Series 19: For the Love of Finding the Truth | Episode 03
“The Truth is Worth it.” – NY Times’ Elizabeth Dias
When we sat down to plan For the Love of Finding the Truth, one of the first names that came to mind was Elizabeth Dias of The New York Times. And for good reason—Elizabeth is one of our best thinkers right now, giving us context for what’s going on at the intersection of politics and religion in America, all the while searching for underrepresented voices that need to be amplified. A decade ago, Elizabeth started her career at Time, sitting down with heavy-hitters like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama while also covering social and ideological shifting sands, like the way the Latino community is changing the face of evangelical churches and our culture’s collective response to Trayvon Martin’s death. Elizabeth and Jen talk about the way American Christians are trying to reconcile their decisions at the ballot box with their faith, and why it’s so important to ask hard questions, even if you don’t like the answers you get in return. Elizabeth reminds us even when we get uncomfortable and dig for answers beneath the surface, the truth is always worth it.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, guys. Jen Hatmaker is here, me, your host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show. Glad you’re here today.
Really glad you’re here today, actually. We are in the middle of a series called For the Love of Finding the Truth. We’ve just got such a weird time to be alive right now. We have so much information coming at us, more than any other time in human history. As we’ve seen, so much of it is fake or false or inflated. We’re steering the ship into this mega campaign season again, which is just so loud and so noisy. We have a lot to sift through in order to be in the know, in order to have a real solid grasp on what is true. And so we wanted to put this series together to have conversations with smart and interesting people in this field, helping us discern and listen and have a better understanding of what’s going on in our culture and in our world.
And so today’s guest is going to help us think through some pretty big topics like, let’s see, what do I do when my faith and my politics are in conflict? Or what do I do when it seems like the faith that I once shared with a group of people, I no longer share when it comes to politics? What would Jesus do about toeing the party line? Just little things like that. I think this conversation dovetails beautifully with the one we had with Beth and Sarah, Pantsuit Politics. So if you haven’t listened to that episode, go back and listen after this one because that is a really smart and important conversation that will grease the wheels in your brain as you get to thinking about, How do I put my beliefs into action?
So anyhow, I’m thrilled about our guest today because it’s literally her job to ask big questions and think about the answers she gets and present the truest version of truth that she possibly can.
My guest today is Elizabeth Dias, and she covers faith and politics for a tiny little publication you may have heard of called The New York Times. Before that, she covered a similar beat for Time Magazine where she reported on the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. Elizabeth has interviewed everyone from Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama, okay? So she’s no joke. She has covered huge, important topics like the way the Latino community is transforming churches in America, and also the culture’s response to Trayvon Martin’s death, huge things where she dissects the way politics affects faith and vice-versa. She’s such a fascinating person.
Her undergrad degree is in theology from Wheaton College, and then she has a Masters’ in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, so she’s a smart girl. Elizabeth is one of my really favorite thinkers around. I’ve been a reader of hers for some time, and she and I even collaborated on a piece last year. She’s creative, but I think what I really like about her—and you’re going to hear this exact word that she says several times—she’s just insatiably curious and in a way that a journalist should be—not tied to the outcome of the story, just curious what it is, curious what’s underneath it. What is true here? What are the deep currents underneath what it is we see on the outside?
And so when I see her name on a byline, I click it immediately because she grapples with these huge topics with great care and nuance. Do you remember what that is? Remember when we used to celebrate and embrace nuance? She does this really well, still. I think you’re going to be really interested in our conversation today and challenged by it.
If you’re anything like me, pieces of what you hear for the next bit are going to encourage you and pieces might not. There was a couple of moments in the plot points where I asked her a question and she said, “I don’t think you’re going to like the answer.”
I was like, “I don’t like the answer.” But that’s truth, right? Truth isn’t always just our truth, or what we wish was the truth. It’s what’s actually true.
I am excited to bring this conversation to you. I think it’s a smart one. I think it’s a good one, and in it Elizabeth delivers to us what she thinks are best practices that you and I can adopt, any normal person can adopt, in order to become more media-literate, less pulled around by the nose, more in possession of what’s right and good and true in our world right now.
So this is a good one, you guys. Glad you’re here. You are going to be glad too. So I’m pleased to share my conversation with the brilliant, very insightful, amazingly curious Elizabeth Dias.
Jen: I am so delighted to welcome you to the show today, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for making time for this amid your very, very busy, hectic schedule. Glad to have you.
Elizabeth: I’m so glad to be here. Thanks, Jen.
Jen: And It is great to have you as a part of this truth series. When we were brainstorming, like, “Who do we want to come on and to lead us and guide us and make us think and push us into smart spaces?” you were one of the names at the very top of our list.
So I’ve filled in our listeners with a little bit about your background and your personal pursuit of truth in your life. But I think something that maybe originally kind of speaks to who you are is what you’ve chosen as your Twitter cover. It’s a button that says, “The truth is worth it.” I love it. It’s just the perfect shining example of what we’re trying to get—
Elizabeth: Me, too.
