The Weeklies and the Damned

Politics is too important to be left to politics reporters. We also need savvy religion reporters to track Bush's redemption of his debt to right-wing religious backers. Unlike their audiences, new

Politics is too important to be left to politics reporters. We also need savvy religion reporters to track Bush's redemption of his debt to right-wing religious backers.

Unlike their audiences, news media rarely value religion as highly, say, as rape and murder, celebrity sex, seasonal skirt height or holiday recipes.

For years, The Cincinnati Post and The Cincinnati Enquirer were exceptions: Jim Adams, Laurie Petrie, Camilla Warrick, Kathleen McClain, Julie Irwin and others.

Today neither paper nor any local broadcaster has anyone with those smarts covering Bush's religio-political agenda. He's not unique in presidential history, but he's ours here and now.

We can't count on politics reporters to pick up coded clues in god-talk that would provide insights into "faith-based initiatives" run by people who believe their God denies salvation to nonbelievers.

We the damned need to be heard and those programs need to be evaluated on the same criteria as secular efforts. Accepting them on faith won't do.

In short, we're screwed.

Newsrooms rightly value skepticism, but it can distort news judgments about beliefs and practices that editors do not appreciate or share. That's why journalists love a televangelist or local pastor caught with his pants down. It confirms their biases. Fear also leads some editors to flinch from religion stories. I recall one editor physically recoiling when I suggested writing about "sex, power and money: women in religion today."

So we have mainstream news media crippled by ignorance and bias trying to report on a president who believes "moral values" elected the elect. Think of issues crying for street-smart religion reporting:

· Did the election produce a religious convergence or will historic fault lines undermine believers' support for Bush policies? Many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians eschewed politics, remaining "in the world but not of the world." Reflecting in part the ridicule heaped on them during the Scopes anti-evolution trial in the 1920s, this rich religious stream in our region deserves better than caricature.

· Will the election energize voters whose moral values do not arise from anxiety over other people's sex?

· Will the news media lead or sustain a thoughtful public discussion on the opening words of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, President Jefferson wrote, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their (sic) legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

That is the conventional wisdom, but others reject church-state separation so long as government treats all religions equally.

In 200-plus years, this never has been resolved.

· · ·

Barring insurmountable anti-trust problems, Gannett is acquiring most Tristate weeklies by purchasing the 26 Community Press papers. They are among 62 non-dailies in Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan being sold by HomeTown Communications Network.

"It's in a lot of places where we are," said Tara Connell, vice president of corporate communications for Gannett. "It makes a lot of sense."

Gannett owns The Enquirer. It is the dominant partner in the joint operating agreement with Scripps' Post that is to expire in 2007. The Post probably will die then, leaving one daily and the same company in command of suburban weeklies in Northern Kentucky and Southwest Ohio.

Connell said Gannett hasn't decided whether to keep all 26 weeklies open, to have a separate publisher for them or to retain their staffs.

"We don't own them yet," she says. "We don't know them yet."

HomeTown has an aggregate, audited circulation greater than 740,000 and about 780 employees, Connell says. Revenues are expected to exceed $86 million in 2004.

The deal fits Gannett, which owns more than 600 non-daily publications.

"And virtually all of them are associated with a daily," Connell says.

Add Clear Channel's dominance of AM radio, and Cincinnati increasingly reflects the national trend of media concentration with reduced access to news and opportunities to be heard.

As Mark Twain allegedly said, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always 20 years behind the times."

We've caught up.

The deal forestalls Atlanta-based Cox, owner of dailies in Dayton, Middletown and Hamilton, from surrounding The Enquirer. Cox already limits Enquirer growth in prospering Butler and Warren counties.

Gannett has coveted the suburban weeklies' ad revenue, and their intimate "local local" coverage has affected Enquirer news decisions for more than a decade.

Now that money can flow to Gannett and provide new freedom to set ad rates. Just as advertisers are offered separate or combined Post and/or Enquirer rates, Gannett will be able to add weeklies to that bundle.

"We'll see what works," Connell says.

The problem, of course, will be where to take your news or ad dollars if you choose not to make Gannett's day.

· · ·

Curmudgeon notes:
· Welcome back John Kiesewetter as broadcast reporter/ critic at The Enquirer. Canceling his beat and exiling him to the suburbs were inexplicable.

· Local broadcasters sought Thanksgiving and Christmas aid for families of active duty military, but what explains the virtual absence of these distressed Tristaters from local news?

· The New York Times page 1 breathlessly reported growing resentment about increasingly intimate searches at airports. Times reporters and editors should read their business columnists, who for weeks cataloged women's objections to these unjustifiable sexual assaults.

· The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., gave its 2004 Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting to Russell Carollo and Mei-Ling Hopgood for their Dayton Daily News probe of violence against Peace Corps volunteers. Judges said their winning entry "proves that world-class investigative journalism isn't the purview of just the national dailies or magazines with deep pockets. Carollo and Hopgood have demonstrated that size need not determine ambition."

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.

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