I don’t even know why I bother doing this, but here I go again: the NYT has once again distinguished itself with perfectly idiotic staff commentary about the controversy between the Vatican and radical American nuns. Honestly, Maureen Dowd writing about anything having to do with religion is about like me writing about the storm and stress of the PGA Tour. In her column today, she recycles every tired cliche about the Mean Old Men of the Vatican picking on the Poor, Defenseless Church Ladies. Even though the Vatican report is publicly available information, Dowd never once mentions the main reasons for the Vatican investigation into the nun group — read all about that here — nor does she bring up the fact that the Vatican did not investigate all American nuns, only those who had substituted radical feminism and related ideologies for Catholic doctrine. There is no indication in this column that she ever read the Vatican report. She’s not thinking here, she’s emoting. One doesn’t expect The New York Times to be First Things, but one expects the nation’s leading newspaper to have enough respect for itself and the seriousness of the issues at hand to require its columnist to write with a modicum of thoughtfulness. Then again, if that were the editorial page’s standard, Maureen Dowd wouldn’t have a column.
Nick Kristof’s take on the issue is by no means idiotic, perfectly or not, but it is vapid. He talks about the good work nuns around the world do, but confuses this with the fact that the Vatican was going after American nuns — and not all American nuns, only those who belong to the LCRW, a group of radicals. Kristof doesn’t even trouble himself to look into what the LCRW nuns were accused of; he simply takes their side. I know this is a column, and, as with Dowd’s screed, they aren’t required to give both sides of the story. But these are both extraordinarily weak columns mostly because neither columnist makes an attempt to engage with the substance of the Vatican’s complaints against the LCRW. This isn’t column writing; these are typed tantrums.
For the 4,678th time, “Why is religion writing in the mainstream media so bad?” If a political party, corporation, sports club, or any other entity had top management discerning that something was wrong in a particular division, that the workers had deviated from institutional values in significant ways, and that it was affecting the work of that institution, there would be consequences. Everybody gets that. The Catholic Church, however, is held to a different standard by these news media.
UPDATE: Re-reading the columns this morning, what strikes me is the total amateurishness of a paper of the NYT’s caliber. Let me make this perfectly clear: I’m not objecting to the stance Dowd and Kristof are taking on the nun controversy (though I disagree with it). I’m objecting to the fact that neither columnist gives any indication of understanding the nature of the issue here, and its complexity. Instead, they resort to crude culture-war rhetoric. You expect this from Dowd, whose shtick always has been an attempt to deploy cutesiness to compensate for a want of intellectual depth and understanding. It’s especially disappointing from Kristof, though, who really is a smart, thoughtful, morally serious writer when he’s writing about things he understands. And he does not understand religion.
That’s the root of the problem: a complete failure on the part of these writers <i>and their editors</i> to take religion seriously. If the liberal writer E.J. Dionne were to write about this issue, I would take him seriously, because he takes religion seriously, and actually thinks about it, even though his conclusions are often not the ones I would draw. It’s really something, though, to see writers — and editors — at the Times level consistently demonstrate that they don’t know what they don’t know. In the nun controversy, you have consecrated members of Roman Catholic religious orders in many cases flat-out rejecting basic teachings of the Roman Catholic faith, and remaining obstinate in their views. What is the Vatican supposed to do? If this were, say, a large gay rights organization, and a small but significant minority were advocating the view that homosexuality was a moral evil and that reparative therapy was a good thing, neither Dowd nor Kristof would have the slightest trouble understanding why this would be a serious challenge for the leadership of the organization, which would be responsible for maintaining the organization’s fidelity to its principles and missions. If they made an argument for tolerating dissenters in the ranks — I know, I know, don’t laugh — they would at least account in their columns for the fact that this phenomenon represents a difficult challenge to the organization’s leadership.
But when it comes to religion, in particular the Catholic religion? They feel at liberty to say anything they want, confident in their own uninformed, thoughtless opinions. Their editors plainly believe the same thing. It’s so parochial, and so beneath the high standards the Times sets for itself in other areas, that it’s galling. One recalls former Times editor Bill Keller’s words from last year, spoken at an Austin conference and written about by TMatt in a column:
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 op-ed pages are not the news section, mind you, but I am quite sure the op-ed columnists are rigorously edited. How do I know this? I was having dinner one night with David Brooks, who took no fewer than three phone calls from his editors with questions and suggested tweaks to his column the next day. The Times even edits its bloggers’ entries. When I was an opinion page editor, I did not see it as my job to tell the writers who answered to me what to think. My job was to help them say what they wanted to say in the best and most persuasive way possible. If I had been asked to edit these Dowd and Kristof columns, I would have required them to show that they had grappled with the roots of this Catholic controversy, and to have at least acknowledged the arguments made by the other side, if only to rebut them.
My guess is that this is evidence of intellectual laziness at every level. All right-thinking people at the Times, and in Times circles, know that the Vatican’s position is that of bullyboy male troglodytes. Why even try to understand, or help readers gain more critical insight into the complex issue? It’s so much easier and more comforting to fall back on culture-war narratives.