Jen: Under during the series. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that means to you, and that choice to kind of say, “This is who I am, world”?
Elizabeth: Yes, so it’s true.
I have this white button with black letters and it says, “The truth is worth it.” It’s actually pinned right above my laptop at my desk on my board, so it’s a thing that I see when I’m writing and calling people and asking questions. It’s a saying we have at The New York Times. “The truth is worth it.” It’s one of the slogans that we have.
For me, “the truth is worth it” is something I have to think about almost every day in my reporting, because reporting is really hard. Writing is really hard, and asking questions is hard. Figuring out the right people to talk to and how to fact check and really drill down to the core of a question and of a story, it’s really difficult.
And I think sometimes we joke—my colleagues and I will joke—there’s this rhythm to doing any story, and it often can feel like it just gets messier and messier before it all becomes clear. So I find I really have to push through, and I like to remind myself the truth is worth it. I have found that to be true in every single story that I have written.
It’s something you see. You can see it along the way, but it’s at the end and sometimes not even immediately. Sometimes it’s months after [when] you have a bigger understanding of what that whole reporting project really meant and was all about.
Jen: Yes, it is. It’s such a weird time, and we’re going to get into that.
I want to go backwards a little bit with you. Obviously as mentioned, you report on faith and politics for the Times currently, but you started at Time Magazine, interestingly, having zero reporting experience. And so that’s curious!
So how did you go from being a master’s student at Princeton Theological Seminary to, “I’m writing for Time Magazine, Mom. Everybody relax”? Did you choose the religion and politics beat? Did it choose you? Because that’s a pretty big leap.
Elizabeth: Well, it is. Actually, I like to say I started my career as like an eight- or nine-year-old recording my own radio show, WEJD News, for my initials.
Jen: That’s amazing.
Elizabeth: Into this ancient, giant karaoke machine, and then forcing my entire family to listen to my cassette under duress.
Jen: Oh, my gosh. I’m so happy you told us that. That’s so amazing.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I found one of them recently and I need to find a way to listen to it, because I don’t have a cassette recorder anymore.
Jen: Right! Oh, my goodness. When you figure it out, you have to send us over a clip.
Elizabeth: But yeah, I mean, prior to that really, I didn’t have reporting experience. I loved to write. I had studied religion in my undergraduate, and I have always been really fascinated by why people make the choices that they make and what that means for their personal lives, their relationships, their life and community with other people and the world.
And so I had just started actually my masters’ at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I was trying to figure out, “What do you do with that kind of degree?” All the questions of sort of a 21-year-old trying to figure out her future, and it was during the recession. It was 2008. It was during President Barack Obama’s first run for the White house, so there was a lot going on at the intersection of religion and politics, and that’s what was really driving me.
And so I met an editor for Time Magazine and got an internship there, and then that was sort of it. That was it for me. I knew right away that this was what I wanted to really devote my work toward, and then I just dug deeper.
And so I mean as far as religion and politics, in a way, I guess . . . Well, I chose it and it chose me. I thought those were the kinds of questions that I’d been thinking about during my academic studies, and it was very of the moment then. I think the conversation about evangelicals in politics was very different in 2008, 2009.
Elizabeth: How many evangelicals supported President Obama, which was just so different from the George W. Bush years. So there was a lot of really dynamic movement happening and I just wanted to dig in.
Jen: And kudos to you to get into, right out of the gate, Time Magazine. I mean, that’s not too shabby. I would say it’s starting near the top. That’s exciting.
And I don’t think there’s a single listener here who would not concede that writing about faith and religion and politics—this is hard. And obviously it’s not a monolith. There’s so many slivers in the pie chart.
I’m curious, because obviously you just said you studied religion in undergrad too. What’s your personal spiritual or faith background? What came into this? What did you bring into it with your personal experience?
Elizabeth: Well honestly, my personal experience isn’t something I usually get into as someone who reports on the beat, but it’s completely true. I mean, every reporter brings to whatever they’re writing and asking questions about—I mean, everyone brings their own personal experiences.
Broadly, I grew up in a Protestant family. And the thing that I love about this beat and what I get to write about is I learned so much from so many different people in religious communities—
Jen: Oh, I bet.
Elizabeth: And the kinds of questions that they’re asking. And so that’s what really drives me right now, is what people are seeking and why.
Jen: That’s a great question.
Elizabeth: I think I learn a lot from that, and it’s a real privilege to be invited into someone’s life and to hear their life story. I mean, the real human side of that speaking is fascinating. It’s fascinating.
And so I think for reporters the challenge is, you have to report to figure out what the truth is of what’s going on, and any topic is bigger than whatever your own personal context is.
Jen: Of course.
Elizabeth: What you bring into it, and so what can you learn from that?
Jen: So to your point, how do you find truth in your job? Because in the same way that any reporter or person in the news would bring some of their own personal experience into any environment, so do the people that you’re interviewing. Their stories are also very entwined in their perspective and definitely in their opinions.
And so how do you as a reporter discern what people tell you, like, “This is true, or this isn’t,” or “This is true, or this is less true”? How do you funnel it down to the part? That feels very complicated.
