Peggy Fletcher Stack of the SLTrib was one of the better reporters on the Romney/religion angle. She was a friend of this blog, and Lowell interacted with her frequently – I only on occasion. She has recently put up a long “reminiscence” of both campaign cycles at “ABC Religion and Ethics.“ It is a great and worthy read. I found one paragraph most interesting:
Again, as a journalist, it was not my agenda to support or defeat Romney, only to help explain his frequently misunderstood faith to a public eager to know something about his church. Another task I took on during his campaign was to correct misinformation about Mormonism, mostly made by secular journalists unfamiliar with religion. (Mind you, the country’s religion writers at major newspapers did an excellent job of explaining some elements of the candidate’s faith.) I did this by blogging or tweeting about the errors, knowing that or readers would be amused or outraged.
That is a fascinating view of the job for a journalist to do in a presidential campaign. It raises a number of fundamental questions. Should the religion of a presidential candidate need to be explained? How much of the religion of a candidate can be explained without discussing it with the candidate personally. (Stack admits Romney never sat for an interview with her.) In any religion there is faith, belief and practice. Which of that is “fair game” and which is not?
Religious practice, that is to say behavior, has always been fair game in reporting on a candidate for any office. How a candidate behaves, what he/she will do is perhaps the most vital question to ask. But faith and belief? When we step into that realm, things become highly problematic. Some beliefs, or theological precepts, just don’t matter. For example the Mormon concept of the Godhead is at the heart of the theological question of whether they are Christians or not. But that theological formulation makes virtually no difference in the behavior of any believer of Christian tint, orthodox or heterodox. So why does it matter when electing a president? And then there is the fact that not all adherents to a particular flavor of Christianity hold faithful to each theological precept of that flavor. Just because the PCUSA, my church, ordains practicing homosexuals to holy office does not mean I agree with that.
Which brings me back to journalism. Journalism serves a role in our national fabric. It is not merely to tell people what they want to know, but by not necessarily telling them everything, telling them what matters. Journalism is one of the checks and balances in our nation. A journalist must keep that in mind when they write. (I make no judgement on Stack here, I only use her piece as a springboard for this discussion.) I am not talking about spin here, I am talking about things that matter and things that don’t.
I do not think we were well served in this arena in the last few election cycles. Candidate reporting now resembles People magazine more than the great journalism of my youth. In their print editions, the greats of old are highly partisan, but they have yet to dip into this well. However, online, their blogs and Tweets are as salacious as the rest. At one point People was a sideline at Time, now it is the other way around.
As usual, this says more about the American people than anything else. Why has journalism gone this way? It’s what sells. But a little push back against the market would certainly be a breath of fresh air. Who knows, it might even help.