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Alissa Wilkinson


Is Religious Journalism Haunted?

Cracks in the myth of objectivity.

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Traditional journalism supposed a writer who could stand apart from her subject, observe it, investigate it, and write down those observations for others, all while disregarding her own personal biases and remaining unaffected by the experience. The resulting work was free of emotions, passions, ideologies, or beliefs. The journalist in fact barely even has beliefs, or at least not publicly. She embodies the secular ideal: free of bias, open to everything that is logical and factual and verifiable.

This convenient fiction reflects well on us as readers, too, which might be one reason we continue to believe it. The reader who leisurely peruses the morning paper over coffee (or hurriedly scans it in the subway) might also imagine he is measuredly reading both sides of the story and making up his own mind about the issues of the day, while still remaining fair-minded and intellectually honest.

This is a holdover from an earlier time, before postmodernism scraped away the veener of objectivity. Journalists are people, too. Like everyone, they are subject to bias, conscious or not. Academic journalism itself has grown suspicious of the objectivity myth. But it's still appealing, because it makes us feel civilized. An objective journalism would quiet the notion that things like beliefs have to color how we look at the world. It would prove that it is possible to fence in a "secular" public square, one in which religion and bias are checked at the door.

In his introduction to Radiant Truths, Jeff Sharlet goes further: he writes that the very idea—"the belief that it is possible to stand apart from the world—cuts close to the more obviously religious doctrine of infallibility" (14), which is to say that even this belief in a non-sectarian secular space is its own sort of religion, something based more on faith than empirically verifiable fact, something that is profoundly identity-shaping for its believers. In this volume, Sharlet, a self-described skeptic who is a bestselling literary journalist and a professor of creative nonfiction at Dartmouth College, pulls together a valuable trove of the best of the genre that helped break down conventional journalism's claims: literary journalism, and, specifically, reporting on American religion, ranging over the past century and a half. Well-known multi-genre writers (Henry David Thoreau, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin) appear alongside more niche practitioners (Meridel Le Sueur, Ellen Willis), with work that covers a stylistic range from the clinical to the barn-burning.

Literary journalism crops up in the mid-nineteenth century—the collection begins with Walt Whitman in 1863—but doesn't get a toehold on the American journalistic landscape until the mid-twentieth century, when practitioners like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer made their careers writing it.

Novelists flock to the genre, since its techniques are closely related: nearly all of David Foster Wallace's nonfiction is literary journalism; Zadie Smith has done her fair share. You can read literary journalism in many vaunted publications, from books and elder statesmen like The New Yorker and Harper's to upstarts: n+1, The Believer, websites that come and go. The public radio show This American Life functionally practices the genre in radio form and launched a revolution in radio. Literary journalism appears in major newspapers and magazines alongside traditional reporting, too—Ta-Nehisi Coates's much-buzzed-about 2014 article on reparations in The Atlantic qualifies; The New York Times Magazine frequently publishes long-form literary journalism by important young writers like John Jeremiah Sullivan.

All of this is part of a wider shift toward what the academy calls "creative nonfiction," a genre that also encompasses memoir, personal essay, some forms of criticism, and other less definable works. That is a messy, confusing family, but all creative nonfiction has a couple things in common: a noticeable narrator who has made choices to enter and shape the story (and often uses the first-person pronoun), and a story is built out of things that happened in the same universe the reader occupies. Nearly everything else is up for grabs.

As part of this tradition, writers of literary journalism are cognizant of their own participation in their stories, as well as the power they hold to shape the reader's perceptions of their subjects. It's difficult to be even-handed in covering things that often, frankly, test the limits of the writer's credulity. So necessary is the continued suspension of judgment that the writer sometimes finds himself adrift, not sure what even he believes anymore. In Radiant Truths, Sharlet "looked for pieces that 'essay' these contradictions, true tales that recognize that the wrinkle in any truth is always the truth teller herself, essays that attempt to become documents and take stock of their failures to completely do so as an inevitable part of the story" (6). He is convinced that literary journalism is "uniquely well suited to the documentation and representation of the strange category of American religion" (9).

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