Elizabeth: It is, and that’s why journalism is an entire profession. I mean, the job of journalists is to figure that out and to . . . I mean, I often think about people living their lives and just doing daily things. Ideally, the point is that they shouldn’t have to do the same type of months-long investigations and sorting through all these very difficult questions. That’s why we do what we do, so that we can make that easier for people, right? [Journalists] cannot just say, “These are what the facts are,” but, “This is the context and this is what we’ve discovered that means.”
So for me, I mean, the whole game is reporting, asking questions, often asking questions people don’t like, really listening. I find often when I’m interviewing people, I’m really quiet a lot of the time. My goal is just to get them to talk and to really hear what they have to say.
I think it depends on the kind of reporting that you’re doing. I mean, if you’re doing sort of a deep dive into a cultural piece about life in a certain location, then that’s going to be different than if you needed to ask difficult questions of the White House or the State Department or your elected officials, so there’s different kinds of reporting.
And I think too, you have to start with facts. You have to figure out, What actually happened? What actually didn’t happen? What was said? What was emailed? What action was taken? And then once you nail down what that is, then you can start to figure out, Okay, what’s the bigger truth of this situation? Because you can’t argue with facts. Something happened, something didn’t happen, and it’s harder than you think sometimes to actually figure out what those facts are.
Jen: I believe you.
Elizabeth: And then once you know them and you’ve done that investigating, then you can say, Okay, this is what we know. Now, how have people interacted with those facts, and what does that mean? So there’s a saying, “Reporting is finding the best possible, the best obtainable version of the truth.”
Jen: That’s good.
Elizabeth: Yeah, and I think about that because in a daily newspaper and in this constant news environment, I mean, there are different kinds of stories, right? There’s, like, live events that are happening, and the immediate news of that exact moment, and then there’s putting that in the bigger context of the story, like, how that story line has been playing out in past weeks, months, even years. And so if you’re not . . . Often, it’s just the job of getting the facts out there and saying, “This is the set of facts that we need to be looking at when we’re talking about a topic.”
Jen: That’s great.
Elizabeth: What are the relevant facts here? Because everyone, sources will come and they’ll all have their own ideas or their own statements, or sometimes even what they think are their own facts.
Jen: Yeah, that’s right.
Elizabeth: And my job is to test that and to compare that with other information that I have found and then to discern, “Okay, what does this all mean when I look at it together?”
Jen: So help us break down a little bit just from a wider lens as it pertains to your specific beat. What do you know—just based on your field work, your observations, having started at kind of the beginning of Obama’s run to where we are now—what do you know about who Christians are today? What do you see the differences with them now as opposed to, well, perhaps where we were maybe 20 or 30 years ago, but heck, even a decade ago? What do we now know about how they break down by age or [gender] or income? I would just like to hear your general sort of comprehensive idea about who Christians are today and how that is shifting or has shifted?
Elizabeth: So in the United States about 25% of adults are evangelical Protestants, and then it’s about another 20% are Catholic and 15% are mainline Protestant, so that’s like Episcopal, Presbyterian Church of USA, groups like that. Less than 2% are Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And then I mean the biggest, the growing trend in the United States right now is to be religiously unaffiliated.
Jen: Right, exactly.
Elizabeth: Sometimes they call them the religions nones, N-O-N-E-S, right?
Jen: Nones, yes.
Elizabeth: Which is different from being atheist or agnostic, and that cohort is about 20, 23% of the country. And that’s what’s growing. That’s what’s growing quickly.
And then Christians in the United States tend to be, I think there are more women than men. I think the latest that I saw was somewhere around 55 to 45%, more women than men, and increasingly Christianity in the United States is less white. There’s a growing immigrant population, and so that’s just the big scope of Christianity by the numbers in the United States.
And what we’ve seen in the last 10 years is that the power of the “religious right” has been going strong. And I mean there is so much institutional and financial and political power felt for 30 years, 40 years there that not only hasn’t gone away, but has strengthened and grown and really reached new heights in President Trump’s presidency.
So now what I hear a lot talking to people is, people talking to me, they’ll say, “How much do I, as a Christian, want my faith to be connected to my politics, and what does that mean?” But that’s only if they’re asking the question. I think that’s a smaller subset of people asking that question than one might think. There’s a lot of doubling down that’s been happening, just people really committing to their views. I think I’ve heard less soul searching recently.
I think I heard even a little bit more soul searching during the 2016 campaign and the first year of President Trump’s presidency, but when I’m talking to voters now, I don’t hear a lot of people who are really changing what they think. Because for religious voters, especially conservative religious voters, it comes with an entire package about how you live your life and what you think about family and women and children. It’s a whole world view. And what I’m watching for, as we head into 2020, is are there any shifts there and how do you see them? Because they happen very quietly, and I think when I hear them it’s often in whispers, people and women wondering what this will mean for them going forward.
