Blessed Be the Newsmakers

A new business model for the press: Declare itself a religion.

Now that newspapers have stopped generating profits, some folks want to transform them into tax-deductible outfits that chase after donations. Writing in the New York Times, David Swensen and Michael Schmidt of Yale propose the university as the model for a nonprofit press. Others, such as media entrepreneur Steven Brill, recommend that newspapers charge a small fee for online content.

If the press really wants to secure its future, here’s a modest proposal: It ought to declare itself a religion. The tax benefits, as the accountants say, would be substantial—and there would be other advantages, too.

As historian David Paul Nord notes, the nation’s first reporters were men of the cloth. Decades before the appearance in 1690 of the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, the typical sermon reviewed major events of the week (news) and scrutinized them for hints of God’s will (editorials). Some clergy published their Sunday sermons (newsmagazines) as well as books on current events. Nothing can be “more proper for a Minister,” proclaimed Cotton Mather, than to record those “illustrious displays of that Providence, wherewith our Lord Christ governs the world.”

Then there’s the legal conflict that keeps landing journalists behind bars. Priest-penitent privilege is far sturdier than reporter-source privilege.

Could the Times have transformed itself into a faith-based organization and helped Judith Miller avoid jail in 2005? Consider United States v. Judith H. Kuch, a federal case from 1968. Facing narcotics charges, Kuch called herself “Primate of the Potomac” of the Neo-American Church, announced that LSD was her sacrament, and advanced a religious-freedom defense. The judge scoured the Neo-American faith—no spur-of-the-moment Kuch concoction, it had been incorporated in California three years earlier and claimed some 20,000 members—for the customary marks of churchdom and concluded that it came up short. There was no evidence of “a religious discipline, a ritual, or tenets to guide one’s daily existence.” But the judge did find troublesome stigmata of frivolity: The church symbol was a three-eyed toad; its term for clergy was Boo-Hoos; one of its hymns was “Puff, the Magic Dragon”; and—the judge seemed to find this particularly significant—its motto was “Victory Over Horseshit.”

The Times is way ahead of the Boo-Hoos. It’s got religious discipline (just ask Jayson Blair) and rituals (attending an editorial-board meeting). “Victory Over Horseshit” would be a worthy motto for any paper, but “All the News That’s Fit To Print” could have come from Cotton Mather. As for “tenets to guide one’s daily existence,” the Times ethics code bars some reporters from wearing campaign buttons, seeking public office, or participating in protest marches. This is citizenship celibacy.

Besides keeping its reporters out of jail, a church paper needn’t rely on massive infusions of foundation money. It could instruct readers to tithe. As congregants, it would be their sacred duty.

More broadly, as New York University’s Jay Rosen points out (and noted earlier), American journalism itself constitutes a sort of religion, “a belief system and meaning-making kit that is shared across editorial cultures in mainstream newsrooms.” What qualifies as news reflects an idealized notion of democracy. Public corruption brings forth righteous wrath from the press’s pulpit. Reporters strive to “evoke indignation at the violation of social values,” media scholars James S. Ettema and Theodore L. Glasser observe in their book “Custodians of Conscience“—as, they add, the prophet Jeremiah did.

Just as the Puritans vowed to purify the Church of England, journalists seek to purify the country’s institutions of self-government. “Democracy,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin editor Fred Fuller Shedd declared in 1931, “functions largely through the efficient service of the newspaper”—no great leap from “No one comes to the Father except through me.” The Scripps Newspapers’ motto admonishes, “Give Light and the People Will Find Their Own Way.” See also John 8:12: “I am the light of the world.”

It shouldn’t be that hard to reposition the press as a church. It’s already halfway there.