In what has to be one of the most compelling obituaries of the year, The New York Times recently reported on the death of former Times reporter McCandlish Phillips.
Phillips was responsible for one of the Grey Lady's most famous stories — about a high-ranking Ku Klux Klan leader who also happened to be Jewish. But that was only one small chapter in Phillips' long life and career.
An evangelical Christian, he kept a Bible on his desk and led prayer meetings for like-minded colleagues (there were none when he joined the paper, he noted ruefully) in a conference room off the newsroom.
He refrained from smoking, drinking, cursing and gambling, each of which had been refined to a high, exuberant art in the Times newsroom — the last of these to such a degree that at midcentury the newspaper employed two bookmakers-in-residence, nominally on the payroll as news clerks. [New York Times]
Conservatives have long lamented our East Coast secular media, charging that its worldview bias (even more than its overt political bias) skews America's information supply. Too often, Christians feel like they're cast as the type of fringe characters one might associate with the bar scene from Star Wars. (And remember, 77 percent of Americans identify as Christians.)
This longstanding lack of diversity in the newsroom is confirmed by the Times' McCandlish Phillips obituary, which noted that "there were [no other evangelical Christians working at the Times] when he joined the paper."
That was unfortunate. Media outlets who want to understand America should at least have a few journalists hanging around who share — or at least, aren't hostile to — the Christian faith.
And, in fairness, many do. For example, The Washington Post employs E.J. Dionne and (my former editor) Melinda Henneberger — both of whom are liberals well versed in faith. They write eloquently on religious topics.
I asked Henneberger about her faith in her work. Here's what she said:
No one has ever said anything about it in any newsroom I've ever worked in — well, except for Maureen Dowd once walking by my desk, catching a glimpse of me wearing my grandmother's extremely large cross, which her grandmother had worn on the boat to America, and saying, "Oh my God, even Madonna doesn't wear those anymore."
Anyway, no one ever would say a word at the Post, I don't think; there are plenty of other believers of all kinds there, and they seem to value diversity of experience and opinion along with every other kind, which I really appreciate.
I'll tell you what's a trip, though: Being Catholic at the center of the secular universe, Harvard, where I'm doing a fellowship this semester at the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center. The topic has come up more than it would have otherwise because of the conclave, but what people always say is, "But you're lapsed, right?" At a dinner recently, the hostess followed that up with, "But you're pro-choice, RIGHT?" Thought for a minute there I might not get dinner...
The Post also features syndicated columnists like Michael Gerson. And, of course, there is the terrific young New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who also authored the book Bad Religion: How we became a nation of heretics.
Why does this matter? This sort of diversity isn't just important because of the creeping worldview bias, but also in terms of selection bias. For example, writing in USA Today, liberal commentator Kirsten Powers, who recently spoke with Jonathan Merritt about her faith, begins her latest column thusly:
Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure. Haven't heard about these sickening accusations?
It's not your fault. Since the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell began March 18, there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page. [USA Today]
As Powers notes, this story should be garnering more media attention, but it isn't.
Powers' faith no doubt informs her journalism, probably making it more likely that she will cover stories about abortion and human trafficking that some of her colleagues might not be as likely to explore.
I'll close with something The Huffington Post's senior political reporter Jon Ward recently told me: "[M]y identity is not based in how many bylines I have. It's not based on how many times I've been on television or how many people see my face or know about me. Of course, writers are driven by ego. Of course, George Orwell said that. My identity, though, is, I'm a sinner saved by grace. That's my identity."