Jen: You know, this is all so fascinating to me. I also have pointed my arrow kind of right at this interesting and surprising intersection, where there was just such a pivot from this one set of values which I grew up in. I mean, these were just handed to me absolutely with impunity. “These are the things that we care about. This is sort of the moral body of values that comprise our faith and thus comprise our politics.” And so the pivot away, as you are describing, has been for some of us, and I’ll tell you. It feels discouraging to hear you say that that’s not a question you hear that often, that it’s a minority question.
So for those of us who are reckoning with faith and politics every day right now, which feels sometimes inside my head like, just, it’s like a cacophony of confusing metrics.
This is just a personal question. How do we begin—that apparently small crew of us—how do we begin to make peace with the tenets of our faith and the ballot box? How can we reconcile our beliefs when, strangely, at large they seem at odds now with a given political agenda, and maybe even one that we once identified with for a really long time?
And so that division right there is where I know that a lot of my listeners and readers live. That’s where I live, that very upsetting fork in the road. And so how do we move forward in a way that isn’t just this small, shrinking voice crying out in the wind, but in a way that also has some heft and some backing to it, and some real intelligent argument and debate when we say, “These are the things that we find faithful inside politics”? That’s a weird question.
Elizabeth: Well, no, it’s not. One thing I want to say is, it’s possible when I say these aren’t questions that the vast majority of people that I’m talking to and that I hear from, voters aren’t asking those questions. I think what I mean is publicly. I think I get the sense that there are people who have very private questions about this.
Jen: Yes, I get that, too.
Elizabeth: And just don’t know where to go with that. I think it seems to be an inner struggle, at least that’s what I’ve observed. And the question is, at what point would someone like me be brought into that, right?
Elizabeth: As a reporter, and especially I think people—white evangelical communities, especially—I think there is a distrust of the media and of The New York Times.
And so this is a bit of a side note, but it’s really important to me to be a part of changing that perception as much as possible.
Elizabeth: Because my colleagues and the reporters that I work with are such professionals, and I learn so much from them, and I so admire them. So I don’t know, maybe these conversations are happening. Maybe they happen between women when someone comes over for coffee, that kind of thing. But it’s hard to step out of one’s own community.
Jen: Yes, it is.
Elizabeth: And publicly dare to question. So I’ll be curious to watch if that barrier gets broken in a more public way.
But to answer your other question, I can really only speak to what I hear from voters.
Elizabeth: And my role in this entire conversation is to identify what it is that people are and aren’t talking about and questioning, and how they are or aren’t thinking about how their faith and their politics work together, right?
Elizabeth: And to show what that looks like, what the effect of that is when they do grow and they don’t.
And so when I look at the body of work that I’ve done in the past few years, as people have and haven’t engaged that question, I think I see it coming in waves and sometimes . . .
Well, there isn’t a lot of reconciling going on. People can believe different things to be true, contradictory things to be true at the same time. I mean, a lot of people have no problem . . . A lot of white evangelicals had no problem voting for President Trump, even though they also had no problem saying that they were really turned off by a lot of his comments about women, or about people who weren’t white, or about anything like that, right?
Elizabeth: So I’m really trying to better understand the conversation that takes place in that middle ground, right?
Elizabeth: When it may not affect what bubble they fill in when they go vote, but it does affect what’s going on in a church reception or something like that, or the conversations around the living room when families get together. And so exploring that deeper culture behind political decisions is what I’m really trying to focus a lot of my reporting energy on, instead of just hitting the hammer again and again like, “Look at this cognitive dissonance. What is that about?” I’m less interested in that. We know that right now. What we don’t know is much more about the cultural forces and the spiritual beliefs and economic beliefs or experiences that are driving these decisions.
Jen: And what’s your sense of it at this point? Obviously, this is all in flux. This is happening to this country in real time. So you know you, just like the rest of us, are kind of at the genesis of sorting through it all and picking through the threads, and trying to understand it.
So as you’ve dug and listened as a good reporter does and should, what are you finding? What is culturally and spiritually and economically and traditionally underneath this sort of breach in traditional faith values at the polls?
Elizabeth: I do think we’re really at the beginning of this question. This is a long game. This is a long reporting project, and I think we are . . . I mean, I know we’re three years sort of into this, but I’m curious. I mean, I think this is going to be decades. I mean, I really don’t think this is a quick shift. I mean, I think there are moments in American history when you see whole communities upend themselves and reorganize.
Jen: Yeah, that’s true.
Elizabeth: And there’s a real realignment politically happening.
Jen: It’s true.
Elizabeth: It’s like what they say about the whole history of Christianity. Every 500 years, there’s some kind of major shift and reorganization. I actually think about that, because the Protestant reformation was about 500 years ago.
Jen: That’s right, we’re at it.
Elizabeth: Right, and so I try to take a really big step back.
But the areas that I’m really trying to report on, to better understand political choices within this in specifically what’s going on with Christians in America, I’m trying to understand women and views about women, and women’s experiences in Christianity and what is changing there. Sex, what are views about sex? How is that changing? What are the conflicts there? And race, and what are the racial divisions? What is the history of racism in Christianity? What is, whose voices are not being heard?
I’m trying very hard. It’s amazing when you report on religion how often the leaders are white men.
