Context

So yesterday I posted, exasperated that Ben Smith at Politico would post noting that Obama did not attend church this past Sunday. Apparently, John Judis at TNR and Media Matters picked up on the post as well, with somewhat less restrained commentary. Ben Smith responds:

If nothing else, the tone of the responses reflect how defensive the left still is on faith. The Media Matters post was four times longer than my item, and I don’t really think that a single story and a blog item constitute “such a big deal.”

But on the substance, there was nothing in my blog item or our story to suggest we, or anyone, consider skipping church an “offense against God.” And unlike Judis, Obama doesn’t seem to consider his faith private: He talked about it all the time on the campaign trail, wrote about it in searing detail, and campaigned on it before Rick Warren’s megachurch in a forum broadcast live on CNN. Meanwhile, hs campaign hinged for a moment this spring on whether or not he’d been at Trinity for specific sermons. So it doesn’t seem particularly unreasonable to note his habits of observance.

Look, I think Ben Smith has a point — both Judis’ item and the Media Matters’ post both of knee-jerk defensive impulses, but Smith basically misses the point: What difference does it make whether or not Obama regularly attended church? Why is this even being reported in the first place? Just because something is available to be reported doesn’t mean it it’s not an unproductive waste of space.

And to engage the argument on its merits — as Media Matters points out — neither Jonathan Martin’s original story nor Ben Smith’s blog item bother to mention that George W. Bush wasn’t a frequent church goer himself. Now, this shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of “fairness” (i.e., that George Bush got a free pass from the media on this), but rather that devoid of such details the reader is left with the impression that Obama’s churchgoing habits are unusual. Now, there would be nothing wrong with this if the issue pertained to some banal topic like working out, but religion is a highly volatile topic, especially for liberals, who are not uncommonly attacked from the right wing media as secular fascists. Thus, in terms of the public discourse surrounding Democrats and their faith, the uncontextualized assertion that Obama isn’t a frequent churchgoer does seem to be relatively negative, and my guess is that Ben Smith knows it. After all, this sentence oozes with passive-aggressivism:

The Media Matters post was four times longer than my item, and I don’t really think that a single story and a blog item constitute “such a big deal.”

To use a sports analogy, Ben Smith’s post was tantamount to an article reporting that C.C. Sabathia had just left Fourth Meal at Taco Bell. This, of course, is reported fact, but it sounds a whole lot different if you mention that the rest of his team also just left Fourth Meal.

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