September 21, 2009
Navigating Religion News
— Martin E. Marty
Tomorrow’s (September 22) Christian Century cover features “Navigating the News.” Assuming that many readers of Sightings read that magazine and wishing the rest of you did, I don’t often reach to it for sightings of religious news and features. This time, let me do a kind of in-house column – “in-house” because I’ve been affiliated, from tyro through senior to “contributing” over fifty-four years, and depend on it still. The “Navigating” feature was to help us readers get some grasp on the workings of the people whose news-writing and opinion columns on “public religion” we read. Learning about it might help more of us navigate among the navigators. We’ll skip my own short contribution and generalize about others.
All of them have added internet surveying to their own career-long attachments to print media, which were and are their natural home. Mark Silk heads a Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Hartford. His local paper is withering, but he “does” the New York Times, as all seem to do, and the Washington Post, mainly on-line. And he logs blog upon blog. He does not scorn opinion columns; they help bring focus to the bewildering variety of news events covered elsewhere.
Loving what she does as much as Silk does, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, like many of the others, cites NPR and PBS, for example, Newshour with Jim Lehrer. Auto-less, as I am, she does little tuning in to radio and does not Twitter. Much of her work has to do with Catholic policies, events, and spins, and she works through a maze of Catholic-specific sources.
Stephen Prothero, with feet on the ground but also in the avant-garde among historians of American religion, says he’s “pretty old-school” and worries about the decline of print media for reportage on religion, which blogs and internet cannot cover so well. He finds that Rupert Murdoch has not yet destroyed the Wall Street Journal, which often pays attention to religion news and trends. He admits to watching the younger generation’s TV favorites, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both of whom – have you noticed? – often “do” religion, if a bit noisily. Overall, he says, “I’m a little bit here and a little bit there,” which is what people in his profession have to be.
Melissa Rogers at still another “Center for…” (hers at Wake Forest) gave away her TV, but finds “only a click away” on the internet anything that would have been needed or useful from TV. None of these writers are Neanderthal or Luddite about the internet and its role. Her print-media list is long, and it was nice to see an “of course” in her reference to The Christian Century. She does see that her work and play breed addiction to the internet, and needs and take sabbaths from it, but “would never go back to the old days.”
Jeff Sharlet, “who writes about religion for Rolling Stone,” still prefers print media, and is not afraid of the heavy load of ideology of all stripes in columns on religion. His array of sources is too vast for me even to seek out and mention the highlights. And J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, like all the rest, deals with and contributes to blogs, reads Kindle books, admits to being of the “vanishing breed of media consumers who prefer newspapers.” Like I, he contributes to and reads the On Faith blog of Washington Post/Newsweek, and others.
In sum: Prothero’s “here and there” use of sources pretty well describes the approach of all contributors who do news. That’s not new and never could be. Good.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.