Jen: Sure, of course.
Elizabeth: And they have . . . So I’m really trying to get other voices into our pages and into our coverage.
Jen: That’s good.
Elizabeth: So that we can see this bigger picture.
I think, well, this is an example. I’ve been doing a lot of reporting about sexual abuse, and I’ve covered that in the Catholic church for a long time. But what we’ve seen in the last year is stories of long-standing sexual abuse by leaders in Southern Baptist churches, other evangelical traditions and in non-Christian traditions.
And so one of the things that I’ve been watching is, for example, how do the Southern Baptists respond to allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct? How is that handled, and how do people in power, how do they really respond when something comes to light? I think that that has been instructive to know what sort of gets behind than the dismissal, for example, of President Trump’s, the allegations against him when it comes to sexual—
Jen: Great point.
Elizabeth: And so if you’re not able to listen to women and children’s voices in your own community, then how can you listen to what that means in a political context, right?
Jen: That’s a great point.
Elizabeth: So I think it’s things like that. It’s looking at the political questions from a different angle and saying, “What else is going on in this community that might help me look at what’s happening politically in a different way, and answer some of those questions in a different way?”
Jen: That’s a really, really interesting place to draw a line, from maybe over here from C back to B.
So to this point, you have been just in a really wonderful way, like, dog-and-a-bone reporting on sexual abuse in evangelical and Pentecostal churches. I’ve read a lot of your work around this, and I very much respect how much you’ve come into these systems to report and challenge.
So I would love to hear more from you on this. How did this issue come to light? How did it rise to the top, and then how did it find its way to you? And then I’m curious what your views are on how is sexual abuse inside the church being handled, perhaps maybe by individual churches or maybe at large denominational, like, governing bodies? What does that look like to you as a reporter, and do you think this is dealing a fatal blow to institutions that are already perceived as losing favor in our culture?
I would like to hear what you have learned from your investigations and from your reporting, and sort of your high level, This is kind of what I’ve seen.
Elizabeth: Mm-hmm. Well, last summer when the Catholic sex abuse scandals and investigations sort of exploded again, I think that that . . . I mean, that was shocking for so many people. It forced in the Catholic church a new reckoning with what many had assumed were “old issues.” And it’s a reminder of how long it takes to really face sexual abuse in a church context, probably really any context, and to really change a community. And so when that happened, then I think because that was a different environment then 20 years ago, when that scandal first broke. We were just on the heels of the #MeToo movement happening, and people were looking with new eyes at abuse.
I think then in evangelical communities that same question was coming up, and well, one of then the main things that happened was the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express–News series on abuse in Southern Baptist churches.
They said, “Look, what are the public records in our criminal justice system of Southern Baptist leaders who have been arrested, convicted, charged with a range of sexual abuse and misconduct, right?
Elizabeth: Then that forced people to say, to be able to have to stare at it, you know?
Elizabeth: There were hundreds of mug shots, you know?
Jen: Yeah, totally.
Elizabeth: So that was a spark, I think, for so much of evangelical reckonings on sexual abuse, and the Southern Baptist convention had said that they were going to take this on and form committees and really look at the issue.
And so it was interesting for me, because while that was going on I was over in Rome at the Vatican listening to cardinals meet with Pope Francis about what their next steps were going to be on this very long road, and how they were going to hold or not hold bishops accountable, right? They’d had a plan for priests, but I mean, a lot of the church leaders who were there from especially countries not like the United States where the abuse crisis had really broken open—I mean, other places where even sex isn’t talked about openly. They weren’t even on the same page at the beginning about it being a problem, much less the solution to it. So to watch this be . . . I was very aware at just how this was the beginning for evangelical communities, being able to see how long the struggle has been in Catholic churches.
And so one of the biggest investigations that I did recently was about—or is about—the allegation of child sexual abuse at the Village Church in Dallas. You asked, how did that all start? How did the story start? Time and again, we see [stories of sexual abuse] starting with, I think, very courageous women and children who decide to speak and decide to put their stories and their lives forward.
Jen: So what’s your sense of . . . And again, I do appreciate your counsel that in so many of these stories it’s a long road. It’s usually in hindsight that these things become a little bit more clear, a little bit more defined, where somewhere near more the beginning of the story it’s muddier. But from where you are right now, all your reporting up to the most recent, what’s your sense of how churches or large denominations, both either/or, how are they handling the allegations? How are they handling abuse within their ranks? And do you see, do you suspect that we will see positive change for less victim-shaming and blaming and more justice?
Elizabeth: Well, this may not make people very happy.
Jen: Yeah, I want to hear your real sense of it.
Elizabeth: Right. I mean, when I am reporting and when I am talking to victims and survivors of sexual assault, and I hear their stories of how their evangelical Pentecostal churches have responded to them, I have a lot more leads on stories that need to come public and people who need to be held accountable.
Jen: Of course.
Elizabeth: And systems that are, whether they are willful about this or not, are set up to protect themselves.
Jen: That’s right.
