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Stephanie Simon Covers the Snark Beat

John on December 7, 2006 at 12:02 pm

Stephanie Simon is fast becoming my least favorite reporter at the LA Times, which is saying something given that they employ Joel Stein and Philip Kennicott. Simon covers the “Faith and Values” beat for the LA Times, which I guess is sort of like covering the capitalism beat at the Daily Worker. In practice what it means is a monthly snark at evangelical Christians.

Today, Simon has a front page piece titled Manliness is Next to Godliness. The scene is a weekend conference called GodMen:

Brad Stine runs onstage in ripped blue jeans, his shirt untucked, his long hair shaggy. He’s a stand-up comic by trade, but he’s here today as an evangelist, on a mission to build up a new Christian man — one profanity at a time. “It’s the wuss-ification of America that’s getting us!” screeches Stine, 46.

A moment later he adds a fervent: “Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!”

If that sounds ridiculous, it’s supposed to. This is only the second paragraph and already Simon has set the tone of snide mockery which will infuse her whole piece. This is The Daily Show on the front page of the LA Times. After a few more snarky paragraphs, Simon not-so-subtly introduces the dark edge:

Martinson considers the experiments with high-testosterone worship “an important attempt to address at least one aspect of the difficulty Christianity is facing with men.” He just worries it might go too far. “Too often, it turns into the man being in charge of the woman,” he says. “Christianity has been there before, and we learned how wrong it was.”

We then get a vignette of one conferee who, a few weeks later, leaves his wife and one month old for a weekend camping trip. Clearly this testosterone talk will drive someone to spousal abuse given a few more weeks.

The only other “outcome” of the conference Simon shares with her readers involves a previously meek 43 year old telling a store clerk to replace a happy holidays message with “Merry Christmas.” The idea of a militant Christian demanding a “Merry Christmas” is meant to be amusing, and it is. We’ve slipped right back to snark. That pretty much covers the full tonal palette of Simon’s reporting.

It got me wondering how a reporter for a major daily writes something so transparently one sided. Perhaps it was just a fluke. Everyone has a bad day at the keyboard now and then. So I decided to look through Stephanie’s archives to see what else she’d written. I quickly came across one she wrote in February titled Their Own Version of a Big Bang. It was oddly familiar:

“Boys and girls,” Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, “you put your hand up and you say, ‘Excuse me, were you there?’ Can you remember that?”

The children roared their assent.

That’s paragraph two, in case you’re wondering. Introduce the straight man and then undercut him with a tone of detached bemusement. And then launch the clincher, that ironic one-liner that locks the reader. It must be a trademark Stephanie Simon move. Here it is again in God’s Call Comes by Cell Phone:

“At first blush, it may seem a little peculiar to connect with God on your cellphone,” said Christopher Chisholm, a TV-executive-turned-digital-evangelist. He recently helped launch FaithMobile, a service that will send a daily Bible verse to your cellphone for $5.99 a month.

In this harried age, he asks, how else are you going to “get in touch with the Word?”

To be fair, this was paragraph five, so it’s not like she has a formula or anything.

The Times takes most of their articles off the website after a few weeks, so I can’t find the five more examples I’m sure exist. A website called The Pelican Files has a list of her articles from the last couple years. The one she wrote for the Times last Christmas, A Very Wary Christmas, caught my eye. Here’s the intro:

Retailers and governments heed the wrath of Christians who seek recognition of the sanctity of the occasion. Attorneys are standing by.

Hold on a minute:

Retailers and governments heed the wrath of Christians who seek recognition of the sanctity of the occasion.

Attorneys are standing by.

That’s better. I can’t read the entire piece, but I’m sure it was a complete snarkfest. Simon also wrote a well-publicized hit piece on James Dobson last year which included this line:

“I’ve tried spanking him with a switch like Dr. Dobson says, but it hasn’t been effective,” the mother said.

In sum, Stephanie Simon seems to have an extremely jaundiced eye. There’s no effort to humanize any of the subjects of her pieces. They are merely there as the butt of the joke.

For instance, in today’s piece on manliness Simon works hard to bury the tone of the actual event. The fact that it was a comedy routine is minimized:

The 200 men in the crowd clap stiffly. Stine races through a frenetic stand-up routine, drawing laughs with his rants against liberals, atheists and the politically correct.

Stiffly they clap. I think what we have here is Stephanie Simon letting us know that this is no laughing matter. She is not amused. This story isn’t about them, it’s about her. A good reporter doesn’t become the focus of her own story, she creates a window to another place.

But Stephanie Simon doesn’t do windows. (The clincher!)

For the record, the folks at Get Religion, who I frequently read and often enjoy seem to think Simon is da bomb:

I love reading Simon’s reports because she is usually given enough room to share interesting details. She also manages to do a much better job of putting conflicting folks’ statements in a generous light. In so doing, she lets the reader see the opposing views without stacking the deck toward a given side.

My apologies to Mollie, but have we entered the bizarro world? Simon has to be one of the least generous, most “deck-stacking” reporters at the Times. Every line is calculated to mock the subject. Nothing is offered to provide understanding, much less support, for opposing points of view.

Simon doesn’t seem to have always been this way. Prior to 2005 her pieces (from the brief descriptions on the Pelican File) appear to have been wider ranging and more serious. But I guess with Michelle Goldberg and Lauren Sandler, fellow women editors, doing evangelical-bashing books in the last two years it has become clear to Stephanie Simon that snark sells.

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