Fair and Balanced at The Lutheran

Started by Russ Saltzman, August 03, 2007, 02:37:47 PM

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Russ Saltzman

I listened very intently during the Central States Synod assembly early June as the new editor of The Lutheran, Daniel Lehmann, made an impassioned pitch for his magazine. The Lutheran is down to something just slightly over 300,000 readers. This is from a high in 1988 of about 1.5 million. (Seems like everything in the ELCA is down.) Lehmann, who comes from a secular newspaper background, was pretty candid as to why readership is approaching zilch. Declining congregational finances means the "every-member subscription plan" is a ready target for budget cutting bean-counters. That's true, and it may even be the major factor in the wholesale decline in readership.

Equally, though, somewhat to my surprise, he made reference to the "liberal bias" of the magazine as another turn-off factor. This was done somewhat off-handedly, a kind of "by-the-by" note. But his comments following that indicated he intended the comment as more than "by-the-by," because he went on to invoke the Fox News mantra. He promised news reporting under his editorship at The Lutheran would be - are you ready - "fair and balanced."

He explained a distinction between "news" and "commentary." News is news and carries no bias. It's straight reporting. Commentary, though, is frequently - even necessarily - opinionated. One may hope for an informed opinion, but at the end of the day, it is opinion. He didn't say it, but I will, news may also properly report opinion, but to properly retain the designation of "news," opposite opinion must also be referenced. "Fair and balanced" = fair reporting on diversity and equal space for both.

With this in mind, haul yourself back to the recent August issue (those of you still among the faithful 300.000), turn quickly to page 51, and read the "news" item "Discipline upheld, pastor defrocked."

There are four paragraphs reporting the action of the disciplinary appeals committee regarding the Bradley Schmeling case in Atlanta. The news here is simple, factual, informative. So far, so good. The fifth paragraph, though, is devoted to a lengthy quotation from Emily Eastwood, identified as the executive director of Lutherans Concerned, "a group that works for the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Lutherans in the church." She describes the outcome of the appeal as "what happens when human law becomes an end to itself." The ELCA "judicial process," she says, is "an ecclesiastical dry hole." She promises that "LGBT Lutherans and their allies . . . will not relent until justice and mercy prevail."

There is no sixth paragraph to argue for the appeals decision, no quotations asserting that no one is "excluded" from the church. Absent that, a sharp-eyed news editor should have excluded Ms. Eastwood's remarks from the article, and news of the appeals decision reported, uh, straight.

Personally, I think it is a shame that readership of The Lutheran has fallen so alarmingly. I seldom like everything I read in it. (Oh, hell, some issues I don't like anything in it at all, ever.) But it remains still the best source for knowing what's up with the ELCA, and why. I have written for The Lutheran in the past; I expect I shall write for it in the future. I genuinely believe Mr. Lehmann will make every effort to produce a magazine that fairly represents both sides of an issue.

Yet, equally, I also believe he needs a staff - a good news editor - who can distinguish news from sheer propaganda masquerading as news. Of course, he's still new to the job. As time passes, he may figure that out for himself.

Russell E Saltzman
former editor, Forum Letter
former columnist, www.firstthings.com
essayist, https://aleteia.org/author/russell-e-saltzman/
email: russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com
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