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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

26 November 2011

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin proverb meaning “who will guard the guardians?” or “who will watch the watchdogs?”

And I was reminded of it when reading the latest offering of GetReligion, a website that is a self-appointed guardian of religious reporting in the news media. Their premiss is a reasonable one. Secular journalists who are asked to cover stories that have a religious element often get it wrong. So the writers at GetReligion analyse stories that appear in the media, and show where they got them wrong.

But one of their recent stories, Marian Mission to Moscow and the New York Times | GetReligion makes me wonder if they haven’t fallen victim to the very disease that they are claiming to be able to diagnose.

For a start there is the misleading title.

Marian is a distinctively Roman Catholic term, and so on going to the site I expected to read about a row over a Roman Catholic missionary group going to Russia to proselytise. There have been quite a number of stories about that kind of thing in the past.

But this was something different, briefly, and as far as I could see, accurately summarised as follows:

A religious relic — the belt of the Virgin Mary — has been brought from the Vatopedi Monastery on Mt Athos in Greece to Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral by the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation. In the week that it was on display over a half million Russians lined up to gaze upon and perhaps kiss the glass case that enclosed the camel-hair jewel-encrusted relic. At times the queue stretched almost three miles with tens of thousands waiting in sub-zero temperatures. The faithful believe the relic was given by Mary the Mother of God to St Thomas before her Assumption. It is reputed to have miraculous powers and has helped women to conceive. The Itar-Tass and Novostiwire services provide a quick summary of events.

The article praises some Western news sources for reasonably accurate reporting, but goes on to criticise the way the New York Times presented the story.

The Telegraph and Washington Post played this straight and focused on the religious angle, giving the pilgrims who braved the cold to stand in line to venerate the relic a sympathetic hearing. The New York Times took a different line offering faithful voices and fortune tellers and enclosing the whole in a box marked hysteria. It also sought the secular angle and gave us Vladimir Putin. But it neglected to explain why we needed to hear from Putin or of the political significance of the relic’s mission to Moscow.

But the bottom line for me was the snarky attitude. Instead of standing outside of its culture and attempting to report faithfully and fairly on what was going on in Moscow, it stood squarely within the jaded and hip mindset of Manhattan. What we got from the New York Times was a travelog with attitude.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. The problem here is that the article is set within the context of a moralistic sermon on how journalists ought to be able to stand outside their own culture and report things objectively and to the point.

And in that final paragraph there are some anomalies.

The writer, George Conger, has already told us that

A modern journalist employs Thucydides’ methodology and is expected to stand outside his own political system, culture and religion, to criticize his own society and to pursue the truth. Even Robert Fisk, the doyenne of ideological journalists will state that the reporter’s job is to tell it like it is: “My job is to report what I have seen.”

Now who’s being “snarky”?

Obviously Conger doesn’t like Robert Fisk, but Conger doesn’t stand far enough outside his own political system, culture and religion to tell us why he doesn’t like Fisk, or what Fisk has to do with this particular story in the first place. And what on earth is a doyenne?

So it seems that Conger is doing the very things that he is criticising the New York Times for doing.

Conger was also introduced to the GetReligion team as someone who could provide a more international perspective for a site that was heavily biased towards a US audience. Well, the story is outside the US, but the perspective, though it may not be hip Manhattan, is not far away from Manhattan geographically. Perhaps it’s a little farther culturally, but not much. It certainly doesn’t cross any oceans.

It won’t take many more stories like these to stop me following GetReligion on Twitter. If they really want a more international perspective, they could do worse than recruit Bishop Nick Baines, whose comments on the Brit media are often perceptive; he generally does a much better job at doing what GetReligion claims to be all about. He also has a much wider and more international perspective than most of the  GetReligion writers seem to have


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