Seeking a diversity of views

Today a conservative Republican can watch Fox News, listen to talk radio, read the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, or skim National Review’s website without finding an opinion that seriously challenges his view of society. A liberal Democrat can do the same with MSNBC, CNN, NPR, Air America, the New York Times, and the Daily Kos. This pattern isn’t new. America has always had lots of opinionated journalism. What’s new is that we no longer have a broadly shared moral consensus to ground our politics in a common purpose.

Something journalists often do badly is listen. That seems strange, and it is strange, because listening is an obligation of their profession. But deadlines and the need for brevity can easily lead reporters to take intellectual shortcuts. And on issues or beliefs that the media don’t understand – or don’t like – this can create real problems. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the press’s treatment of religion.

That brings us to my key point about the press. Given the huge role Christian faith has always played, and still plays, in American life, any conversation about important public issues in our country that attempts to exclude religion will be incomplete. Yet it seems that, when it comes to religion, journalists and the people they cover are very different creatures. A 2005 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that 40 percent of Americans attend church services once a week or more – but only 17 percent of press professionals do.

The idea that this deep difference in religious practice doesn’t flavor our press coverage would be too strange to take seriously. In a sense, we are what we believe. Our convictions shape the way we deal with the world. And that includes media professionals. If employees of ABC gave 80 times more financial support to the Obama presidential campaign than they did to John McCain – which is exactly what happened in 2008 – it’s sensible for the rest of us to have some questions about the fairness of the network’s political coverage. In like manner, reporters who see religion as a superstition, or a backward social force, or a personal idiosyncrasy, or a source of division and violence, will never get the story of religious faith right. They don’t have the vocabulary or the experience.