What does the NYT see that the rest of us don’t?

Simon Sarmiento has an excellent set of links to the mainstream media’s coverage of Anglican conservative’s creation of a new ecclesiastical partnership yesterday in Wheaton, Illinois, as does Neva Rae Fox.

The most notable story is by Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, and what is notable is not the story–which is well done–but the way it played in the paper. It appears on Page One, above the fold, in a place that indicates it is the SECOND MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT HAPPENED IN THE WORLD yesterday. Is this perhaps a bit of an overreaction?

At the moment, all this group has achieved is to take an unknown number of people who used to be Episcopalians [let’s say 65,000 for the purposes of conversation augment them with perhaps another 15,000 who were either a) Canadians or b) never Episcopalians in the first place and declare themselves a new ecclesiastical body of some sort]. Does that justify this kind of coverage?

We asked the same question when the majority of the former members of the Diocese of San Joaquin voted to leave the Church. Did the decision of 15,000 people to leave one religious group and align with another deserve front page coverage?

What, exactly, does The New York Times think is happening here? At best this kind of treatment can be called “predictive.” The Times may be certain it is covering the break-up of something big– it can’t seem to decide if it is the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion– and doesn’t want its readers to miss a moment. But what it this turns out to be the high tide of the breakaway movement? What if, when all is said and done, after they have spent millions of dollars and convulsed the Anglican Communion, all the conservatives have accomplished is the creation of a tiny church of some 80,000 people that is recognized by a dozen Anglican primates and is invisible in most of North America? Wouldn’t the Times’ coverage look a little rash in retrospect? Certainly, but by then, there will be no way of repairing the damage the paper had done to our Church, by falling in love with a narrative that never reached its expected conclusion.

The sense that the Times‘ editors have swallowed the conservatives argument in the purest possible form is augmented by three factors: a) the length of today’s story: you don’t give a reporter this kind of space unless you think something truly significant has happened; b) the decision to describe the departure of perhaps six or seven percent of the Episcopal Church’s membership as a “split.” If you split the bill, you generally split it in half. That is how the word is commonly understood. “Splinter” would have been a more accurate choice of words; and c) the photograph that accompanied the jump of the story on Page A-24 of today’s paper. It is a posed studio-style shot of four bishops of the new ecclesial body beaming at the camera. It looks more like the work of a press agent than that of a photo journalist. When this sort of picture appears in daily newspapers, they generally appear with an upbeat profile of the subject in the Style or Living sections, not in the news hole, where the principle of journalistic objectivity typically extends to the camera’s eye.

For the sake of comparison, take a look at the blog item that Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune wrote yesterday entitled Schism or Stunt? Here is a reporter willing to admit that the narrative line of this story is not nearly so well-established as the Times seems to believe, and that she and her colleagues may be being manipulated by the Anglican conservatives. It is unfortunate that the Tribune is not nearly as influential as the Times.

I spoke twice yesterday with reporters who seldom write about the ongoing saga of the Anglican Communion. I asked them both why they thought this story–which is of no obvious significance at this point–was worth covering. They both told me that personally they weren’t sure what to make of recent developments, but that they couldn’t ignore it because it was in The New York Times.

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