Understanding the Importance of Journalism, As Americans and Christians

There are several good reasons to fear that American democracy is being irreparably damaged by the current administration. Foremost, in my opinion, is the way that Donald Trump and his political allies have waged relentless rhetorical war on the reporters, editors, and other journalists who are doing their best to seek truth, minimize harm, and act independently of those in power.

For a good summary of the problem, see the new Atlantic essay by Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press. It’s a remarkable statement from a well-respected, seasoned, thoroughly mainstream political reporter/analyst. It opens like this:

Chuck Todd
2015 photo of Chuck Todd – Creative Commons (Gage Skidmore)

I’ve devoted much of my professional life to the study of political campaigns, not as a historian or an academic but as a reporter and an analyst. I thought I’d seen it all, from the bizarre upset that handed a professional wrestler the governorship of Minnesota to the California recall that gave us the Governator to candidates who die but stay on the ballot and win.

But there’s a new kind of campaign underway, one that most of my colleagues and I have never publicly reported on, never fully analyzed, and never fully acknowledged: the campaign to destroy the legitimacy of the American news media.

Bashing the media for political gain isn’t new, and neither is manipulating the media to support or oppose a cause. These practices are at least as old as the Gutenberg press. But antipathy toward the media right now has risen to a level I’ve never personally experienced before. The closest parallel in recent American history is the hostility to reporters in the segregated South in the 1950s and ’60s.

Then, as now, that hatred was artificially stoked by people who found that it could deliver them some combination of fame, wealth, and power.

Significantly, Todd treats Trump more as a symptom than a cause of the problem. To explain how we got to this point, he primarily focuses on the legacy of former Nixon aide Roger Ailes for the rise of Fox News:

Fox intended to build its brand the same way Ailes had built the brands of political candidates: by making the public hate the other choice more.

…There are some great journalists at Fox, including Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Shep Smith, but it’s not an organization that emphasizes journalism. Instead, Ailes created an organization that focuses on attacking the “liberal media” whose “liberal bias” was ruining America. Almost any big story that was potentially devastating to a conservative was “balanced” with some form of whataboutism.

Do take the time to read the rest of Todd’s analysis, plus his exhortation for journalists “to fight back.” Not to become political partisans themselves, but “to showcase and defend our reporting,” to have “a lower tolerance for talking points, and a greater willingness to speak plain truths.”

Then while I’m at it, let me also point you all to two more pieces that not only articulate the importance of a free press at this or any time, but why and how Christians should participate in the work of journalism.

Marshall Allen
Marshall Allen – ProPublica

• Start with this reflection by Marshall Allen, a former missionary and Fuller Seminary graduate who became a reporter and now covers health care for ProPublica. (His piece was also published in the New York Times.) He recalled trying to convince a skeptical editor that there was “a natural progression from the ministry to muckraking…” Allen argued that his work as a reporter helped him to live out biblical injunctions to seek truth, to live with honesty and integrity, to comfort the grieving, to see the dignity inherent in those made in God’s image, and even to be a moral force in society. “The biblical prophets were the moral conscience of God’s people,” he concluded. “Today, in a nonreligious sense, journalists are the moral conscience of the wider culture. We live in a fallen world, so there’s no shortage of material.”

• Then download or stream the newest episode of Election Shock Therapy, a podcast produced by my colleague Sam Mulberry and three of Bethel’s political science professors: Chris Moore, Andy Bramsen, and Mitchell Krumm. This week, Chris and Mitch talked about the role of the news media in politics with two Bethel journalists: Maddie DeBilzan, editor of Bethel’s student newspaper, The Clarion, and Bethel journalism professor Scott Winter, who is convinced that “right now the best journalism in the world is happening… and also, the worst. The problem is… there’s a lot more of the worst journalism out there…”

Bethel Clarion logo

Maddie and Scott talk about what it means to be a Christian journalist (or is it, “a journalist who is a Christian”?), referring to the Marshall Allen piece noted above. But they also discuss the difference between reporting and aggregation, the historic shift in journalism from partisanship to objectivity, and the impact of corporate ownership on the news media. Listening to them, you’ll get a powerful, hopeful vision of what it means to study journalism at a Christian university — one that differs considerably from what seems to have been happening at one of the country’s largest such institutions