Mark Silk, an eminent scholar of religion, politics, and journalism, takes issue with my Casting Stones post on the how the press is re-arranging its account of Obama’s ascent now that his victory is assured:

Jeff Sharlet is guest-blogging on Beliefnet, and at the end of his most recent post writes:

The new media narrative, in which the Wright controversy will go down as a speed bump on the path to power, is evidence that they believe they have rid the candidate of his demons. But all they really did was banish any serious conversation about relationship between religion and politics – the good, the bad, and the ugly — from the public square.

I find this jejune. The media as such don’t believe anything, and aren’t exactly doing anything.

You can read the rest of Mark’s post at his blog, “Spiritual Politics,” a terrific resource for serious thinking on these matters — except, of course, when Mark disagrees with me!
In such situations, there is no more mature a response than: I know you are, but what am I? Here’s my version:
Under the heading of “jejune,” one will surely find an entry for “we are all in this together, now more than ever.” To which the only appropriate response I can imagine is the punchline to a joke beloved by smart aleck 5th graders, more attuned than most to the nuances of inclusion and exclusion : “What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemosabe?” The point being that we are most certainly not all in this together, a fact I was reminded of recently when killed an interview we’d done about The Family because they deemed the magazines in which I’d originally published my assertions — Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones — not sufficiently credible. (For the record: all threes of these magazines do extensive independent fact checking, unlike much of the establishment press.) Those are my sour grapes, yes, but they grow along a fence dividing two very broad camps of journalists: bomb throwers and hall monitors. Both camps contain all kinds of good and bad, but it’s the second, the hall monitors, who drove the Wright story and who are now busy burying the evidence. They do so without an untoward thought in their happy heads; indeed, they believe, deeply, that the press is a great, self-correcting organism, always, if slowly, moving toward truth. Journalism is a religion, as Jay Rosen has shown us.

When I write of “hall monitors,” I’m speaking of my colleagues, many of them friends, some of them excellent journalists after a fashion, who consider themselves “responsible.” One must ask, “responsible to what?” “Objectivity!” comes the ringing response. Which, I believe (see — journalists DO believe things), is a euphemism for “the center.” And “the center,” I’d argue, with great respect for Mark Silk’s work on the subject, is a euphemism for “establishment.” Establishment is neither left nor right, or, at least, not particularly so. But it is ultimately anti-intellectual, anti-radical, and anti-exclusivist truth claims. That means that responsible journalists, whether they “believe” something or not, tend to steer clear of serious engagement with ideology and religion.
Do I care about this for the sake of my own career? Of course, and no shame in that — I write about ideology and religion. I’m on the side that thinks those things are not only important, but the key to it all. This may place me in the camp I call the bomb throwers, but it hardly makes me a radical. Rather, a conservative: I would like to see a journalism built on the conservative maxim that ideas have consequences. The irony of the establishment press is that it confuses the revelation of scandal for the exploration of ideas. This is not to say anything so jejune as “if it bleeds, it leads.” Rather, that the scandal approach to the news (Wright! Hagee! And yes, the establishment press’ brief flirtation with Coe/Hillary) assumes not only that the center can hold, but that it cannot fail to hold — that the scandal is the exception to the rule.
Remember the great German political theorist Carl Schmitt‘s point about that: Sovereign is he who determines the exception to the rule. So the center, the establishment, is, according to responsible journalism, sovereign. More irony: most working journalists I know quietly assume that scandal is not the exception, but the rule itself. Cynicism, albeit lacking the whiskey chaser seen in old movies, still afflicts much of the press. Schmitt didn’t concern himself with reporters, but I suspect that had he done so he might have recognized their frequent role not as questioners of power but as border guards for power. Speaking outwards, to the world, they cry “scandal” when a Jeremiah Wright says something taboo or a Tom DeLay raids the till. Looking inwards, they pride themselves on their perception that scandal is nothing more than an aggressive form of business-as-usual. This perception isn’t wrong; but it’s limited. I think, for instance, of the reporters who respond to The Family by asking if it’s a conspiracy. When told it’s not, they grow confused. “So what’s the problem?” they ask. No envelopes stuffed with cash? Move along, then, nothing to see here, business-as-usual.
Political radicals left and right and religious folks for whom politics and religion are inseparable are consigned to the margins by such a worldview. So it’s fine for a tenured professor of religion and journalism such as Mark Silk (and a good one; don’t get me wrong) to say “We are all in this together,” but there are those — radicals, religionists, and the reporters who love them — who recognize that they’re simply not. And from the outside looking in, they conclude that the media most certainly does “do” things, that it moves in the rough form of a herd.
I have the privilege of keeping one foot outside, one foot inside. Does the media “do” things? Yes. Is it because we all get together and come up with a consensus story? Of course not. That’s not how ideology works. It’s not a listserv, it’s a culture of ideas masquerading as fact and objectivity, the very definition of the “conventional wisdom” which deems matters of ultimate concern – religion, ideology, philosophy – secondary matters.
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