What if more journalists tried to write like JoAnn Wypijewski, probing rather than excoriating; thinking rather than reacting? I'd thought I'd seen everything I needed to know and then some on the Mark Sanford front when I came across Wypijewski's jewel-like meditation on love, marriage, religion, politics and journalism.
It would have been enough if Wypijewski had simply set the record straight. Despite most media reports and innuendos, Sanford is neither a benighted Southern conservative nor a backwoods Bible-thumper. “He recently irritated those who are [very religious] by not signing a bill that would have welded I Believe to the state license plate” writes Wypijewski, adding “he wasn't elected in 2002 pushing family values; he ran as a vague libertarian and was elected because a lot of Democrats, blacks especially, abandoned the odious incumbent.”
But Wypijewski pushes further, analyzing the last 40 years of changing sexual mores and politics to examine how we've mangled expectations of love in the name of personal fulfillment. In the process she takes the media to task for condemning Sanford for the sins they love to hate—and live to expose.
Of course it's understandable why journalists seize on stories of celebrity adultery. They, too, follow the path of least resistance, seizing tropes that make good copy. Hypocrisy sells and religious hypocrisy sells even better. But it's also true that they miss (or misunderstand) believers' lack of outrage when preachers and politicians stumble. We are them, they are us: we all sin and need forgiveness—from our readers if not our gods.
In a similar vein, Farai Chideya exhorts reporters to be more self-aware when writing about race. She calls out Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz who, complaining that black female reporters are too soft on Michelle Obama, sounds snarky and sexist.
The bigger but less obvious problem is Kurtz's lack of self-awareness. He seems to forget that white people, as members of a race, are subject to as well as objects of bias. As Chideya notes: “This presumption of transparency when it comes to whiteness is particularly dangerous in the newsroom. At the same time, for example, my now-cancelled show “News and Notes” was scrutinized for any bias toward then-Senator Obama, one of the people constantly reminding us not to be biased would use the phrase 'my friend Karl Rove' without the slightest sense of irony.”
Journalists, like the rest of us, have blind spots, and religion and race tend to be big ones. We become so used to assuming our perspective is normative that we come to believe it. But sometimes there's a gap between belief and reality; Wypijewski and Chideya offer challenges, and insights, on how to scale it.