God and The New York Times, once again

When it comes to the daily news, the recently retired editor of The New York Times has decided there is news and then there is news about religion and social issues.

When covering debates on politics, it's crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it's only natural for scribes in the world's most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

"We're liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal," Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. "We're an urban newspaper. ... We write about evolution as a fact. We don't give equal time to Creationism."

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: "You may not be in the right state for that."

Keller continued: "We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we're liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal."

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor "Democrats and liberals," he added: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does."

The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage.

However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America's hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That's all.

Keller's Austin remarks were the latest in a series of candid comments in which the man who has called himself a "crashed Catholic" has jabbed at his newspaper's critics, especially political conservatives and religious traditionalists.

Shortly before stepping down as editor, he wrote a column insisting that religious believers -- evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, in particular -- should face strict scrutiny when running for higher office. After all, he argued, if a candidate believes "space aliens dwell among us," shouldn't voters know if these kinds of beliefs will shape future policies?

In another recent essay, Keller flashed back to an earlier national debate about the integrity of the Times and its commitment to journalistic balance, fairness and accuracy. It was in 2004 that the newspaper's first "public editor" wrote a column that ran under the headline "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" Then, in his first sentence, Daniel Okrent bluntly stated: "Of course it is."

Discussions of this column continue to this day. The key to that earlier piece, noted Keller, was its admission that the Times' outlook is "steeped in the mores of a big, rambunctious city," which means that it tends to be "skeptical of dogma, secular, cosmopolitan."

This socially liberal worldview does have its weaknesses when it comes to covering news outside zip codes close to Manhattan.

"Okrent rightly scolded us for sometimes seeming to look down our urban noses at the churchgoing, the gun-owning and the unlettered," noted Keller. "Respect is a prerequisite for understanding. But he did not mean that we subscribe to any political doctrine or are foot soldiers in any cause. (Anyone who thinks we go easy on liberals should ask Eliot Spitzer or David Paterson or Charles Rangel or...)."

As for the future, the newspaper's new executive editor has carefully offered her own opinion on the worldview of the newsroom she leads. In an interview with current Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane, Jill Abramson joined Keller in stressing that it's crucial to remain unbiased -- when covering politics.

"I sometimes try not only to remind myself but my colleagues that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of America," she said. "I am pretty scrupulous about when we apply our investigative firepower to politicians, that we not do it in a way that favors one way of thinking or one party over the other. I think the mandate is to keep the paper straight."

Joking about Jonestown

It only takes a few words to call back the memories from 30 years ago, all those nightmare images from the jungle sanctuary in Guyana. "Revolutionary suicide" may do the trick, especially when combined with that grim quotation from one survivor, "They started with the babies." But it was another Jonestown catch phrase that leapt into the national consciousness.

Sherri Wood Emmons heard it when she accepted a job with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) only four years after the massacre.

"Don't drink the Kool-Aid," said a friend, laughing.

"It's understandable, I guess. We use humor to distance ourselves from things we don't understand, things that frighten us," noted Emmons, in her editorial introducing a DisciplesWorld journal issue marking the Jonestown anniversary. "It's easier to poke fun at people than try to understand them. Those crazies, we say, shaking our heads. They must have been nuts."

But there's a problem with America's three decades of sick laughter about 900-plus people drinking cyanide and fake fruit juice in honor of one man's vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The Rev. Jim Jones really did flourish in the American heartland and begin his ministry in Indianapolis, of all places. In the early 1960s, his idealistic, multi-ethnic Peoples Temple was embraced with open arms by the Disciples of Christ, a mainstream church at the heart of the Protestant ecumenical establishment. When he moved his flock to California, he forged strong ties to George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Willie Brown and the San Francisco political establishment.

And those Jones disciples? "They were living out their faith in wants that might shame some of us today," according to Emmons. "And they were Disciples of Christ. As much as we might like to forget that."

In other words, Jones was a charismatic, talented minister whose work united rich and poor, black and white, young and old. That was before he started preaching socialism and saying he was the reincarnation of Jesus. That was before the sexual abuse, torture, drugs and violence.

Why didn't anyone see who and what he was?

After the tragedy unfolded, the headlines marched past day after day, with each bizarre revelation adding to the horror and confusion. The Jonestown news coverage made a strong impression on me because I was young journalist, just out of college, who wanted to become a religion-beat reporter.

I kept waiting for mainstream journalists to dig into the religious roots of these tragic events, to explain what Jones believed and why his followers were so loyal. I waited a long time.

This was an important religion story. Wasn't it?

Frustrated by why I was reading, and not reading, I called the dean of the religion reporters, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. I remember the calm anger in his voice as he explained that few, if any, major news organizations had assigned religion specialists to help cover this shocking story that centered -- for better and for worse -- on the shocking demise of a pastor and his flock.

For many journalists, Cornell explained, Jonestown was too important to be a religion story.

"I think that a lot of newspaper people, a lot of journalists, grew up in a tradition where religion, at least the substance of religion, was out of the ballpark as far as newspapering is concerned," he told me. "They hesitate to cover religion because they see it as a private matter. They don't want it in the newspaper. Of course, this attitude could also be due to their ignorance of religion."

That's why it was hard to take Jones seriously during his rise. That's why it was hard to take him seriously after he died and took his followers with him. That's why it's easier to laugh or to look away.

Jonestown was not an isolated case, explained Cornell. Anyone who wants to understand how the world works has to take religion seriously. But many journalists just didn't get it. This blind spot is real.

That was true 30 years ago and it's true today.

"I mean, look at every major flash point in the world," said Cornell. "There's almost always a religious element involved -- and it's almost always a powerful one. ... People just don't see where the hammer is falling -- where the vital brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it."