As Long As They Spell Our Names RightFR. RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS
Why is religion so little and so poorly reported in the media, or is it?
It is an understandable attitude for movie stars and comics, and politicians spend millions to increase “name recognition.” Even authors and editors have been known to troll the blogosphere, counting how often they are mentioned. Some magazines — not this one, of course — frantically hustle to generate “buzz,” meaning publicity.
While some enterprises cannot succeed without publicity, attitudes toward personal publicity vary. I believe it was Gloria Vanderbilt, a Miss Manners of an earlier time, who said that one should so live one’s life as though whatever one does or says might be on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times. Being on the front page of the paper was deemed a very undesirable thing. An earlier generation believed that the only time upright people — later to be denigrated as uptight people — wanted their names in the paper is when they were born, married, and died. That seems like a long time ago. Think of Greta Garbo’s “I vant to be alone.” Still, today there are no doubt many like J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, who have a passion for privacy.
In addition to comedians and politicians — the latter often inadvertently playing the part of the former — others have no choice but to be in the spell-my-name-right camp. Corporations need to sell their products and usually do so by paying for it in the form of advertising. Other institutions of a maddening variety, from universities to YMCAs, bid for attention and support by publicizing events that they hope the media will judge newsworthy. There is hardly an institution of consequence without a public relations department. I read somewhere that every day, just in America, 37 million press releases are submitted to the mercies of the media in the hope of being noticed. Since I am among the 47.2 percent of Americans who believe that 58.6 percent of statistics are wrong, I’m not vouching for the figure, but it seems plausible enough.
This reflection is in the service of thinking about religion and the news. Why is religion so little and so poorly reported in the media, or is it? These and related questions are hotly debated in circles such as the Religion Newswriters Association. (Note that its members insist that they are religion reporters, not religious reporters. Some of them are not very religious.) But the questions are also of concern to church leaders of all varieties.
Unhappiness with their media coverage is no doubt shared by leaders in business, education, philanthropy, and science. Not to mention lawyers. Even those who avidly seek publicity routinely complain about the publicity they get. We might like to think that churches and church leaders do not, or at least should not, seek publicity. And yet the Church undeniably has the mission of communicating what she believes to be the truth: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” her Master said (Matt. 28:19). From the beginning, she has been trying to do that — through oral proclamation, letters, folio manuscripts, educational institutions, radio, television, and the blogosphere. In 1975, Pope Paul VI said, “The Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means of communication that human skill is daily rendering more perfect.” I don’t know about the “rendering more perfect” part, but the point is beyond dispute.
It is also beyond dispute that the relationship between religion and the media is troubled, and always will be. Writing in Theology Today, Jason Byassee, an editor at Christian Century, touches on some of the reasons why this is so. His article is “Why Religious Journalism Is ‘Boring.’” (Note the religious/religion distinction above.) He cites a 1993 article by Peter Steinfels that claimed there are basically six religion stories that appear in the mainstream media:
Steinfels wrote: “Sometimes I think that computer programs could be devised, leaving all the necessary blank spaces. Reporters could simply insert the names of the denomination or clergy, and the specific issue, supply quotes from critics, and fill in splashes of color.” And here I thought that is how it’s done. But then I am one of the people who still read the Times. (I quickly add that the formula was not characteristic of the writing of Peter Steinfels when he was reporting for the paper.)
The fact is, writes Byassee, that religion is slow, while the news is supposed to be fast. “The slow, patient work of faith is crucial to unlearning the excitement of the front page and being drawn into the plodding, patient life of God.” I had never thought of the life of God as plodding, and the front page of the Times is only intermittently exciting, but I take his point. Religion reporters need to slow down and listen to God, says Byassee. “Some time spent in front of the reserved Sacrament would serve every religion writer well. After it, we might be able to notice a detail we would have missed, something gentle and elegant that deserves praise in our writing.” One cannot argue with that, although I wonder what his colleagues at Christian Century, the leading voice of liberal Protestantism, think about Mr. Byassee’s ducking out of the office for eucharistic adoration at the Catholic church around the corner.
And I certainly would not want to argue with his concluding reflection on reporting religion: “My hope is that specifically Christian resources can help us not only to be fair but to pay the sort of attention that closely resembles prayer — to do journalism with a minister’s sense of vocation for the upbuilding of the body of Christ. If you can’t join me in this sort of ‘boring’ work, I at least implore you to see that it can be of value both to the church and the world.”
