Is Coverage of Liberal Religion a Media Fail?

Anyone following the fortunes and controversies around the hottest new media start-ups last week saw criticisms that these ventures, led by white men, have failed to hire a diverse staff of reporters and editors. Much of the criticism was pointed at shortcomings and even abject cluelessness about hiring women and people of color. But one hire—Vox’s writing fellow Brandon Ambrosino—sparked a side conversation about newsroom religious diversity, and the media’s coverage of religion.

First, here’s the history, in brief. At the Guardian on Wednesday, Emily Bell took aim at the new journalism projects launched, respectively, by Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight), Ezra Klein (Vox), and Glenn Greenwald (First Look):

To be sure, the internet has presented journalists with an extraordinary opportunity to remake their own profession. And the rhetoric of the new wave of creativity in journalism is spattered with words that denote transformation. But the new micro-institutions of journalism already bear the hallmarks of the restrictive heritage they abandoned with such glee. . . . 

Remaking journalism in its own image, only with better hair and tighter clothes, is not a revolution, or even an evolution. It is a repackaging of the status quo with a very nice clubhouse attached. A revolution calls for a regime change of more significant depth.

Slate’s Amanda Hess added that when one also takes into account tech hires, “these online platforms represent the merging of journalism (which is a traditionally white and male-dominated field) with technology (which is even more so!). If anything, their marriage should only produce more powerful white men.” 

BuzzFeed’s Deputy Editor-in-Chief Shani O. Hilton, who has worked at making BuzzFeed’s newsroom more diverse, noted that how this takes far more effort than a few hires here and a few hires there:

In fact, “diversity” doesn’t stop at hiring one person who represents each so-called different viewpoint, be it race or gender or sexual orientation or political leaning. Any newsroom in which the black staffer is expected to speak up for blackness while the white staffers only have to speak for themselves is a newsroom that’s failing.

Back to Ambrosino, a gay man who studied at and fondly remembers Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and became, for a news cycle or so, a symbol of all that had gone wrong. Once Media Matters posted an unrelenting criticism of his past writing, the hire set off a firestorm of criticism because Ambrosino is, in the words of The American Prospect’s Gabriel Arana, “the gay writer who comes to the defense of gay-rights antagonists.” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern characterized “a typical Ambrosino article” as one that “takes a self-consciously contrarian thesis (Jerry Falwell was a gay-friendly saintgay-rights activists are bigots) and immerses it in a muddle of casuistry, victimization, and unintelligible nonsense.” 

On Facebook, Vox’s founder Ezra Klein defended the hire on the question of whether he had read Ambrosino’s published work and considered his application worthy, though not on the diversity question. (He did note that Ambrosino wasn’t hired to cover LGBT issues.)

But Ambrosino’s religious identity has sparked another conversation, beyond the question of whether these start-ups are averting the old media fail of a mostly white male newsroom. On Twitter, Hilton’s colleague, BuzzFeed reporter McKay Coppins asked, “Interested in hearing where folks think religion fits into the newsroom diversity debate. Should religious diversity be a goal? Why/why not?” (As you might imagine, Twitter didn’t settle on an answer.)

On the religion question, Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly noted that, according to Arana, Klein “found Ambrosino’s background as a gay Christian compelling and is trying to cultivate ‘ideological diversity’ as well as gender and racial diversity at Vox.” Kilgore shot back:

It kind of makes me crazy when someone appears to assume that only Christian conservatives are authentic religious voices, and that finding a gay conservative evangelical Christian strikes some sort of “balance.” It’s the same mindset that seems to have led the President of the United States to conduct his “religious outreach” mostly among conservative evangelicals who are minority folk or who have some other reasons for playing nice with Democrats. Obama really ought to know better, and so should Ezra: there are these people called mainline or liberal Christians around, too, and if you are trying to give Christians a voice in progressive venues, you might want to start with them instead of always looking for an unconventional conservative.

Let me just state the obvious here: I have no idea what really went into Vox’s decision, and whether the people doing the hiring really thought it would be super neat to have a gay Christian as a writer. Because we all know—right?—that there are a lot of gay Christian writers who don’t fondly remember Jerry Falwell. (Also Christian does not necessariily mean evangelical. You know that. You read RD.) To be truly diverse, does a newsroom need a variety of religions, and a variety of views within those religions? Seems like an impossible, fraught task. How would you determine which religions had historically been excluded, as is more clearly the case with gender and race? How could you possibly define optimal religious diversity, and what would that look like, and how could you do it without getting sued?

In response to Coppins’ prompting on Twitter, several journalists, including the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein, pushed back against the oft-repeated perception that most reporters aren’t religious. Cathy Lynn Grossman, formerly at USA Today and now at Religion News Service, tweeted, “I’ve only worked in secular media where the newsrooms were full of believers.” There’s a difference, obviously, between being religious and being capable of writing intelligently about religion; it’s the latter that is most critical in a religion reporter, not the former.

But I saw complaints in the Twitter chat that mainstream media treat their religious subjects with contempt. I asked one person for examples. He cited the New York Times’ excellent Laurie Goodstein. If that’s an example of “contempt” I hope this person never watches Bill Maher. But undercutting even reporters who profess to be religious appears to be a conservative pastime.

Conservatives complain about mainstream coverage of their religion, but one thing you never hear, or don’t hear very much, is liberal religious people complaining about coverage—or lack thereof—of their activities.

Which leads me back to Kilgore’s lament: does the media ignore liberal Christians (or liberal religious people in general)? Does it have—to borrow from the conservative grievance—contempt for them? Although not ignored, there has been some discontent, for example, that the Moral Mondays movement, which is religious and progressive, has received insufficient media coverage given its endurance and growth. 

Just as an experiment, I looked this morning at whether anything newsworthy had taken place over the past week in the world of liberal American religion. An interfaith group called Faiths United To Prevent Gun Violence held a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath this weekend, in conjunction with the National Cathedral (hardly an obscure institution) and 1,000 houses of worship around the country.

If there is any issue that should compel people (religious or not) to action, the daily, senseless deaths of Americans to gun violence should certainly be one. But despite the urgency of the guns amok issue, it seems the gun sabbath barely drew any media coverage at all. I put “Faiths United To Prevent Gun Violence” and “Gun Sabbath Prevention Sabbath” into Google News; even though the event took place just this past weekend, my search yielded just 36 results, mostly in local news outlets.

This one example obviously doesn’t prove any broader argument about media coverage of religion. Coverage isn’t just driven by orientation or ideology, but often by resources, editorial judgments, space considerations, and whether a story makes compelling copy. Seven faith traditions participated in that gun sabbath. Would more religiously diverse newsrooms have altered the (non-)coverage?