The new orthodoxy of “knowledge professionals”

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The Religion Newswriters Association held their annual meeting recently. Their keynote speaker challenged them: be honest.

“Know yourself and your prejudices,” advised Archbishop Charles Chaput. In the right order of things…

A responsible press and a faith shaped by the God of charity and justice share two things in common: a concern for human dignity, and an interest in truth. 

But in this age of relativism, there’s a shock value to moral anecdotal accounts. Like the one behind George Orwell’s evolution as a political writer.

By the time he finished writing Animal Farm in 1943, Britain had joined with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. Orwell couldn’t find a single publisher honest enough to release his allegory of the Soviet regime, in which the main characters were a breed of shrewdly cynical pigs.

Where’s he going with this?

Six decades later, this essay still has value. And here’s why: Most arguments for press freedom deal with the media’s need for independence from state censorship and propaganda. That makes sense. But Orwell focused on something very different—a kind of undermining of free thought and expression unique to modern democratic societies.

He saw his problems with Animal Farm as part of a much bigger pattern of “self-censorship” in wartime England. Nobody demanded the media’s fawning coverage of the Soviet Union. Nobody required the falsification of facts, or the ugly attacks on critics of Stalin, or the covering-up of unpleasant truths. Nobody forced journalists and editors to do these things. They freely chose to do them.

The news media of the day were staffed by decent men and women. They felt they were on the side of social progress. They thought the Soviet Union, whatever its flaws, was fighting for human progress too. So they ignored unhappy details and hard questions about the reality of Soviet life.

Their assumptions created what Orwell saw as a new form of religious orthodoxy. That orthodoxy shaped the boundaries of permissible thought and expression. And Orwell warned that this unspoken tendency toward group-think would threaten the press in democratic societies well into the future…

I think Orwell’s words capture the way many people feel today toward the news media and coverage of religion news. In practice—at least in the eyes of ordinary people I hear from every week—a new body of ideas seems to shape the limits of acceptable thought in American public life. This new orthodoxy seems to influence the selection of religious news and how that news gets presented. It seems to frame which opinions are appropriate and which ones won’t be heard. And it seems to guide the historical narrative that media present to their audiences. At its core, it has a set of assumptions about the nature of human life, the purpose of government, and the proper role of religion in the lives of individuals and in society that veers away from past American habits of thought.

This new thinking seems to presume a society much more secular and much less religious than anything in America’s past or anything warranted by present facts…

Well, how did the religion reporters hearing this address react? Some of them sneeringly, as First Things pointed out.

During the question and answer period, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times asked him why he didn’t return her phone call when Archbishop Jose Gomez was chosen as Los Angeles archbishop. Chaput said that Times reporter David Kirkpatrick misquoted him during John Kerry’s presidential campaign, and he said that he has recordings to prove it. “It’s the New York Times’ editorial policy that I’m interpreting,” Chaput said. “I made a judgment based on experience.”

Goodstein said she did not know Chaput was boycotting the Times. He challenged Goodstein’s more recent coverage of the Catholic Church. “You treated Pope Benedict badly in the latest series about him,” he said.

Cathy Grossman of USA Today challenged him, asking if a boycott over one reporter was fair. “We don’t boycott everyone, just the New York Times,” he said.

Wow. As a lifelong journalist, having spent two decades in ‘big media’, I’m picturing this scene as just bizarre, right from the Times’ reporter asking why her call wasn’t returned. Which is why this followup wasn’t surprising:

Boycott the New York Times, will you? And not even bother to tell the New York Times you were doing it?

Archbishop Chaput’s talk had a number of interesting elements: the excursion into George Orwell’s career, the embrace of freedom of the press while asserting freedom of religion, the analysis of secularism as a system of thought.

But leave all that aside and think, for a moment, just about his description of knowledge professionals and the ways in which they are lured into a sense of perfect entitlement and superior correctness. One could hardly ask for a better example…than a reporter from the New York Times thinking it entirely reasonable, in a public question-and-answer period, to demand an answer to why her phone calls weren’t returned.

Chaput finished with this:

The point I want to leave you with is this: Journalism is a “knowledge profession.” But like any other profession, the work of journalism doesn’t necessarily translate into self-knowledge or self-criticism. And any lasting service to the common good demands both. Journalism has its own unstated orthodoxies. It has its own prejudices. And when they go unacknowledged and uncorrected—as they too often seem to do—they can diminish our public life.

Religion journalism deals with the most fundamental things about human meaning, things intimate, defining, and sacred to many millions of people. So master and respect your material. Know yourself and your prejudices. Acknowledge mistakes, and don’t make them a habit. Be as honest with yourself as you want your sources to be. Understand believers and their institutions as they understand themselves. And if you do that—and do it with integrity, fairness, and humility—then you’ll have the gratitude of the people you cover, and you’ll embody the best ideals of your profession.

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