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Unpublished letters, brites, and more.

Nov 24, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 11
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Let's Help the New York Times

On several occasions, readers of this page have sent us copies of their letters to the editor of the New York Times--letters that for some reason never got published by the Times. As these letters were invariably well written and offered compelling criticisms of some story or other in the Times, we can only assume that they didn't make it into print because space was wanting on the Times's letter page. So in a spirit of collegiality, we've decided to help out by making space available on this page for worthy letters to the editor of the Times. Here is one to kick off this new service to our readers:

Dear Editor,

On Sunday, October 26, 2003, our local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, ran a story from the New York Times in its A Section, headlined "Evangelicals sway White House on issues abroad: A religious coalition is helping guide foreign policy on AIDS, sex trafficking and Sudan's civil war."

In that story, Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller writes:

"The human rights issues offer a politically safe way for the president to appeal to his base of white evangelicals, who leading scholars and pollsters define by their membership in historically white evangelical denominations, like the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God."

I'm familiar with the term "historically black denominations" in reference to groups of congregations that were founded to serve African-Americans. However, this is the first time I've ever stumbled on the use of the term "historically white" in reference to any American denomination, even by anonymous "leading scholars and pollsters."

As an insider, I have to confess my own sin in saying that the hard work of racial reconciliation is not nearly as far along within American evangelicalism as it should be. However, "historically white" is not a term native to the vocabulary of the group the Times describes. The Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and the Association of Vineyard Churches, for instance, do not refer to themselves as "historically white" denominations. In appending that label, the Times is departing from a common journalistic practice of referring to people using their self-descriptive language, imposing upon them a label that is foreign to their own vocabulary.

While one could applaud the earnestness of the Times in highlighting the racial reconciliation yet to be done in evangelicalism, one could also be suspicious that the Times is taking a cheap potshot at a group that it has historically disdained. How could one draw that conclusion?

Simple. The Times has yet to apply the "historically white" modifier to any other American religious group on which it reports. I've searched in vain for any reference to the "historically white Episcopal Church" in the Times's coverage of the controversy surrounding the canonization of V. Gene Robinson. I've found no use of the "historically white" adjective in Times coverage of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Presbyterian Church (United States of America), the United Methodist Church, or the United Church of Christ.

If the Times has developed a newfound desire to highlight the monoracialism of other groups, I would expect to find references to the "historically white Sundance Film Festival" or the "historically white Renaissance Weekend." Yet, I have plumbed the Times archives for such references in vain.

Perhaps that might be too much to ask of the historically white New York Times.

Joe Hootman

Austin, Texas

If you would like us to consider your unpublished letter to the editor of the Times, be sure to copy us at

Planting Corn

For many thankless years, as readers of a certain age will recall, THE SCRAPBOOK waged a campaign against a particularly annoying trope of Washington journalism--the "brite," as such lightweight items are called, reporting that a worthy of one political party had received a direct-mail solicitation from the other party.

It began with politicians. Bob Dole's office, let's say, would get a mass-mail come-on from the DNC. His staff would drop the letter on some desperate columnist at the Washington Post or the Washington Times, along with a suitably lame witticism they could attribute to their boss. "The senator was very pleased to hear from the DNC," they might say, "but for the moment he's happy to stick with the pro-growth, pro-family policies of the GOP!" Then the opposing party would riposte along similar lines: "Our solicitation just shows that we hold out hope that Senator Dole will finally abandon the wealthiest one-percent to help America's working families!"