Friday, April 25, 2014

'Proving' media bias

Of late I’ve been engaging in yet another discussion of so-called liberal media bias, a conservative meme for the last four decades.

One of the people involved posted findings from a professor at UCLA which “proved” that the mainstream media lean liberal because of reporters’ general agreement with the stances of Americans for Democratic Action, which admittedly leans left.

The study, however, assumes something that I, a professional journalist for 16 years, never will: That we who are in the media don’t understand or aren’t exposed to worldviews other than our own. Indeed, by definition we are quite conversant in what other people believe, but we just don’t accept it blindly. And since I’m an evangelical Christian and thus in a world where ideological conservatives dominate, you certainly can’t say that about me.

As such, taking surveys to determine such slant is a lazy person’s way of determining it.

The only practical way to do so is to check actual product — that is, analyze stories by their content. But if you do that … well, you’ll see where the real bias is.

On the right, not the left.

I’ve always been an avid consumer of news, both print and broadcast, even before I went back to school in the 1990s to major in communications. I first began to notice the deliberate slant to the right, in too many stories to mention here, in Christian media in 1983 when I started watching the 700 Club.

One I will highlight, however, was its treatment of the 1984 disruption of an Easter service at my then-church by a group of unemployed steelworkers and some of their pastors. Part of the news hook was that one of the demonstrators was the actor David Soul, brother to one of the pastors — but which the 700 Club failed to mention.

Why was that? It’s likely because the show had interviewed Soul the year before and the anti-union 700 Club probably didn’t want it audience to consider that a follower of Jesus could be a pro-labor activist! After a while I detected a pattern and in 1985 stopped watching it altogether.

And that’s been the case throughout conservative media — leaving out pertinent information or, even worse, adding things that aren’t even true. But many of them don’t even seem to care that the product they put out is flawed; after all, inflaming, not merely informing, appears to be their function.

In 2007 Insight magazine, a publication of the Washington Times, ran a fairly lengthy story on the background of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. While mostly accurate, the story also mentioned that he had been educated in a Muslim madrassa and that it got that information from someone “in the [Hillary] Clinton camp.” The allegations caused a sensation, CNN even sending a crew to Indonesia to see if that was true, and it turns out that neither was. The response from the Times then-executive editor Wes Pruden? “Sue us.” (As if that was going to happen, given that zillionaire Sun Myung Moon was the publisher.)

Remember the “ground zero mosque” in New York City that caused a sensation on the Fox News Channel four years ago? Well, a Muslim-oriented community center called Cordoba House, which included a worship space, was being built 2½ blocks away. (The closest house of worship was an Episcopal church about a block away.) On top of that, the previous December the New York Times ran a story on a hearing concerning Cordoba House in front of a city zoning board; a regular Times reader, I just happened to find that story right when the controversy broke. The imam who headed Cordoba House had condemned the terrorist attack by Islamic extremists on Sept. 11, 2001 early and often — but that still wasn’t enough to stem the outrage.

It might be that, in the rush to prove “bias,” some people ought to look in the mirror.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The big defeat

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks has been saying since at least 2008 that “the big defeat is coming.” That is to say, he’s predicting that in the very near future the Republican Party, if it remains on its present course and committed to right-wing plutocratic principles, is eventually going to be crushed at the polls. I agree with him.

Brooks had enjoyed a long career in conservative journalism, writing for all of the major publications, but noted that year in an in interview in the New Yorker that the movement as a whole hasn’t accepted the reality that its unyielding stances could cost the party elections down the road because of its own bullheadedness (which is why he left the right).

Here’s why Brooks is right: In my own decades-long observation of the movement, I’ve noticed that it operates according to what psychologists call a “closed” information system – that is, if the facts or history don’t support the narrative they’re discarded. And that’s simply dangerous.

You can tell that by just how its acolytes reacted to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s respective ascensions to the White House. To this day they insist that both men, especially Obama since he’s there now, are hopelessly corrupt and managed to hoodwink to public into voting for them as opposed to their preferred candidate; some have even said that they would suspend the Constitution to remain in power beyond their allotted two terms.

