At Get Religion, Terry Mattingly brings to our attention a fantastic term he once coined to describe The New York Times’s attitude toward covering religious conservatives: Kellerism.
Read TMatt’s post for the full explanation, but basically it’s the NYT’s newsroom doctrine that when it comes to covering religious and social conservatives and their institutions, error has no right to fairness. In today’s post, TMatt cites the paper’s coverage of a case involving George Fox, a small Christian (Quaker) college that will not recognize Jaycen, a female-to-male transgender student as male, and has asked for a religious exemption from Federal non-discrimination law. It’s an interesting story, but TMatt says it fails as journalism. Why?:
Simply stated, the Times team completely ignores the issue of a private school’s right to define the doctrines at the heart of its community, whether on the doctrinal left or right.
Why is the student named “Jaycen” at George Fox? This is the other point where the Times team is completely uninterested in the views of those that oppose the newspaper’s doctrines. Apparently, other than the school’s PR voice, there are no voices at George Fox who are willing to defend George Fox.
Notice what’s going on here. It’s not that TMatt believes the NYT owes George Fox a story favorable to its point of view. It’s that the NYT is practicing advocacy journalism — and is a powerful advocate — while either not noticing or (more likely) not caring that it is stacking the deck against religious conservatives. I read the story, and there is no attempt to convey to readers what the issue looks like from the school’s point of view. It is yet another story reinforcing the NYT’s constant narrative: that LGBT folks are nothing but victims of uncaring Christians and their institutions.
This is another example of why I cancelled my NYT subscription.
But here’s an interesting twist. The NYT announced yesterday that its second quarter profits fell off a cliff. One part of the problem is not that it’s losing subscribers; the problem is it’s losing ad revenue. But the other part of the problem is that it’s not gaining subscribers fast enough to compensate for the lost ad revenue:
Tuesday’s earnings report led some analysts to ask if subscription growth has stalled — and if the company is doing enough to attract new sign-ups.
In the first quarter, the newspaper added 39,000 digital subscribers. (A subscription starts at $15 a month.) But at the start of the second quarter, The New York Times introduced a new, less expensive option, an $8-a-month app called “NYT Now,” and a high-end option, “Times Premier.”
That did not boost the pace of subscriber growth though. The New York Times ended the second quarter with just 32,000 more digital subscribers than it had started with.
Many people outside of the newspaper business assume that papers make their money from subscriptions. They don’t, at least not most of their money. That comes from advertising. As newspaper reading has migrated onto digital, ad revenue has massively declined because nobody has yet figured out a way to justify charging nearly the same rates for an online ad as for a print ad. Until and unless that problem can be solved, newspapers are going to have to rely more and more on paid subscribers.
In a time of rapidly declining newspaper readership, there are not enough subscribers or potential subscribers in the New York metropolitan area for the NYT to sustain itself over the long run. It has to grow its business. There is a vast potential audience in the country for the product the NYT has to sell. People like, well, me: intellectually and culturally engaged readers who want a quality comprehensive newspaper that reports in depth on national and international events and trends. The Times is that newspaper. It is not a conservative newspaper, but it is a great newspaper, and conservatives would get a lot out of reading it. If that weren’t true, I wouldn’t have been a subscriber for 20 years.
I quit the other day, you will recall, because I got fed up with the steady drumbeat of Kellerism. I don’t want a newspaper that reports favorably on my community, necessarily. I want a newspaper that strives to be fair and comprehensive. But I am not paying for a newspaper that consistently portrays us as people to be feared and loathed, and rarely people who have a point of view that deserves to be heard, and to be part of the conversation. The George Fox story TMatt cites is a perfect example of Kellerism; its author and its editors apparently don’t think the college’s concerns deserve explaining to NYT readers, presumably because those concerns do not serve the LGBT liberation narrative. That’s how readers who depend on the Times for their understanding of this complex and fast-moving social, cultural, and legal story fail to get a grasp of how things look from the conservative Christian point of view, and assimilate the NYT’s bias: that there is no legitimate “other side” to the story. Kellerism matters for the same reason newspapers from an earlier time ignoring LGBT people matters: it reinforces the idea that the lives and the interests of an unfavored group of people are so marginal that they can safely be ignored or treated disfavorably, because they don’t matter.
The Times is a leading contributor to an atmosphere of bigotry and illiberalism toward a large number of Americans, not all of them Christians, an atmosphere that is resulting and will increasingly result in harm coming to us. They’re not going to do it with my money, not anymore.
The thing is, I don’t understand why, from a business sense, the Times would take this tack. The kind of religious and social conservatives who would be interested in subscribing to the Times are not readers who expect their daily paper to tell them what they want to hear. I would wager that they are educated, relatively sophisticated people. According to a 2012 Pew study, 56 percent of regular NYT readers are college educated; I would imagine that the percentage of conservative NYT readers that are college educated is much higher. I would also presume that they are not business-oriented conservatives; those readers already subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. I think it an educated guess that those readers are people like me: people who want to know a lot about foreign and national affairs, but who also care a lot about aspects of culture (e.g., books, food, science) that the Times covers pretty well. And they’re likely the kinds of readers who appreciate learning about people unlike themselves. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t consider subscribing to the NYT in the first place.
So why would the Times work so hard to drive people like us away, or not to welcome us to the paper in the first place, because the newsroom has decided that we are so bigoted we don’t have any right to a fair hearing? Hear what I’m saying: I’m not asking the NYT to be biased in our direction; I’m just asking it to be fair. As Keller said, though, the Times newsroom knows it’s not trying to be fair on social and cultural issues, and it doesn’t care. Why would bringing the same degree of fairness and professionalism to the coverage of social and cultural conflicts that the Times attempts to bring to the coverage of politics and foreign affairs be a bad thing? What am I not getting?
This might be an answer. A friend who works in media at a senior level told me the other day that the Times almost certainly has a hardcore subscriber base that is militantly liberal on cultural issues, which are at the center of American politics today, and that will not tolerate any deviation from the progressive line. The Times‘s own institutional bias favors that point of view, but it’s also the case that they may feel economic pressure to cater to those readers’ prejudices. That’s understandable, to a point. But when your business model requires you to expand your customer base past New York City, and reach out to a big country that’s a lot more conservative than New Yorkers are, it makes sense to be more broad-minded and inclusive in your coverage.
Doesn’t it? Help me out here. What am I not understanding?