Winter 2006, Vol. 8, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2006

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Blogging on the Religion Beat

Libert, Equalit, Islam

Religion and the Supremes

Intelligent Design On Trial

Special Supplement
A Symposium

After Katrina

Winning Hearts and Minds in Kashmir

No Peace for the Church

Tokyo's Dr. Phil

Letters to the Editor


From the Editor: 
Blogging the Religion Beat       

by Mark Silk

If blogs are the designer drugs of today's media mart, I surmise that religion junkies are just as hooked as their political counterparts. Certainly there is no shortage of religion blogs, glory be to them, words without end, amen.

But unlike the political blogs, they are not for the most part focused on the news of the day. Journalism looms smaller in the spiritual world than in the political - the Good News is not exactly news, after all - and religion is a highly differentiated product, whose devotees tend to confine themselves to one brand or another. So it's hardly surprising that blogs devoted to tracking the full spectrum of religion news are few and far between.

Those devoted to assessing the quality of the coverage are even fewer.

In fact, the only full-service religion coverage blog I know of is GetReligion, which is run by Terry Mattingly and a shifting cast of supporting players that these days feature a couple of young Washington journalists. Mattingly is a former daily religion reporter who writes the weekly On Religion column for Scripps Howard and fetches up regularly at some evangelical institution of higher learning to teach journalism. He's a cranky guy who knows his trade.

GetReligion's stated premise is that (in a phrase of CNN political analyst Bill Schneider's bannered across the top of its homepage) "the press...just doesn't get religion." In fact, you come away from the blog with the sense that, especially in the matter of beat reporting, the press gets religion pretty well, thank you.

Mattingly and company cast a wide net for stories and, in contrast to your typical academic commentator on religion news coverage, they round up more than the usual East Coast media suspects. Conservative Christians that they are, the GetReligionists take it as a given that the news media should treat all religions equally and honorably. What they can be convicted of is a kind of ecumenical apologetics for orthodoxy wherever they find it and a determined crusade against what they see as default media secularism.

For those interested in a heretical counterweight to GetReligion, there's The Revealer, which was created three years ago via a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts establishing a Center for Religion and Media at New York University. The Revealer was the brainchild of then journalism department chair Jay Rosen, an inveterate press blogger who thought that religion coverage needed a blog of its own.

For a while, Jeff Sharlet, who was hired for the job, made a good faith effort to meet the need. Through 2004, he was blogging away on a daily basis in the spirit of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, a book he co-authored with Peter Manseau in 2003. Dedicated to the proposition that religion is wilder and wackier, as well as more important and harder to fathom than most journalists realize, The Revealer sprayed its darts in all directions, conventional only in its conviction that religion does not get its due in the mainstream media.

Imagining that a media blog couldn't be too snarky for its own good, Sharlet evidently got under the skin of the good folks at Pew, who in renewing the grant last year specified that The Revealer not be included. NYU has kept the thing going by creating a joint position for Sharlet in journalism and religious studies, but his personal preference for long-form journalism and out-of-the-way religion stories has led him to abandon the daily grind. The Revealer's diurnal blog is now an annotated religion news digest compiled by an associate, while the rest of the website consists of occasional essays and sermonettes on some aspect of religion and media by Sharlet and various unpaid contributors.

GetReligion may be the one full-timer, but that's not to say that religion news coverage doesn't come in for a certain amount of part-time blogging.

Take Pat Robertson's January 5 reading of the signs of the times, in which the Sachem of the 700 Club suggested that the stroke that felled Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was an expression of God's hostility toward - according to the prophet Joel - those who have divided "My land." The story raised, not for the first time, the question of the newsworthiness of such Robertsonian pronunciamentos.

Amy Sullivan, guest-blogging on Washington Monthly's Political Animal, immediately allowed as how she doesn't make a habit of commenting on "l of the ridiculous things that come out of Pat Robertson's mouth" because he's 1) "a moonbat" and 2) doesn't speak for most evangelicals. This prompted a posting from Atrios on Eschaton asking to know who speaks for the evangelicals, to which Sullivan responded with a collection of names.

On January 6, Brian Montopoli at the CBS News blog Public Eye delivered a long excursus, linking to Sullivan's comment and including the views of Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer. Schieffer said he wasn't sure whom Robertson represented any more, and noted that the Evening News had not covered his "bizarre" recent comments. Robertson was, in the view of Public Eye, not worth much attention.

For his part, Mattingly, long since on record in favor of alternative evangelical spokesmen, conceded "sadly" that the Sharon remark was a legitimate news story. He approvingly called attention to a statement by the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land ("I am almost as shocked by Pat Robertson's arrogance as I am by his insensitivity") emphasizing that no one should presume to know the mind of the Lord.

On January 8, the New York Times weighed in with religion reporter Laurie Goodstein's take on covering what Robertson has to say: "The news media avidly reported his comments, but are they worthy of attention? Do conservative Christians still follow Mr. Robertson in large numbers?" Her bottom line was that, while Robertson's influence has declined, he still has a lot of viewers and considerable influence.

The following day, Andrew Sullivan, whose popular Daily Dish dishes a good deal of religious cogitation, took a smack at the many evangelicals and Republicans who were criticizing Robertson, as if his views on dividing Israel were not shared by "most of the religious right" and were "somehow out of the mainstream of contemporary Christian fundamentalism, or Republicanism." In effect, a dog-bites-man story.

Over the next few days, the story grew to include criticism of Robertson by the White House, threats by an offended Israel to cancel plans for an evangelical tourism complex near the Sea of Galilee, and Robertson's subsequent apology to Sharon's family.

On January 12, Dallas Morning News religion editor Jeffrey Weiss told his Religion Sneak Peek listserv, "Here at DMN Religion Central, we're struggling to figure out what to say about the Rev. Pat Robertson that isn't too obvious to bother." An article on Robertson supporters seemed to be the way to go. Did the listservers know of any?

And on it went.

Religion coverage can draw out the Blogosphere with the right news hook. How much difference it makes is hard to say.



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