Elizabeth: The issue is, what are the systems in place? How are they set up, and what are the leaders doing or not doing that, whether they want to or not, are hurting people?
At the Southern Baptist convention, for example, the leadership was very upfront quickly after the first investigations were coming forward earlier this year and said, “We’re going to tackle this issue head-on.” And when I was in Birmingham at the Southern Baptist convention, yes, this was just a bit over . . . This was in early June. They were voting on new processes and a new committee and things like that, but it reminded me very much of what I have seen in the Catholic church, and how actions may seem like the first step and may seem and be championed as progress, but the road is very long.
It did not address . . . I mean, there were survivors who were outside who had not been invited in in the way that they wanted to be. And frankly, it was very notable to me, I mean, just in my investigation about the Village Church when—the pastor there is Matt Chandler. And he and the church, well, he did not talk to me for my investigation. He did not speak with the alleged victim’s family for almost 18 months, right? I mean, they came forward almost a year and a half ago to the church. And to this day they have not spoken with Matt Chandler about it.
So it was notable to me that somehow then, within 24 hours of this big investigation breaking and moving forward, Matt Chandler was on the stage at an event at the Southern Baptist convention. It was sponsored by a different Baptist group, but it was still there. He was given a platform to say what he wanted to say about what had happened.
You can listen to what he said for yourself, or your listeners can certainly do that. But my investigation and our reporting has stood up through that. I have yet to hear, is it one? I mean, I have yet to hear a Southern Baptist leader raise questions about what has happened at the Village, even just raise a question. I mean, no one will comment about it.
Elizabeth: And I think it’s perhaps the most high-profile place of current child sexual abuse. This is not something that happened 20 or 30 years ago. This is a young woman who just turned 18, and this happened to her at a church camp when she was 11 years old. What I’m watching for is, what happens with that? What is the response? I mean, first you cover the facts of an investigation, right?
Elizabeth: You handle what happened. And then you handle, What is the response to all of this? That is very much still a part of the story.
Jen: So this is for you. You’re going to be in this for the long haul, obviously. It’s a long road. It’s a long story, and as noted by history, changes slow, and accountability is slow. Systems are designed to protect themselves. Institutions like churches definitely are.
And so we’re just watching with such interest and grateful for people like you who are—going back to the very beginning of our conversation—going for truth. Just, what’s true? What’s true, and then what can we learn from that truth, and how do we grow forward?
I mean obviously in your work, you end up covering some of the hardest, most charged, opinionated topics and issues on the planet. You really do. Where so many of us, to your point that you just said, just go mute, we go silent. We don’t know what to say. We don’t know, because our alignments tell us what we can and cannot say to maintain our own belonging in that particular subculture, where you just charge in, as journalists do and as you should, and we’re grateful for it.
So for you, when you have been in these very challenging intersections and conversations with people who have very different ideas on governing and justice and what it all looks like, when do you know personally—like, just as Elizabeth—that you have done a good job? When do you find the satisfaction inside of this really hard work where—you said this earlier—not everybody likes the questions you’re asking them, obviously.
And so when do you feel like, as hard as that was or as much tension as that created in my life, that was a job well done? And then even more specifically, thus far—and you’ve got a long career ahead of you—but thus far, what has been the professional accomplishment you’ve been the most proud of?
Elizabeth: Well, I think it’s different for every story, when I know. Because journalists, we can be harsh on ourselves. Every story matters so much to me, and it’s very important to me that each story stands. And so the moment at which I know, I think it’s different for every story. But often my favorite moments are when I hear from . . . Let me just say, this really depends on the kind of story that I’m writing, you know?
Jen: That makes sense.
Elizabeth: If I’m interviewing an elected official about their policies and holding them accountable for any number of those policies and what they’ve said publicly versus what they’ve done privately, I mean, being able to get them on the record in those important ways, I think that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.
But often the stories I find the most personal satisfaction in are the ones that are really about people that you’ve never heard of. You probably would never have heard of them if I hadn’t sat down with them and interviewed them, and if they hadn’t opened their lives to me. I think that’s such a step of bravery, and for them to feel heard in our pages and for them—not just our pages, but for them to be able to tell a story that otherwise wouldn’t have been heard. I mean, their voice may have gone silent if it were not for this story.
I’m thinking right now of an investigation I did earlier this year about Catholic priests who are gay. I spent months talking with dozens of priests behind the scenes, people who are terrified that their sexuality would become public. But when I hear from them afterwards, [they say], “Thank you for giving me a voice and for telling this very important story that affects so many people. It has been either ignored or not known.” That’s what really matters to me.
Jen: I love that.
Elizabeth: And of course making sure—always striving for—you want no corrections in your stories. You want to be factually accurate and just stand up against really hard scrutiny.
Jen: Yeah, that’s good.
Elizabeth: So a lot of that satisfaction is before something is published, because you have to make sure that you’ve got it.
Jen: I love that, because there is just a human tendency to inject your own bias into anything. It just is. We just, we’ll want to either shift the facts just a hair toward our position, or only include the sources that support our personal narrative.
