Thursday, September 29, 2016

Media religion making

It was time again for "Religion in the News," Theorizing Religion students' chance to find and discuss some media coverage of something religious. As in years past we had articles on everything from the canonization of Mother Teresa to reality TV stars' efforts to see polygamy legalized, by way of Amazon-ordered Buddhist priests in Japan, the Burkini ban on a French beach and efforts to expand "secular" education in Brooklyn yeshivas. With the exception of a podcast, an article from an exotic travel website and an (unexamined) website on persecution of Christians, almost all came from the Gray Lady - a departure from class tradition, where in one year there wasn't so much as a single newspaper article brought in!

So it was convenient to focus on her claim to provide "All the News that's Fit to Print" when our discussion become more general and second-order. "What makes a religion story newsworthy?" I asked first, and then "How do you determine if a media story on religion is reliable?" Our past discussions on the fraught construction of religion and religions (and of cults, the secular, and spirituality) suggested that nothing appeared in print (or on website, radio show, TV or podcast) by itself. Someone found it worth focusing on and someone (usually someone else) thought it worth disseminating. We had all sorts of questions about their motives, their biases, and their ability - even if they wanted to - to be "neutral." (I didn't pretend academia was qualitatively different.)

This was where the New York Times came up again. Its famed slogan obscures all question of motive, bias or even selection. The "news" is there, and all of it that's "fit to print" is printed - as though nobody ever has to find sources, choose terms, edit for content or style, etc. I observed that newspapers in many other countries are known, and trusted, to be partial - providing all that a Christian socialist, or a member of Soka Gakkai, or a leftist intellectual needs to know, not everything that any and everyone ought to know. The pretended transcendence of the Times suddenly sounded a lot like the dodgy (if perhaps still worthy) ambitions of the secular state. 

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