Winston: There Was No Golden Age of Religion Reporting

H.L. Mencken

I like Diane Winston‘s historical chops in this piece.  Those who want to return to some kind of golden age in which journalists gave sophisticated treatment to American religion must come to grips with the fact that such a golden era probably never existed.

Winston writes:

Carl M. Cannon bemoans the current state of religion reporting as if there was a time when the press provided smart, in-depth, contextualized coverage of religious leaders, issues, ideas, and communities.

How did I miss that?

That Golden Era wasn’t in the 1980s when reporters treated evangelicals as bumblers and missed the significance of the conservatives’ takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. And it surely wasn’t during the late 1940s and 1950s when, according to Debra Mason, “the abundance of syndicated religion content says more about demand for such content than it does about the quality of religion beat reporting, given its lack of originality and its low level of journalistic skill.”

Maybe reporters did a better job in the 1920s? Well, yes, if you agree with H.L. Menken’s characterization of Dayton, Ohio’s religious populace as “yokels,” “morons,” or “hillbillies.” Or if you’re fine with the anti-Semitic undertones in the coverage of the Leo Frank trial and the anti-Hindu coverage that ran through Western newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s.

Read the rest to see how Winston connects this historical overview to the current state of religion journalism and the coverage of the Kermit Gosnell story.