Of course, Byassee is a Christian. Many religion journalists are not, or believe that journalistic “objectivity” requires their not indicating they are. Quite apart from the beliefs, intentions, or integrity of individual journalists, there are some built-in tensions between the Church and the media. Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote in America some years ago about “points of contrast” between the nature of the Church and the nature of the news media. As one would expect from Cardinal Dulles, he neatly enumerates such points of contrast and comes up with seven of them, including these:
Well, you get the idea. Dulles recognizes that church leaders are also at fault for the troubled relationship with the media. But he resists the proposal that the tensions can be overcome by developing better communication skills. Recalling Marshall McLuhan’s maxim about the medium being the message, Dulles writes: “Christ, it is often said, was the perfect communicator. In him, as nowhere else, the medium and the message did coincide. He literally was the Gospel that he proclaimed.” Not only was he misunderstood, he ended up on the cross, leaving his disciples with the caution, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).
Cardinal Dulles wrote his article several years before the sex abuse scandal broke in Boston in January 2002. The subsequent crisis, now reaching firestorm dimensions in Southern California and the Northwest, will be an understandable focus of media attention for a long time to come. The Church has made “payouts” — to be distinguished, albeit with difficulty, from payoffs — exceeding $2 billion. The $660 million paid by Los Angeles to settle civil cases still leaves Roger Cardinal Mahony and the archdiocese facing a multitude of criminal trials. So it is not only the “exalted claims” of the Catholic Church that makes it a tempting target.
Nor, one might argue, should reporters resist the temptation. Yes, a lot of innocent people and the Church itself have been unfairly smeared by the sex abuse publicity. And yes, the media have not been comparably exercised about sex abuse in other institutions, such as the public schools. But in media campaigns, as in wars, collateral damage is inevitable, and the public schools do not make the same “exalted claims,” or at least few take them seriously if they do. The reality is that, were it not for the publicity, many bishops would still be shuttling abusing priests from parish to parish, and the sexually deviant would still be given a pass, as was once the case in the wink-and-nudge culture of many seminaries and presbyterates.
This magazine has not been reticent in criticizing the media, as well as the frequently panicked, inept, unjust, and self-serving reactions of the bishops to unwelcome publicity. But the case can be made that, despite all, the Church has been strengthened and purified by the exposure of these wrongs. The same might be said of evangelicalism as a consequence of the scandals associated with prominent figures such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Ted Haggard. No doubt some reporters are hostile to religion in general, and to Christianity in its evangelical and Catholic forms in particular. Their hostility notwithstanding, those who care about the Christian cause may, at least in some instances, owe them a debt of gratitude.
These instances are related only to the first of the six stereotypical story lines cited by Peter Steinfels. Other dynamics help explain the generally superficial and, as Jason Byassee would have it, “boring” character of religion reporting. Cardinal Dulles notes some of them. In addition, most reporters are rushing to meet a deadline. They don’t have time for nuance, distinctions, and real research, especially nuance, distinctions, and research that might complicate or confuse what is quite aptly called the story line. Nor should it be forgotten that, while some reporters are marvelously intelligent, journalism schools are near the bottom in ratings of intellectual distinction.
No End in Sight
The relationship between religion and the media will continue to be troubled until Our Lord returns in glory, which, we may be sure, will not be announced at a press conference. With respect to the media, church leaders should be neither naïve nor contemptuous. In an interview some years after his arrival in New York in 1984, John Cardinal O’Connor expressed his regret over what he came to view as his naïveté in thinking he could recruit the media of “the capital of the world” in communicating the teachings of the Church. A great deal of attention was paid John Cardinal O’Connor, he said, and almost none to the teachings of the Church. He discovered that the media are not for recruiting.
I believe he greatly underestimated his effectiveness. While the media cannot be recruited, they can be constructively engaged, and he was masterful in that engagement, especially in the service of “the gospel of life,” advocating the cause of the unborn, the abandoned, and the marginal. One notes, with respect, that his successor, Edward Cardinal Egan, takes a very different tack. He is famously wary of the media. His public nonpresence has led some to suggest that New York is sede vacante, which of course is not the case. It is said that he does not need to work so hard at not being Cardinal O’Connor, but he is my bishop and I would prefer to believe that he knows what he is doing.Somewhere between naïveté and contempt with respect to the media is the realism, not untouched by both resignation and challenge, of Cardinal Dulles’ concluding observation: “The Church must relate to the public media as best it can, in the full awareness that tensions and oppositions will persist as long as human history lasts.” And after that, all deadlines met and all story spinning stopped, we will not have to worry even about the spelling of our names, their having been indelibly written, please God, in the Book of Life.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. "As Long As They Spell Our Names Right." First Things (The Public Square) 177 (November 2007): 65-68.
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