I mean, I know this all the time because I’m also a writer and a storyteller, and I have a very clear perspective and worldview. And so there is that temptation on the front end to skew it, but it’s the back end that you don’t want to have to defend when you’ve done a poor job of it, when you go, “Yeah, you’re right. I reported half of that,” or “I skewed the facts,” or “I omitted facts.”
So I understand exactly what you’re saying. And so when you have written something that stands up, and even your critics can push really hard on it but it remains and it holds, that’s a proud moment. That’s when you know you have—
Elizabeth: Right, and that happens over time, often.
Jen: That’s exactly true.
Elizabeth: Sometimes you don’t know that right away, or the community, people might not know that right away because it’s also . . . Well yeah, it’s fine.
Jen: Yeah, absolutely.
Jen: So Elizabeth, I’ve asked my other guests in this series on truth this question. And so as a truth-seeker yourself obviously, what is the best advice that you could give someone who is trying right now, as we all are—we’re coming up into another . . . We are in it, this big-time campaign season which is endless. It’s way too long. This is my personal opinion.
As we’re trying to sift through this incredible plethora of news and information and opinion that is constantly churned out right now through social media and the internet and TV and print and everywhere, how do we get to the truth? Why is it important that we do this? That we do this work, that we funnel down hard, that we ask hard questions, as opposed to just accepting on its face a version of the truth that feels most comfortable to us, which is an easier reach, a preferred reach to be honest with you? But how would you guide us to be competent, intelligent, judicious truth-seekers over the course of this next year and a half?
Elizabeth: I’m really glad that you’re even thinking about that, because the question of what is real and what is not is only going to become more and more important in our elections, because of technology and changes and governmental interference and just the absolute crazy . . . I mean, think about 2016 and then just kind of magnify that, and I think that’s what we’re headed into in terms of information.
So one, I would say, ask questions. You have to ask, and ask questions that you might be uncomfortable with. Educate yourself and read the news, or listen to the news, and listen to different kinds of news sources.
Jen: That’s good.
Elizabeth: Right? Read The New York Times. Read my colleagues at The Wall Street Journal, or listen to NPR, and follow stories more than just one story. If there’s a topic, don’t just read one story about it. Read a few. I know this takes time. and it’s harder to do than clicking on whatever comes up on your Facebook feed, but I don’t know how, in this era when there is so much misinformation—and there will be more misinformation.
Jen: That’s right.
Elizabeth: I mean, we’re coming up to this age when we’re going to have what they’re calling “deep fakes.”
Jen: I saw that.
Elizabeth: They’re making, technology has made it able to, say, create the image of a video that looks like a certain politician talking, but they’re able to manipulate it and actually put other words in the person’s mouth.
Jen: It does look like it. I’ve watched those.
Elizabeth: Yes, yes, and that’s what we’re dealing with. So the truth is only going to become more important, and we need new ways I think as a culture to figure out how to do that.
So, and I would broaden the circle of kind of who you talk with about it.
Jen: That’s good, too.
Elizabeth: Because if you’re only talking to your family or your immediate friends, or if you’re only talking to men, or you’re only talking to women, or you’re only talking to white people, that’s going to be . . . you’re going to hear a different conversation than if it’s a broader range.
There are things that you can do to make sure that it’s kind of in your stream of consciousness, right? That you’re changing your media diet and you’re aware of what your media diet is. I think that’s the first step. Before you can know what your media diet is going to be, you have to decide that you want a healthy media diet.
Jen: That’s great.
Elizabeth: And then you have to go for it. I’m happy to answer any questions for people if they want to tweet at me or things like that, but this is the reason that in the United States we have the freedom of the press, and we have a press. We have the Fourth Estate so that you can have journalists and reporters that you can trust, who can sort through this for you and point towards truth.
And then I would just remind everybody that the opinion section of a newspaper, or an opinion show on cable news, that is different from—
Jen: Good point.
Elizabeth: The news pages of a publication, and so the missions are very different. And also, there’s just never one story. I mean, we’re covering things in real time, and so what we’re writing is the first version of history, in many ways.
Jen: That’s right.
Elizabeth: And when I think about, Okay, well, what do I . . .? If I want to know what happened, I don’t know, 20 or 30 years ago, I can Google it and I can come up with The New York Times archive. I can read through that and I say, Okay, this is what was going on, and how it changed day by day or week by week, and the conversations people were having. And that’s what’s happening now. I mean, that’s what people are going to be looking to for what my colleagues and I are doing much, much farther down the road.
I understand that people don’t trust the media. I get that, and I think there are some cases in which people have to . . . Reporters are trying to earn that trust back, but we want a receptive audience, you know?
Elizabeth: There’s a two-way street here.
Jen: Yes, thank you for saying all of that. I think this matters. It does, yes, take time, but it is more important maybe than ever that we learn to be media-literate and savvy.
We’re the first generation to have this level of 24-hour news and opinions—some real, some invented—aimed at us everywhere all the time. There is no precedent for it, and so we don’t really have the luxury of sitting back and assuming that our media diet is healthy.
Elizabeth: That’s right.
