Does the News, oops the Universe, Have a Purpose?

Usually a newspaper is just a newspaper. But other times, it points to something beyond its ephemeral self. Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review" is a case in point, encapsulating the problem of and solution to two of journalism's current quandaries. How to make readers care and how best to use new technology are the two biggies heading up most media managers' "To Do" lists. The "Week in Review" offered examples of both in-depth content and creative web work -- ironically, it was a paid ad that did the heavy lifting.

The Sunday section was bookended by two pieces on religion and politics. On the front page, reporter Laurie Goodstein recounted the concern that some evangelicals feel about being taken for granted by the GOP, Laurie. On the back opinion page, Jon Meacham used a John McCain interview to offer a civics lesson on the Founding Fathers' intentions. (Message to McCain: They were not establishing a Christian nation.) Goodstein's news analysis and Meacham's opinion piece were both accurate and intelligent as far as they went, but they don't take us very far. We've read variations on these for the past five, 10, 15 years. At bottom, they're reworkings of the culture war narrative that dominates so much of our political and our religion-and-politics coverage. We all know what the problem is, who'll be quoted and how the ending will turn out.

But smack in the middle of the section, a two page ad, paid for by the John Templeton Foundation, presented a rarely raised (at least in the newspapers) problem, a host of unfamiliar voices and an indeterminate conclusion. (Full disclosure: I have never received support from the foundation. In fact, I'm turned down every time I ask.) By directing readers who wanted more information to its website, the foundation demonstrated how new media could pierce through previously finite barriers of space and time to offer deep discussion on a range of ideas.

The spread reported answers (yes, no, unlikely, not sure, perhaps and I hope so) to a "big question." Weighing in on "Does the universe have a purpose?" a dozen scientists, theologians and Big Thinkers offered 250 or so words with the promise of more online.

Templeton has long averred that there are more than two sides to the conversation on religion and science. But despite funding academic research and journalism seminars, they've had limited success bringing that message to the public. In fact for much of the past decade, most journalists who wrote about the foundation's activities seemed to think it was a front for the religious right.

Now the foundation is trying a different tack, taking its new mission directly to the people. New media makes this possible, and my guess is that a lot of folks would like to read what astrophysicists, computer scientists, biochemists and philosophers have to say about purpose in the universe. Templeton reminds us that debates don't have to be reductionist. In fact, news coverage notwithstanding, most of us can handle (and in today's world need) a range of perspectives.