MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Thursday, May 9th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The Olasky Interview.
Today, a conversation with journalist Emma Green. She’s the religion reporter for The Atlantic—a publication Marvin Olasky refers to as America’s best center-left magazine.
BASHAM: Yes, and Emma Green’s work has earned his respect. So Marvin invited her to Patrick Henry College for an interview. Let’s listen now to edited excerpts of that conversation.
MARVIN OLASKY: This was October 2016 just before the 2016 election. You went to Liberty University and interviewed students there. There were pro-Trump students there; there were also anti-Trump students there, but the pro-Trump students thought that our current president would actually win. Your reaction to that was—and I would have done it the same way—that they were very unrealistic. They’re in a bubble; they don’t understand. Tell us about your thinking through that: At the time you did the interview and then the day after the election when you realized that these students knew something.
EMMA GREEN: One of the students found me on Twitter six or eight months later and realized I had written this article and he mocked me on Twitter for the conclusions I had come to in that article. Media, of which I am a part, got the 2016 election wrong, and it got it wrong for a lot of reasons: too much dependence on polls that actually weren’t that inciteful, not enough in-depth reporting in communities where Trump was really resonating, too much wishful thinking—though not in the corners of the media I occupy—that Hillary Clinton would become president. I think it’s true that in certain American newsrooms there is a liberal bias. There isn’t that much ideological diversity, and that creates a sort of wishing into reality that filters into the news, which is unfortunate.
For me personally, I was part of environments in the news that believed Hillary Clinton was going to be elected president, and I think in certain ways there was a lot of evidence that Hillary Clinton was probably going to be elected. The lesson for me there was that it’s important for reporters to be immersed in different kinds of environments where people have different worldviews, where you’re trying as a reporter to understand those different worldviews, and you’re trying to bring those worldviews back to your readers. That’s the ultimate mission for what a reporter can do. I’ve always tried to do that. I’ve always found that to be a very attractive part of this job. The election just underscored the need for that, because what we found on the other side of the election was two halves of the country that couldn’t recognize each other. That’s the kind of environment that the news media is speaking to today.
OLASKY: This is from January 2018. Here’s the headline: Science is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost, which is a pretty unambiguous headline. I looked at it and I said, “Wow. This is factually accurate, but it is a pro-pro-life headline.” I’m just curious as to the environment at The Atlantic. Would a pro-life reporter be well-recognized there? Would he be allowed to a little more latitude in writing? Is there room in a secular liberal publication for someone with a different worldview?
GREEN: So, The Atlantic prides itself on being of no party or clique. Though we all fall short sometimes in reality, that aspiration is really important. It reaches across a lot of different issue areas. There are probably some ideological hardlines that I don’t want to spell out because I’m not the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, but I don’t think that “of no party or clique” slogan leads to relativism, meaning that any idea belongs in the pages of The Atlantic, and any idea would get equal play. That being said, I do think that there is a hunger for people who are good faith interlocutors with big faith ideas in American life. There is certainly an openness to allowing people to be good-faith interlocutors with that movement, because if no one is able to do that work of trying to understand the pro-life movement, of trying to understand the pro-life people, that is a huge blind spot in our ability to understand America. The Atlantic was founded as a magazine of the American idea. It would be foolhardy to shut that off as one of the avenues for reporters to explore.
OLASKY: I just want to ask one question about the article. Here’s what you wrote: “This represents the shift in America’s abortion debate. An issue that has long been argued in normative claims about the nature of human life and woman’s autonomy has shifted toward a wobbly empirical debate.” Why is it wobbly?
GREEN: There is a quality about our political debates which is what I can call, in lofty academic terms, scientism, but what is, in more plain language, this attraction to the language of science as the only legitimate language to making an argument. This belief that unless you have some sort of scientific fact, biological, empirical, from a poll, whatever it might be, that it is impossible to make a claim. This can be damaging to politics for a number of reasons—not that I think science doesn’t have a role in politics, because it does. Facts are an essential component of politics.
OLASKY: Useful things.
GREEN: Useful things, facts are. Facts are the matter of my profession. Fundamentally, politics is about the negotiations of competing sets of beliefs and the decisions that a society makes about the kinds of guardrails it will set up to adjudicate those fights. There can be in the dependence on science in these debates to say, “here’s an argument. It’s science, not a belief. It’s science.” It’s disingenuous, because there are belief claims that come into that. It’s also damaging, because belief claims aren’t bad. It’s important for people to say what they believe, to make claims about that, to argue about that in the public sphere and try to make laws that accord with those beliefs. That was sort of the flip side of this trend that I was looking at. I was not lonely charting the trend of science being the language that’s growing in its currency in the pro-life movement, but also some of the political water that the pro-life movement seems to be taking in.