Monday, May 03, 2004

How to Report on Religion

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for the NPR, the National Public Radio. She works in the very middle of the dreaded liberal media, at least according to our friends on the right.

What qualifies someone to be a religion correspondent? I was curious about this, especially after the storm Hagerty has caused in our little blogosphere (more about that later). It seems that Hagerty was trained in economics and law and that her prior experience is largely in covering legal affairs and crime as well as politics. She seems not to have had any special training in religion. Is this the customary way of selecting religion correspondents? What qualifies Hagerty to report in this area?

My guess is that it is her own fervent faith. She is quite open about her own religiousness, and used to be affiliated to the now-famous World Journalism Institute. The WJI once had this interesting mission statement:

To accompany reporting with practical commentary on current events and issues from a perspective committed to the final authority of the Bible as the inerrant written word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Peter 3:14-16).

but after Atrios wrote about them and Hagerty in some detail, the mission statement was diluted to the usual wishy-washiness. Nevertheless, it's pretty clear that the WJI has a fundamentalist flavor. Of course, Hagerty's one-time association with them doesn't necessarily mean that she subscribes to fundamentalism.

But she sure does subscribe to Christianity. Which is interesting, as the media in general frowns upon journalists who take an activist role in the fields that they report. Things are different in religion, the last bastion of immunity from critical reporting in the media. Not only doesn't the reporter need any training in the area, being fanatically invested in one side of the debate might be an asset. Hmmm.

The blogosphere of the left doesn't like this. Neither do I, actually. That's why I'm grateful for Atrios and his readers as well as Body and Soul for doing some critical research and reporting on Hagerty's research and reporting. Consider this direct excerpt from Hagerty's program on John Kerry and the Catholic Church (thanks to Atrios):

HAGERTY: Last week some 300 people protested church doctrine on birth control in front of the Vatican embassy in Washington. Frances Kissling was there. She's the president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Ms. FRANCES KISSLING (President, Catholic for a Free Choice): Catholics are no different than the rest of Americans. They vote on their pocketbook, they vote on the economic issues, Social Security, Medicare, crime, education and health. They don't vote on the abortion issue.

HAGERTY: Surveys from Georgetown University show that the number one issue for Catholics in 2000 was the economy. Taxing, spending and government programs came in second. Moral issues were a distant third.

(Soundbite from a Mass)

HAGERTY: But tell that to the worshipers at the 8:00 Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington. All but one interviewed there on a recent morning said they won't vote for Kerry. They said they knew he personally thought abortion was wrong but that his stand on abortion rights had a larger meaning. Here's Philip Monos(ph), Carrie Gress(ph) and Ted Flynn.

Mr. PHILIP MONOS (Worshiper): It's really character and personal integrity, and a man who does not seem committed to his faith, I don't see why he would be committed to his ideas or necessarily even his country.

Ms. CARRIE GRESS (Worshiper): It seems that he doesn't take his faith seriously, and it's something that it seems like he's using as a political card instead of something that he deeply believes in and is committed to.

Mr. TED FLYNN (Worshiper): I would work very hard against Senator Kerry because I think he is actually, from start to finish, a four-star phoney.

HAGERTY: Another early worshiper, Charles Loveless, a union official, downplayed the abortion issue.

A straightforward both-sides-are-covered story about the religion, one might think. Of course, one side has a famous named leader of the group interviewed (Frances Kissling), whereas the majority of the other side consists of the 'ordinary people's views, random opinions from the actual church pews. Too bad that only one of the nonfamous people told Hagerty his job (the union guy).

Quite innocent, isn't it. So where's the storm? Well, it turns out that St. Matthew's Cathedral doesn't have 8 a.m. masses on Sundays but on weekdays. People who go to mass on weekday mornings may quite safely be seen as more religious than those who only attend on Sundays, don't you think? It also turns out that the randomly selected congregants might not in fact be so randomly selected, but just could be quite well-known people from the Catholic right.

Hagerty is very good in subtly flavoring her reporting with the True Word of God. Maybe God told her to find out that the only congregant who downplayed the abortion issue was a union official, but forgot to ask her to check about the jobs of the others she interviewed? Maybe God told her that the average run-of-the-mill Catholic can be found attending a weekday morning mass?

Maybe. But this reporting does make me a little worried about Hagerty's impartiality as a correspondent on religion. I think that the NPR should hire me as their correspondent on heathenism, and let me write shadow articles on all these god-and-goddess issues. This would be good for religious diversity and would frighten the right wing. It would also increase my budget for nectar. All good causes.