is an advocacy newspaper. Its news reports are filtered through its editorial voice. The facts are there (hopefully all of them), but the interpretation or framework upon which these facts are laid is that of the Manhattan booboisie. The Times does not acknowledge its biases and believes it engages in classical American journalism.

Many Times stories do meet this criteria and full, fair, thoughtful stories can be found every day in its pages. But over the past generation the European style of advocacy reporting has crept in — and in issues touching upon the “culture wars”, Times stories more often than not are advocacy, not news stories.The result is a suffocating style of reporting that is unable to move beyond prejudices and conventional pieties.

Why does any of this matter? Am I huffing and puffing about the Times’ new journalism because it is not to my ideological tastes? There may be some truth in this rejoinder — and if the substance of my critique remained at this level then I would concede my criticisms are as shallow as the reporting I scorn.

What I hope to convey in my pieces published at GetReligion is my belief that the journalist as an author has an obligation as a literary artist to chronicle, to create, to order, and thereby serve not merely personal and superficial truths but universal ones. This obligation to the truth is the goal of classical journalism, and its renunciation by the Times in pursuit of advocacy and expediency is what I find to be so very disheartening.

Well, that is what I hoped I said.  Tune in and see.

First printed in GetReligion.

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