On this Thanksgiving week, the sidewalks of downtown San Francisco have been bustling with activity as thousands of people ignored a rainy cold front, bustling to and fro clutching bright red tote bags.
No, this is not an early wave of Christmas shoppers, although these folks do know more about the Virgin Birth than the rest of us.
The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature held its annual meeting November 19-22 in Baghdad by the Bay, where it has been hard to walk down the streets around Moscone Center without bumping into a gaggle of scholars talking advanced hermeneutics or a PhD candidate looking for the hotel where the scholar from Ann Arbor will lead off the Pseudepigrapha Section with a paper on “Death as Divine Paideia and the Agon of Corporeal Life in the Wisdom of Solomon.”
In a past life, when I was employed as the religion reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper, I used to go trolling at this sprawling post-doc gang bang, looking for off-beat story ideas. They give you those bright red tote bags so you can carry around two telephone-book sized programs telling you where to find the professor from a Methodist college in Spartanburg, S.C, presenting his thoughts on “Muscled, Mean and Sometimes Moral: Professional Wrestling and the Embodiment of Cultural-Ethical Tensions.”
On Sunday, I made the mistake of stumbling into a panel of (except for KQED’s Michael Krasny) East Coast media elite telling the assembled professors how to get their bright ideas picked up by what we used to call “the popular press.” That was back in the day when people still got their news in the form of something called a “newspaper.”
They actually had some good ideas for the scholarly set, explaining how it helps to talk like a human being and remember that there’s a big difference between an important paper and a great story. And, yes, the religion beat has been hit hard hit by the ongoing downsizing of the Great American Newspaper.
But I was somewhere between bemused and enraged when Sally Quinn of the Washington Post, the ultimate inside-the-Beltway celebrity journalist, explained how she looked across the vast media landscape five years ago and discovered that no one in the news business had figured out that Americans really care about religion and that there are a bunch of great stories out there just waiting to be told.
As someone who covered the religion beat for twenty-five years, I thought I’d gotten used to the fact that leading newspaper publishers, managing editors, network television producers, and others who claim to speak for the “news media” rediscover the religion beat about every five years.
I almost raised my hand to remind the assembly that there has been something called the Religion Newswriters Association. It’s been in business since the 1940s and has over the last few generations given awards to hundreds of fine journalists who have produced lively, informative, heart-felt stories about religion in America and elsewhere on the planet. And, no, they were not all hacks writing the Sermon of the Week for the Saturday church page.
And – unlike myself -- many of them are still plying their trade at big, medium and small newspapers across the country, even more overworked and underpayed and underappreciated than ever.
But I kept my mouth shut. I mean, who wants to sound like embittered old semi-retired fart who has been forced to complain about the good old days on a blog nobody reads?