What does the NYT see that the rest of us don't?

Simon Sarmiento has an excellent set of links to the mainstream media's coverage of Anglican conservative's creation of a new ecclesiastical partnership yesterday in Wheaton, Illinois, as does Neva Rae Fox.

The most notable story is by Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, and what is notable is not the story--which is well done--but the way it played in the paper. It appears on Page One, above the fold, in a place that indicates it is the SECOND MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT HAPPENED IN THE WORLD yesterday. Is this perhaps a bit of an overreaction?

At the moment, all this group has achieved is to take an unknown number of people who used to be Episcopalians [let's say 65,000 for the purposes of conversation augment them with perhaps another 15,000 who were either a) Canadians or b) never Episcopalians in the first place and declare themselves a new ecclesiastical body of some sort]. Does that justify this kind of coverage?

We asked the same question when the majority of the former members of the Diocese of San Joaquin voted to leave the Church. Did the decision of 15,000 people to leave one religious group and align with another deserve front page coverage?

What, exactly, does The New York Times think is happening here? At best this kind of treatment can be called "predictive." The Times may be certain it is covering the break-up of something big-- it can't seem to decide if it is the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion-- and doesn't want its readers to miss a moment. But what it this turns out to be the high tide of the breakaway movement? What if, when all is said and done, after they have spent millions of dollars and convulsed the Anglican Communion, all the conservatives have accomplished is the creation of a tiny church of some 80,000 people that is recognized by a dozen Anglican primates and is invisible in most of North America? Wouldn't the Times' coverage look a little rash in retrospect? Certainly, but by then, there will be no way of repairing the damage the paper had done to our Church, by falling in love with a narrative that never reached its expected conclusion.

The sense that the Times' editors have swallowed the conservatives argument in the purest possible form is augmented by three factors: a) the length of today's story: you don't give a reporter this kind of space unless you think something truly significant has happened; b) the decision to describe the departure of perhaps six or seven percent of the Episcopal Church's membership as a "split." If you split the bill, you generally split it in half. That is how the word is commonly understood. "Splinter" would have been a more accurate choice of words; and c) the photograph that accompanied the jump of the story on Page A-24 of today's paper. It is a posed studio-style shot of four bishops of the new ecclesial body beaming at the camera. It looks more like the work of a press agent than that of a photo journalist. When this sort of picture appears in daily newspapers, they generally appear with an upbeat profile of the subject in the Style or Living sections, not in the news hole, where the principle of journalistic objectivity typically extends to the camera's eye.

For the sake of comparison, take a look at the blog item that Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune wrote yesterday entitled Schism or Stunt? Here is a reporter willing to admit that the narrative line of this story is not nearly so well-established as the Times seems to believe, and that she and her colleagues may be being manipulated by the Anglican conservatives. It is unfortunate that the Tribune is not nearly as influential as the Times.

I spoke twice yesterday with reporters who seldom write about the ongoing saga of the Anglican Communion. I asked them both why they thought this story--which is of no obvious significance at this point--was worth covering. They both told me that personally they weren't sure what to make of recent developments, but that they couldn't ignore it because it was in The New York Times.

Comments (10)

And, the NYT website has published an interview with Laurie Goodstein in which she provides even more detail about it all. There's a link on the news story page to this.

Simon is, I believe, referring to the 6 minute _audio_ interview with Goodstein.

The NYT article is a writethrough of the one that first appeared yesterday (with no change in the link, so the original story is no longer available). One of the things that didn't make it into this version is reference to a statement Bishop Iker made about women's ordination: "I'm in communion with him [Duncan], and I'm in a state of impaired communion with women he ordains to the priesthood." I believe another thing in the original was the point that this New Ecclesial Body will not allow female bishops.

Wow. It's not even day 1 and the NEB is in a state of impaired communion.

See this comment, e.g., that is quoting the original version
http://community.nytimes.com/article/comments/2008/12/04/us/04episcopal.html?permid=12#comment12
"Bishop Iker of Fort Worth said in a recent interview with a Web site that he considers himself in a “state of impaired communion” with women priests from Pittsburgh, and that they would not be allowed to celebrate the eucharist in his diocese."

The comments at NYT are worth perusing.
http://community.nytimes.com/article/comments/2008/12/04/us/04episcopal.html

One of the reasons the story got the play it did, I suspect, could be the fact it's a slow news day, nationally speaking. In my days on news desks, I occasionally had to put stories on page one that wouldn't have normally deserved it because there wasn't much else to use.

Maybe Laurie Goodstein just pitched the story well to her editor. Maybe they simply thought it was a good read. And hey, it had art.

Story placement on a page can be as arbitrary as a coin flip. It's just too bad other editors feel pressure to run it simply because the Times did. But that's the nature of the business. This, too, shall pass.

I can't really imagine any day on which the fact that five to ten percent of the members of a church that accounts for one percent of the US population had decided to form a separate church would merit this kind of play.

Apprarently, it wasn't the case yesterday.

I wonder if it doesn't have something to do with Manhattan and the aura around the Episcopal Church of old: Trinity Wall Street owning great chunks of lower Manhattan, historic churches all over the place.

Does the perceived mystique and influence of TEC continue to drive some editorial decisions? Who knows?

I'm fascinated by the fascination my retirement-age native New Yorker friends have with my connections to the Episcopal Church - practicing Jews who sent their kids to Episcopal schools.

Heidi Shott

I originally found my way to reading the Episcopal Cafe because I was finding the NYTimes coverage of our church so frustrating.

Your questions remind me of NYTimes coverage of the Yale Standard when I was a college chaplain there in the 1970's. The Standard was/is a publication at Yale and in the Times was referenced as an on-campus student group. Who were they? Even my friends in the InterVarsity based Yale Christian Fellowship knew no students in the the Yale Standard 'group.'

Doing a little on-line research on those old days today, I came across an amazing (my perspective) story about the Times staff wondering whether they could be more far or even-handed in their treatment of...religious conservatives:

http://www.miketidmus.com/blog/2008/10/28/armageddon-not/

This article references John McCandlish Phillips, a fundamentalist Christian and 'superstar' NY Times reporter who was attached to a group called the 'New Testament Missionary Fellowship' which looks like it was connected to the Standard. The complexities of Phillips as a gifted reporter and hard-core fundamentalist appear in this article by Ken Auleta:

http://www.kenauletta.com/themanwhodisappeared.html

I don't imagine there's a straight line connection between Phillips in the 1970's and coverage of the Episcopal Church struggles in the 2000's. What has seemed clear in the coverage of Gene Robinson's confirmation at General Convention and in the 2001 coverage of church dissension and splits (like Accokeek, the tiny country parish in Diocese of Washington). The 'conservatives' had full-time press people. I was amazed at coverage of Gene's election - the inches of story space given to quotations of 'conservatives,' and the priority their voices received in the top part of the story (vs. consistent placement of Episcopal Church officials at the very end of the article).

What's odd about it is that the Times does seem to be consistently liberal on social issues - on the editorial page - but there's a comparable consistency of bias in scale of coverage, terms used ('conservative,' 'orthodox,' 'traditional,' and for a while 'Christian' all got used in reporting as though the 'conservatives' definition of those words were neutral or objective.

How many phone calls did Goodstein make, until she got David Steinmetz at Duke to call the Wheaton press conference "unprecedented and momentous" (or did she feed him the line, to go along w/ her narrative?)

JC Fisher

I don't have any questions about Laurie's integrity. I do wonder at the practice of quoting professors who may or may not have any idea what is happening. No one I know has ever mentioned talking to Steinmetz, so I am not ready to swear him in as an expert witness.

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