Why This Journalist Got Religion Wrong

I can personally vouch for David F. Smydra's insightful post into the reasons mainstream media fails at substantively covering religion. It was the summer of 1999, a year after graduation, and in the pre-millennial madness that enveloped God's city – … Read More

By / January 17, 2008

I can personally vouch for David F. Smydra's insightful post into the reasons mainstream media fails at substantively covering religion. It was the summer of 1999, a year after graduation, and in the pre-millennial madness that enveloped God's city – the sanatorium averaged two messiahs a month the years before, it was getting seven a week at the time – I lost my bearings somewhere around the Damascus Gate. Only in Jerusalem can one feel so lost.

It happens to most at some point, my editor at the Jerusalem Post explained, "The book of psalms calls Jerusalem the City of God and Zechariah calls it the City of Truth – but which God and whose truth?" The city and the country itself forces one to wrestle with these eternal questions. And without answers, the lines between fact and faith, religion and politics, the sacred and the secular blurred, leaving behind a conflicted and confused young reporter. My parents are Israeli-born, but raised their children in America. I've been straddling borders religious, national or otherwise all my life. I thought I was as well equipped as anyone to deal with whatever Israel threw at me: a degree in philosophy from Vassar, a thesis on Kierkegaard and Jewish thought, and a six-month research and ethnographic study at Hebrew University.

It wasn't enough to cover religion in Israel. While interviewing a Sufi mystic in Ramallah, the man leaned over and whispered, "Hamas will some day live by the words of Rumi and not the sword of Allah." If I had known then that he was referring to the 13th century poet Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi, who preached tolerance, I would have recognized the importance of his statement. A Palestinian religious leader was, in effect, condemning his own. It didn't make the paper, because I didn't realize what was meant till much later. Many of my colleagues had similar experiences. The American Press, by and large, lacks a critical perspective informed by knowledge. To a journalist, skepticism is the pillar in which all else is built. But how can one honestly question doctrine or deed without an understanding of either?

In Israel, my experience as a journalist begged the question of how religion is covered. In America, it's why religion isn't covered enough. After a year, I left the Jerusalem Post to help start a media venture started by CNN executives targeting Baby Boomers, a demographic in hot pursuit of 'what it all means.' I interviewed Deepak Chopra, Rabbi Harold Kushner, leading academics and other figures in the spiritual marketplace, and I came to understand that you cannot grapple with America, its history and contemporary forces, without understanding the nature and history of its religious life.

Spotty religious reporting isn't a new thing. Louis Cassels wrote a much-read syndicated religion column from 1959 to 1973 for United Press International. He admitted that the worst error he remembered making was repeating the historically discredited claim that Islam was spread forcibly by the sword during religion's years of early growth, "My error stemmed from plain ignorance rather than malice."

Faith matters, and not only within the walls of a church, synagogue or mosque. There is Bible study at a Houston oil and gas company. Weekly yoga at dot-coms. Torah class at Microsoft and Islamic study at Whirlpool. In this year's presidential elections, there are relentless invocations of the Almighty. So why isn't coverage better? Why do editors show such a disregard when pitched with a religion story? A media and religion survey by the First Amendment Center found that 76% of religion writers felt that formal training in religious studies is either helpful or essential. Sadly, 6 out of 10 writers said they had no such training. Much of the media views religion suspiciously, or worse, as irrelevant. Journalists deal in matters of fact, religion in matters of faith, and rarely the twain shall meet. When they do, it's usually because religion intersects with politics or scandal. The latter usually determines the treatment of the former and as a result neither is dealt with wisely. So it's not just a question of giving religion more prominence, but encountering it with more understanding.

More important than the sort of knowledge one gains in the academy is what you might call religious street smarts or pew-level understanding. Contending with the powerful convictions and lofty ideas inherent to the beat require an intellectual grounding supported by a naive narrator's immersion into the experience of faith — what journalists covering a war call "embedded." The "small" stories, the quiet, daily influence of religion on people's lives are as important as the larger issues that arise from covering belief systems or religious philosophy.

Is anyone doing a good job? There are a handful. Jeff Sharlet, editorial adviser to Jewcy, may be among the finest. His investigative reports from the evangelical front lines appearing in publications like Rolling Stone and Harpers are the very embodiment of pew-level reportage that are also intellectually grounded. His daily review of religion and the press, called The Revealer, is one of the better religion sites on the Web.

Here's a snapshot of what Sharlet, and his colleagues at The Revealer, find worthwhile elsewhere on the Web:

Bartholomew's Notes on Religion looks at "religion in the news" from a perspective that's not so much liberal as relentlessly skeptical of absurdity, and intrigued by belief.

Casing the Promised Land offers an intelligent roundup of religion news from a center-left perspective. Christianity Today's blog is a superb resource regardless of your faith or lack thereof. Regular blogger Ted Olson roams far and wide and has the wisdom to bring back more than just the controversy of the day. DeepBlog: Not a God beat blog itself, but a good directory to the blogosphere with a growing list of "Spiritual Blogs." Direland, a sharply written politcs and media blog by journalist Doug Ireland, occasionally runs a "theocracy watch" colum

On Religion is an excellent newsclipping service — terrific links to the hot topic of the moment and good finds from the lesser-known press. OpEdNews's Religion and Politics page publishes a fine collection of original, politically progressive religion essays as well as links to other noteworthy religion articles. The Raving Atheist, "An Atheistic Examination of the Culture of Belief [on] How Religious Devotion Trivializes American Law and Politics," is an intensely intelligent, often funny, and all around well-made blog that's good enough for true believers as well as godless folk. Relapsed Catholic is a fierce godblog without mercy for liberals or unbelievers, by Kathy Shaidle, a Canadian journalist and poet with a sharp eye for the absurd and compelling.

Brian Flemming is the man behind Bat Boy: The Musical, and his blog is everything you'd expect from a man with such interests. Which, naturally, include religion, commented on from a smart, liberal perspective. Mostly limited to the news of the day, you'll find original ideas here, and, if you care to do some free associating with Brian's other interests, genuine inspiration. Makeout City's Jay McCarthy understands the art of linking and the collage possibilities of threading together fragments from around the web — whether they're his own thoughts or collected ideas from others, his posts are always essays. Jay is a man who gets the Montaignesque potential of blog. He often comments on religion, a subject in which Jay has read widely and eclecticly. The Claremont Review of Books, put out by the conservative Claremont Institute ("a new, reinvigorated conservatism, one that draws upon the timeless principles of the American founding, and applies them to the moral and political problems that we face today") is an interesting, intellectual read, whether or not you agree with their purpose, to help conservatism "understand its own majestic purposes, and become a more effective political force." Nth Position is a webzine that advertises "high weirdness" in all areas of inquiry; investigate their "strangeness" category for manifestations of the divine. Excellent writing and surprisingly good reporting (given that there's limited cash behind this fine endeavor). Oliver Willis bills himself as "kryptonite to stupid," and we can testify to that slogan's truth. Hey, wait — does that make us dumb? Nah. It just means Oliver is really smart. His popular blog is mostly political talk from a "center-left" perspective, but we think it's relevant to Revealer readers because Oliver gets the role of religion in American politics. That is, he gets that it has one, whether we like it or not, and that Dems and liberals in the U.S. are blind to its full influence and importance beyond the borders of New York and L.A. One Inch Ahead features an interesting confluence of spirit and flesh–in the occasionally religious musings of a long distance runner.

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