Katherine Kersten: How religion was overrun by journalism

There was an intentional effort to build a new moral authority for America.

We know of the media's pervasive influence as a shaper and transmitter of information in modern America. We also know of religion's waning influence in our public square. We may be surprised, however, to learn that the two phenomena not only are connected, but that religion's declining influence was intended by many of journalism's movers and shakers.

For Americans accustomed to the contemporary media's jaundiced take on religion, it's startling to realize how different things looked a century ago. In the 1880s, the New York Times routinely took editorial positions supportive of traditional Christianity. A few decades later, Times editors were speaking of religion as based on musty creedal books with little relevance to modern life. While 78 percent of magazine articles on religion were favorable toward traditional Christianity in 1905, that figure had plummeted to 33 percent by 1931, according to a 1933 study.

What happened? While a variety of factors contributed to religion's decline as a cultural authority -- a source of truth and a guide to behavior -- a campaign to increase journalism's influence and undermine religion's credibility played a major role, according to historian Richard Flory of the University of Southern California.

During the 19th century, Flory explains, newsmen were low on the social totem pole. As a group, they were considered "cynical, unlettered, sharp as a knife," as one critic put it. Their image was that of being willing to peddle any story that might sell a paper.

As the 20th century dawned, influential editors and publishers were determined to change this. They believed that "if journalists could be seen as competent, sober professionals, they would have a greater opportunity to influence society," according to Flory. These "professionalizers'" aimed to increase the power, status and economic rewards of journalism. Their ambitious goal was to establish journalism in the public's mind -- as prominent journalist Eric Allen put it in 1920 -- as the "most important of all professions to the success of civilization."

To accomplish this, the professionalizers launched a campaign modeled on successful efforts to professionalize law and medicine at the end of the 19th century. First, they founded publications such as the "Journalist" (1884) and professional associations such as Sigma Delta Chi (1909). From this base of operations, they relentlessly promoted their vision of the sort of journalism that qualified as "modern" and "professional."

Next, they established schools of journalism to shape future generations of reporters. The first permanent program began at the University of Wisconsin in 1905, and by 1926, there were 50. According to Willard Bleyer, the UW school's first dean, good journalists were even more important to society's welfare than good doctors and lawyers. While an incompetent doctor would only result in "kill[ing] off prematurely [no] more than a few hundred persons," he said, this was insignificant compared with the damage that an "ignorant, incompetent reporter" could cause.

The new schools and professional publications generally dismissed religion as a cultural force in the modern world. They portrayed it, in Flory's words, as a "quaint belief system from pre-modern society." They took the position that, though religion had once served as an arbiter of opinion and a source of moral authority, society needed a new moral guide.

Journalism was the ideal successor to religion, according to this view, because it alone could provide the "facts" and enlightened guidance on which public opinion should be based. In the future, journalism would become the new "educator of the masses" (in Flory's words), and journalists would assume religion's traditional task of working to improve society.

Edward McKernon of the Associated Press summed up this grandiose self-concept in 1925: "That is our mission. To know what is ... . To tell a bewildered world what is. To indicate what must be the starting point of intelligent thinking if sanity is to rule ... . The future of society is in our keeping."

As journalists sought to wrest cultural influence from religion, they often appropriated religiously inspired language of truth-seeking and self-sacrifice to describe their efforts. Some extolled journalist-martyrs who had bravely stood against injustice, while others lauded journalism's "priestly mission."

The Journalist's Creed -- written by Walter Williams, first dean of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, and still used by the school -- captures this spirit. Each of its eight articles begins with "I believe," the first being, "I believe in the profession of journalism." The creed's obvious model? The historic confessions of the Christian church.

Did this campaign to replace religion raise America's moral tone and enhance our civic life? Modern society has seen many advances. But the emptiness and anomie of a public square largely stripped of religious influence leaves many Americans yearning for more.

Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at kakersten@gmail.com.

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