Rod Dreher

At Commonweal’s blog, former Newsweek religion writer Kenneth Woodward let’s the Times have it, comparing the newspaper to a religion. Excerpt:

Again like the Church of Rome, the Times exercises a powerful magisterium or teaching authority through its editorial board. There is no issue, local or global, on which these (usually anonymous) writers do not pronounce with a papal-like editorial “we.” Like the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the editorial board is there to defend received truth as well as advance the paper’s political, social, and cultural agendas. One can no more imagine a Times editorial opposing any form of abortion–to take just one of that magisterium’s articles of faith–than imagine a papal encyclical in favor.
The Times, of course, does not claim to speak infallibly in its judgments on current events. (Neither does the pope.) But to the truly orthodox believers in the Times, its editorials carry the burden of liberal holy writ. As the paper’s first and most acute public editor, Daniel Okrent, once put it, the editorial page is “so thoroughly saturated in liberal theology that when it occasionally strays from that point of view the shocked yelps from the left overwhelm even the ceaseless rumble of disapproval from the right.” Okrent’s now famous column was published in 2004 under the headline “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” and I will cite Okrent more than once because he, too, reached repeatedly for religious metaphors to describe the ambient culture of the paper.
The Times also has its evangelists. They appear daily as the paper’s columnists. Like the church, the Times historically has promoted its evangelists from within the same institutional culture. This assures a uniformity of assumptions only the Vatican and Fox News can trump. Even when the editors reach outside the corporate fold, as they must for columnists of even mildly conservative persuasion, they do not look for adamantine conservatives like George Will to match the heavy-breathing liberalism of Frank Rich and Paul Krugman. Culturally, conservatives David Brooks and once-a-week columnist Ross Douthat inhabit the same world as their liberal colleagues, though it must be said that Brooks and Douthat are the only Times columnists I can recall who welcome an expansive role for religion in public life.
At the Times, the public editor’s job is to examine the paper’s news stories for evidence of biased reporting and unwarranted narrative assumptions. (Would that Rome had ombudsmen–and ombudswomen–to represent voices not heard at the Vatican.) On this point, Okrent’s essay was forthright: it is one thing to provide a “congenial home” for like-minded readers, he observed, “and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear.” On social issues like “gay rights, gun control, abortion, and environmental regulation, among others,” Okrent wrote, “…if you think the Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.” And there was this: “If you are among the groups the Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.”

Read the whole thing. This one’s going to be passed around a lot in the next day or so.
UPDATE: I posted this last night before bed without comment, because I wanted to put it out there as soon as I saw it, knowing it would stir a lot of comment. Let me add a word or two of my own. First, you really can’t dismiss this, as some of you are doing, as the partisan ranting of a right-wing Catholic. For one thing, it appears on the blog of Commonweal, the intellectually serious liberal Catholic magazine; for another, Woodward, now retired, was Newsweek’s longtime religion correspondent, and therefore one of the nation’s top journalists. Plus, he’s a New Yorker. He’s read the Times for many years, and because he’s a journalist, he analyzes the Times with a professional’s eye.
That doesn’t make him correct, of course, but it does mean that one should take his criticism seriously. Now, I think he’s off the mark when he talks about the Times being used by the church-suing lawyer, Jeff Anderson. Plainly Anderson is using the Times to air information he wants out there. No argument with that. But this is not news; much information that’s both true and important comes to reporters from sources that have a personal stake in that info becoming public. The relevant question is not really the motivations of the leaker, but whether or not the information is true.
That said, as someone who has both lived in NYC and who has subscribed to the Times for 15 years, most of what Woodward writes here strikes me as accurate. The Times is a great newspaper, but like any great and influential cultural institution, it has its ways, and its faults. And as a professional journalist, I can say without fear of contradiction that no journalistic entity in the US is nearly as influential as the Times in setting the agenda for the rest of the American news media. If you really don’t see the Times’ bias to the left, you should think hard about the degree to which your own worldview is not as normative as you think. [Similarly, if you’re on the right and you think Fox News really is “fair and balanced,” you should think again.] I’ve written before about an analysis undertaken a decade or so ago by two Baruch College poli sci professors, who tried to figure out why the main institutions of the US media identified the rise of the religious right’s influence on the GOP, but completely missed the parallel rise of the secular left’s influence on the Democratic Party. Their conclusion? Because US newsrooms are heavily populated with liberals, those liberals simply didn’t see the story among the Democrats, because they saw the secular liberal worldview as normative. Outsiders to any social group can see things insiders cannot. This is a big reason many media professionals insist on the importance of diversity in newsrooms: because you have to have different sets of eyes looking at the world, eyes that can see things other sets of eyes can’t. But I can tell you from experience, that interest in diversity does not extend to religious or political diversity, hence newsrooms populated with men, women, gays, straights, people of all colors and ethnicities — but relatively few conservatives, religious or otherwise. That makes a big difference in how the news is covered — especially in a journalistic institution as influential as the Times.
A friend and neighbor of mine here in Philly (a Catholic academic, btw), e-mails the following to me this morning. I’ve taken out a couple of references that would identify our neighborhood:

Thanks for posting to the Ken Woodward piece on the NYT. I love it! I feel the psychic relief of hearing someone else say what I’ve been feeling. Others have said similar things, of course, but Woodward does it straighter.
The [Woodward] piece also coheres with the theme of epistemological closure that you’ve been exploring lately. One could go on and on about the NYT’s epistemological effects, not only in the area of religion. I think, for example, of how scholars of the presidency suggest that contemporary Americans have a more direct relationship with the president in Washington, thanks to television, than they do with their own representatives and Senators, and how this was not so in the pre-broadcasting era. The same is true of Catholics relating more to the Pope than their local bishop. I offer these examples to wonder whether, in an analogous way, by capturing the attention of elites around the country, the NYT helps to flatten the world (in a Thomas Friedman sense). Of course not everyone who reads the Times is guilty of that, and of course there are other forces exacerbating and ameliorating the trend besides the TImes, but newspaper time over breakfast is finite, and if you only have this one newspaper, it’s easier to learn about artisans in Brooklyn than in Fishtown. You’re more likely to know about good hotels in Tuscany than the project to reclaim meadows in the Wissahickon. Brunching [people in our neighborhood] who read more about corruption in Albany than on Broad Street. And this pattern is repeated in city after city around the country. I think you have run some blog pieces (or maybe it was on F.P.R.) about rural brain drain, and how rural places have a hard time keeping their character if the most talented leave for the city. But as we lament the Inquirer more or less officially passing into the hands of non-local financiers, I think it’s worth saying that the NYT’s hegemony has epistemological consequences for more than just religion.

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