Sunday, July 01, 2012

Today in exegesis

And what would be some examples, Nation's News Leader?

Yet few presidents embodied the biblical concept of “com- forting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” as much as Roosevelt, who once called the heartless business tycoons of his day “the money changers” in the temple.

Or as the Book of Joseph tells us, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

"Comfort the afflicted," in its various forms, is generally attributed to the columnist Finley Peter Dunne, writing in his "Mr. Dooley" persona (you may agree that Dooley's supposed Irish dialect is part of Dunne's "wit and charm," or you may quietly pound nails into your skull). But this generalized ignorance of the subject matter isn't the main reason serious news organizations shouldn't inject themselves into the world of religion.

That's not to suggest that we shouldn't have skilled reporting on religion and what people do with it -- at least to the level of entry-level sportswriting knowledge. "Fundamentalist" and "evangelical" aren't interchangeable, in much the way that a fly out and a double into the gap aren't interchangeable, and it's a sign of good manners as well as professional attentiveness to know the difference. Nor is there much doubt that a little more library time and a lot less Ooooh-Scary-Alphabet would make it harder for paid liars to manipulate public opinion about the fractious Near East. But that takes the careful writer right up to the edge of a place journalism really doesn't want to go:

Nielsen, author of “God in the Obama Era,” has a theory why some Americans believe Obama is a Muslim.

“They hate him so much,” Nielsen says. “He’s polarized the country.”

If you find that a little self-servingly tautological, you could note -- though the routines of "objectivity" might require finding an expert to say it for you -- that when poorly informed people see an existential threat to what they hold dear, they're likely to believe all sorts of outlandish crap if it's spun into a plausible-seeming hash and repeated throughout the day with occasional breaks for traffic and weather. And that's the problem. Sooner or later, journalism is going to have to point out that many misperceptions arise from the unblest union of dishonesty and stupidity, and this is one of them.*

That, I think, is why many news outfits do more cheerleading for religion than reporting on it. In the case at hand, the results aren't pretty:

History suggests, however, that piety and presidential performance don’t always match.

Whatever form of bland wash-n-wear Protestantism the writer means by "piety," you have to be a bit of a cheerleader to not wonder why that's a problem that rises to the level of journalistic attention. How long does it take to figure out that a two-syllable word for "piety and presidential performance" is "Iran"?** Isn't it part of our little enterprise to start ringing alarm bells when someone suggests linking the two?

... Roosevelt was no saint in his personal life. He rarely talked publicly about his Episcopalian faith, preferred golf over church (before he was stricken by polio), and likely cheated on his wife, scholars say.

Odd. Isn't sainthood measured by miracles and such, rather than church attendance and public talk?

... Johnson never seemed to have any problem with a little personal sin. He grew up in Texas, where he affiliated with Disciples of Christ and Baptist churches. But he is widely believed to have stolen one of his earliest elections. He was a womanizer, historians say, and his speech was filled with such vulgarity that reporters had a difficult time quoting him on the record.

When reporters start rating elected officials on sin, it's time to reach for the fire hose. The supernatural is an inherently subjective place. Whether a writer's reflections on it are good or bad depends on the quality of the writer, but whatever the results, they aren't going to provide much in the way of journalism.

In this case, they're not even very interesting. Johnson's vocabulary isn't a surprise. If the writer wants to delve into matters like ius ad bellum and what sort of term in the Lake of Fire violations of that doctrine might entail, that's another thing. But the point of religion reporting isn't to be interesting; it's to be safe. An examination of how religious thinking shaped current concepts of what makes wars legal or illegal could be lots of fun, which is one of the reasons we're never going to see it here.

For better or worse, people often tend to think of two competing news entities -- Fox and CNN, say -- as opposites. In some cases, that's true. When the chips are down, CNN tends to play by the norms of journalism,*** and Fox tends to play by the norms of party propaganda. That's a big distinction, but it doesn't carry over to some of the other axes where Fox and its advocates see similar differences: Fox is an instrument of Republican policy, therefore CNN is an instrument of Democratic policy; Fox loves God and the troops, so CNN must hate them both; Fox thinks America is the greatest country ever in the history of the world, but CNN would just as soon have a one-world Maoist state whose flag shows Jane Fonda sitting at a communist flak gun. Those are ideologies, even if they don't reflect party politics, and on matters like religion and American exceptionalism, it's sometimes hard to tell what you're reading without a look at the masthead.

* So, I might suggest, is CNN's assertion that Jeremiah Wright's sermons are particularly "angry," by which it apparently means "black," but that's a different discussion.

** Yes, the Iranian president is term-limited. No, he's not a "dictator" in any meaningful sense. Yes, the real power is farther up the opaque chain that Khomeini bequeathed on the world. The point of introducing Iran is that, thuggish though it tends to be on the world stage sometimes, Iran is perfectly capable of rank-ordering its policy preferences and calculating the odds of being able to put them into practice successfully. That's a short part of the general explanation of why it's better to base policy on capacities and actions than on John Bolton's racist fantasies about Twelver Shiism. The footnote is that racist fantasies propagate less well in a data-based atmosphere.
** You don't have to like 'em to admit that they form a pretty clear, extensible set of professional practices. Tuchman's "Objectivity as strategic ritual" is a good entry point for the perplexed.

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