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Culture Q&A

Emma Green

Getting the big story

A look behind the desk of The Atlantic’s religion and politics writer

Getting the big story

Emma Green (Patrick Henry College)

Emma Green covers religion and other spheres for The Atlantic, a venerable magazine that’s probably America’s best center-left publication. Here are edited and tightened excerpts of a Q&A that she and I had in April before students at Patrick Henry College.

Do journalists at national publications like The New York Times or The Atlantic naturally tilt toward greater governmental centralization? It makes their publications more important. You could say it’s a cyclical death spiral. News media, and specifically cable television, have helped to push a certain type of national narrative about politics in the United States. Catering to that, and based on certain ideological presuppositions, both political parties have concentrated their focus and energy on those national characters and players. Cameras create the stage, and people on the stage need the cameras. They feed off each other.

Meanwhile, we ignore local and regional news. This is bad for everybody, in part because it prevents local communities from knowing what’s going on in their local government. The national news also needs the local news in order to know what to report on. 

The 2016 election results suggest that liberal national journalists were in a bubble. It’s true that in certain American newsrooms there is a liberal bias. There isn’t that much ideological diversity. It wasn’t unrealistic to believe that Hillary Clinton might be president, but the lesson for me there was that reporters should be immersed in different kinds of environments where people have different worldviews. One of the biggest liabilities for the media today is that mainstream news is so concentrated in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., coastal urban areas that don’t capture a lot of what’s going on in the country.

‘One of the biggest liabilities for the media today is that mainstream news is so concentrated in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.’

Tell us about The Atlantic’s abortion coverage. The Atlantic prides itself on being of no party or clique—though we all fall short. The opposition to abortion of a large segment of the American population is a central moral belief. If no one does the work of trying to understand pro-life people, that is a huge blind spot in our ability to understand America.

One of your stories last year has the headline, “Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost.” That’s factually accurate but it’s also pro-life: Who wrote that headline? I think that was my editor. We went back and forth on a number of them, but I ultimately don’t get final word on the headlines.

How about a story you wrote last year, “Should Pro-Life Clinics Have to Post Information About Abortion?” The state of California was ordering pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to post specific signs. You wrote, “California is concerned about the rights of the women who walk into CPCs—the audience—while the pro-life centers are concerned with their own rights as speakers.” Around abortion both sides contest the question of what is truth and what is not. The Supreme Court basically ruled that it wasn’t appropriate for California to regulate CPCs in the way that it might regulate a quack doctor.

But didn’t you suggest that the pro-choice side is concerned about women and pro-lifers are concerned about themselves? Only in the next-to-last paragraph did you say anything about unborn babies, and that’s just a mention of the comparatively lower birthrates of black babies. Does this story minimize the altruistic aspects of pro-life work? I take that as constructive criticism, and appreciate it as a reporter, because when people are willing to offer that kind of criticism, it helps me to get better. In the story I emphasized the legal issues that this case would turn on, but I take seriously the point that it’s always important to talk about the core beliefs and convictions that motivate people in these fights—particularly when it comes to things like abortion.

Another story of yours from last year: “How Trump Is Remaking Evangelicalism.” What did you conclude? That this is a time of great fracture. Evangelical is much too broad a word to be meaningfully descriptive, because some who would have identified as evangelical no longer see that as descriptive of themselves. Some are very pro-Trump, believing he’s done wonderful things. For example, concerning the pro-life movement, Trump has been faithful to the promises he made. Some believe his personal life is not consonant with some of the values or behaviors evangelicalism holds dear. It’s important for reporters to get inside these different perspectives and say to readers, “There’s no uniformity under that broad catchall that we say is evangelicalism.” How would you rate me on that?

Doing well, but how about the story this year with the headline, “Trump Sees an Opening With Voters on Late-Term Abortion.” The article assumes his position on abortion is just a way to cement his base. Maybe, but I’ve seen many times someone who has abstractly promoted “choice” finally coming to grips with the reality of unborn life and being moved by it. Do we do Donald Trump a disservice if we assume that it’s just politics? It’s always important to leave open the possibility of earnestness, sincerity, and personal background motivating someone’s personal agenda. Sometimes it’s our job as reporters to put on the hat of strategy and tactics and say, “What’s the political calculus here?” In that article, that’s what I was doing, but I take your point really seriously. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be an acknowledgment that there could be a deep ideological or personal belief that motivates this gravitation toward this topic.

We should be skeptical of any words that come out of the mouth of a politician, but also skeptical about assuming it’s only politics. That’s fair.

One more question about an article: Your piece on Shadi Hamid, author of a book on Islamic exceptionalism. Shadi doesn’t just think about religion as a function of politics or a function of economics, which is very much in vogue in mainstream media and mainstream think tanks. He takes it seriously on its face as a belief system. He grapples with the ways in which Islam is a complicating factor in government that in some ways made it impossible for there to be robust democracies in certain parts of the world. He doesn’t say Islam is incompatible with democracy, but he grapples with geopolitical reality.

Muslims tend to see Western secularism as a failure. The Atlantic presents liberal thought in a very admirable way, but—as in dating—Hamid is telling the liberal West that Muslims “are just not into you.” Shadi, along with others I’ve encountered, is skeptical of the idea that we will end up at a point of enlightenment that looks roughly the way liberal secular America looks.

How can students help to create a media space that is more ideologically diverse? Get into the mix. Don’t think that there are no students from an evangelical background in the news media. I have very close friends in newsrooms who are evangelicals who have been able to succeed.

Yes, journalism is a great mission field that’s also fun, but we should acknowledge the degree of difficulty when we go against our current sacred cows, the most sacred of which now are abortion and LGBTQ questions. I totally acknowledge that.