Thing is, not only does that kind of hysteria turn people off but also the policies they espouse don’t work – and, I would say, aren’t necessarily even supposed to work. In other words, these days a lot of people are voting against them for legitimate reasons, but you’re not supposed to say that on pain of offense.

Hillary Clinton is a key here, of course; if she decides to seek the presidency she can not only win nationwide but in the process split the South, much of which has been considered untouchable for Democrats since the 1970s. The conservatives get this, which is why they’ve been trying to preempt her by bringing up Benghazi and Monicagate in the hope that people will turn against her. But when you’re reduced to sliming a political opponent preemptively you must not have that much to offer in your own right.

I think Brooks sees this and is troubled because he understands that his party is about to drive itself off a cliff. Maybe in 2016 or even later – but it will happen.

Preaching to the choir for profit – someone else's, that is

Call me a killjoy, but I’m not terribly impressed with the number of biblically-themed movies that have hit major theaters in the last couple of months – “God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven Is for Real,” “Noah,” “Son of God.” I haven’t seen any of them yet, so I won’t comment on their quality.

My concern is that such flicks might give us the impression that Christians have “arrived,” that our values are becoming more accepted in the greater society. In fact, it likely means only that we have disposable income that savvy moviemakers want to separate us from. Anything wrong with that?

Maybe, especially since they may give a skewed perspective on biblical faith and its ramifications. Because they purpose to confirm what we already believe I don’t think they’ll be effective if they’re designed to be “evangelical” and deal with, in the words of Reinhold Neibuhr’s famed “Serenity Prayer,” “the world as it is, not as I would have it.”

To be such, they have to be a certain quality that the world can appreciate – in other words, folks who watch movies for a living have to say, “This is worth watching, and here’s why.” Of the Christian-oriented movies that have been released over the past couple of years I’ve seen only “Courageous,” and the implausibility of some of the scenes and story lines disappointed me.

And I’m not the only one who feels that way. Two years ago at the writers’ conference I attend annually a writer who works in Hollywood – and who has a degree in apologetics — noted that, in her view, such movies just aren’t very good.

I’ve long felt the same way about Christian music, which I haven’t listened to for two decades. You might remember that today all of the major Christian record labels are owned by secular interests primarily concerned about making money. Rarely do you have Christian artists who transcend the genre – Take 6, which has always had a secular recording contract, is one; most remain in that “ghetto.”

Perhaps someday the church will produce movies on par with or superior to those in the world, but to do that we need to support our artists and not handcuff them with a certain “culture.” If we don’t the world will get only our money, not our message.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A spiritual good-luck charm?

Yesterday yet another mass attack took place in an American high school, this time a stabbing in a well-to-do suburb about a half-hour drive from where I live. Already a number of people are saying that it happened because “we took God out of the public schools.”

And that’s inaccurate, on a number of levels. For openers, you simply cannot take God out of schools because, on an eternal level, He’s not only always around but still in control.

But what about prayer being banned in the early 1960s? There’s more to that than people remember. What was declared unconstitutional — in my view, properly — were Protestant-oriented prayer exercises sponsored and led by agents of the state, specifically public-school teachers and administrators, which really would challenge the idea that the state shouldn’t actively promote one religion over another. (Catholics formed their own schools for this very reason.)

Ironically, most of the complainers are evangelical Christians, and I sometimes wonder how they would react if another religion were similarly supported by a school district. Check that — we kind of already know, witness the outrage about stories (false or overblown) about schoolchildren being indoctrinated in Islam.

More to the point, however, it smacks of a desire for social control rather than a real desire for folks to know God and then to make Him known. No one will deny that we live in a world that’s full of evil, and assuming God will simply “take care of things” were people — especially schoolchildren — to “turn to Him” is the height of naïveté. Believers are not exempt from the troubles of the world; Christians die in accidents, get cancer, suffer from divorce and undergo other tragedies.

The church I attended in 1991 was full the Sunday after the war in Iraq broke out; the same thing happened at a different assembly, where I am now, right after 9/11. In neither scenario, however, did I suspect that things would last, and true to form, within a month attendance had reverted to normal. I was fine with that, because God is not to be used as a good-luck charm.

As Jesus Himself said in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws them.”