- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

The best newspapermen, so the old newsroom gag went, were the Jews, the Southerners and the Irish: the Jews for the opportunity to do good, Southerners for love of language and the Irish for the free booze that press agents and politicians were always stuffing into the bottom drawers of newsroom desks.

Now it's politically incorrect to make jokes like that (or to bribe reporters with booze), but the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington got a gaggle of editors and reporters together the other day to talk about how religion is written about in the media and whether the reporter's religion (or lack of it) leads to bias.

The fascinating discussion was spurred by the release of a study by Robert Lichter at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, another Washington think tank. Contrary to the popular notion that religion gets short-shrift in the media, the new Lichter report finds that coverage of religion has doubled since the 1980s.

One among several reasons offered is that 30 percent of the journalists surveyed say they attend religious services, up from 14 percent two decades ago.

"It's OK to be religious in progressive circles again," says Mr. Lichter. "Now there's more of a sense that this is a normal part of life to explore because it's more a part of journalists' lives."

Maybe. But that may be more speculation than actual fact. Sally Quinn, Washington party-giver and sometime party commentator for The Washington Post, notes that the one subject that remains taboo at Washington dinner-party tables is God. You won't have to drop your eyes in embarrassment because the subject of God never comes up.

I've found that to be mostly true among those who identify themselves as liberal, less so among conservative writers and commentators. Kenneth Woodward, religion editor of Newsweek, suggests that the boomer journalists have discovered religion because they now have adolescent children and need all the help they can get. (A conservative, so one wag says, is a liberal with a daughter in junior high school.)

The researchers of mainline media coverage of religious news looked at a random sample of 2,365 stories in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and the three major network evening newscasts. At least two-thirds of the opinions elicited over sexual morality (abortion, homosexual clergy, divorce) had a decidedly traditional or conservative bent except on the subject of adultery.

Those who think Bill Clinton's scandalous behavior had little practical impact on how the public views morality will be surprised to find that the only liberalizing trend in opinions about sexual morality in the media was over adultery. It's no mystery, perhaps, that New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani continues to ride high in the polls after the revelations of an affair(s).

When the subject of extramarital sex surfaced in public life in the 1970s and 1980s , nearly 90 percent of those interviewed for stories about religion condemned it. But in the 1990s two out of five sources, or 41 percent of those interviewed, voiced toleration if not necessarily approval.

The change, according to the Lichter study, is linked directly to Bill Clinton's promiscuous behavior with Monica Lewinsky. The 31 opinions expressed in relation to White House hanky-panky exceeded the entire sum of judgments on the subject of adultery found in coverage in the preceding 29 years.

Newspapers and newsmagazines quoted many more condemnatory opinions of adultery than television reporters, who found judgments of disapproval and toleration evenly divided. (You can decide for yourself why; judging the skill and attitudes of reporters was not the purpose of the study.)

The journalists at the think tank symposium argued over what kind of skills were required for a good religion reporter. Was a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, or New Age butterfly better qualified than an agnostic or atheist to write about religion?

A good reporter puts bias aside, or tries to, no matter what he's covering. Unfortunately, that's not always the sensibility in newsrooms today. Over the past two decades, as pursuit of "diversity" has become more important than pursuit of the news in many newsrooms, blacks have been hired to cover black issues, women to write about women's issues, gays to write about alternative lifestyles. This kind of segregation, it seems to me, is a little like insisting on assigning a whale to review "Moby Dick."

Walter Lippmann, a journalist of his day, writing in the early and middle 20th century, got it right: "As the free press develops, the paramount point is whether the journalist, like the scientist or scholar, puts truth in the first place or in the second."

Amen.

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