Jen: We have to be the generation that says, “We understand the risks embedded,” not just the risks, but the repercussions. We’ve already seen it. Look at the 2016 election with the Russian interference. This is real. It’s not imagined. And so, thus we have to be responsible and healthy adults who consume the media in adult ways.
And so it’s going to take more time, but it just has to. We don’t really have a choice, or we are going to pass on a real mess to our kids, who are going to maybe never be able to unravel what has started kind of on our watch. And so I really appreciate not just your counsel, but your diligent work to bring true and honest reporting to your readers and to your community and to the culture. It matters more than ever. It’s always mattered, but it matters so much right now.
And so our journalists are vital right now to protecting facts and truth in our culture, when they’re at severe risk, just vital. You’re our front line, and so we thank you for your commitment and your diligence to dig and do your absolute best work with best practices. It matters.
Jen: I just want to wrap up real quick. These are three quick questions, sort of off the top of your head, that we’re asking every guest in the truth series.
Here’s the first one: who’s a truth-teller that you admire? And it could be anyone from history or even right now, modern context.
Elizabeth: I’d have to say my colleagues. I have great colleagues at The New York Times, and especially I’m on the national desk right now and my colleagues covering the country. They’re your front line for hurricanes and natural disasters and political messes, and understanding what’s going on in towns and farms and cities across America. It’s tough. Everyone’s working really hard, and I just learn so much from them.
Jen: That’s a great answer.
For you personally, who do you think is one of the most insightful thinkers out there talking right now, somebody really worth listening to?
Elizabeth: A nontraditional answer, and I can’t pick one person, but I have to say my sources. I mean, I listen to people. The people that I’m finding the most insightful aren’t necessarily people with big platforms.
Jen: That’s good.
Elizabeth: Because I want to know, again, what’s happening in our culture, and that means listening to a huge range of people. But again, it’s those sources who will come forward and open their lives, [who] let me try to learn and listen to them.
Jen: We would do well to turn to our neighbor and become a good listener.
Here’s our last question. We ask every guest in every series this question. From someone you have written about, Barbara Brown Taylor, a favorite of mine for sure. And so you know this question she poses and you can answer it you want. What is saving your life right now?
Elizabeth: Hiking, being outside, seeing birds.
Jen: Yes, gosh.
Elizabeth: Smelling trees and fresh air. I need it. I need that antidote to not just screen time, but the kind of the deep subject matter that I deal with all of the time.
Jen: No question about it. I have said before plenty of times when I’m locked into my desk and my laptop and my head, I have just the most lowbrow practice, no matter what time of year it is of just, Okay, I’m going to just take off my socks and shoes. I’m going to go out, just to my backyard, and just put my feet in grass. That’s it.
Elizabeth: I love it.
Jen: I don’t have any other . . . That’s it. That’s the beginning and the end of the practice, but something about it literally is grounding like, Okay, you know what? The grass will go on. Some things are eternal. This thing will pass.
Okay, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for your time today. Can you just tell my listeners how and where they can find you?
One question I actually have for them if they’re thinking about it is, I’d love to know a bit more about how this political season, this presidency, this #MeToo era has affected their marriages and their core relationships.
Elizabeth: I just wonder what that discussion has been like, and if it’s been challenging or if they’ve learned new things. I would really love to know more about that, so email me, [email protected].
Jen: That’s a great question, and I would love to hear what you find out and how those have affected our marriages and our interpersonal relationships, great. As always, asking questions over there.
Okay, thanks for your time today. I appreciate you so much, and just in me, you have a faithful reader. So whatever you put out there, I am paying attention to so thanks for all your hard work.
Elizabeth: Thank you so much, Jen.
Jen: Well, we packed that one in, you guys. Tons in there to chew on, to think over, to consider. I really learn a lot from journalists like Elizabeth, who walk into an environment curious and open-handed to it, and a good listener and a good student of people and truth. I was challenged by several things that she said, and I hope you were, too.
If you haven’t read any of her work, you’re going to really want to. You’ll see what I mean about her. So over on the transcript page at jenhatmaker.com, we will link to all of Elizabeth’s platforms, plus some of her most recent work. As mentioned obviously in this podcast, she’s doing some very heavy lifting. And so we’ll link to those as well so you can have a peek at what she’s paying attention to and what she’s uncovering. She is a really trustworthy voice in our culture right now.
So thanks for tuning in today. This might be a good one to share with some of your folks who are, just like the rest of us, having to pay pretty close attention right now to what is in media and what’s on our TV sets and in our social media feeds, and how do we sift it out? This is good instruction, so thanks for sharing this episode with the people in your world, on your social accounts. We see that you do that a lot, and we are grateful.
I’m happy to bring this series to you. More to come, so on behalf of Amanda, my assistant who does so much work on this podcast—she brings you everything you find on the podcast page at my website—and then my producer Laura and her entire team, who works so tirelessly on these interviews and these guests and the whole gamut of this podcast. We are grateful that you’re here and we’re happy to serve you, and thankful for your faithful listenership.
So anyway you guys, have a great one and we’ll see you next week.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!