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The illiberal orthodoxy of the American media
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The accepted wisdom seems to be that a certain liberal orthodoxy permeates the American media, especially on matters of religion. I would agree that there is an orthodoxy. Rarely, for instance, can one find any substantive disagreement among the networks, the major news magazines, the New York Times and the other leading newspapers on any given issue. Rarely bordering on never. But I would contend that although this orthodoxy may occasionally be liberal in its profession, it is anything but liberal in its execution.
Liberalism, in its purer forms, demands a certain coherence and consistency. It insists on free expression, abhors guilt by association, rejects malicious stereotyping, refuses to pass judgment on cultural and religious differences, and keens for open-mindedness and tolerance, almost to a fault.
But as shall be seen, in matters of religion, the media indulge regularly in the illiberal side of all these equations.
A page-three story in the Washington Post of June 20 tells the discerning reader almost everything he needs to know about the media's take on religion in this the year of the Lord, 2002 A.D., excuse me, the year 2002, C.E..
The lead sentence points the way: "Leading evangelical Christians, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, are supporting a prominent Southern Baptist preacher's condemnation of the prophet Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile."
The opening sentence of the second paragraph completes the mission the Washington Post had set for itself. "The controversy has also embroiled the White House."
Controversy? How can the remarks of the Reverend Jerry Vines, a man almost no non-Baptist had ever heard of before, a man whose current posting is as pastor of the First Baptist Church of in Jacksonville, Florida, cause a controversy that embroils the president.
No sweat. The media manufacture such controversies routinely. Here is how they do it.
To make its point, the Washington Post uses cut-outs: the first, an obscure Episcopal minister from Missouri, who argues that the Christian imperative is to "love one another and to break down the barriers that separate us." This implies, of course, that Vines' "demon-possessed pedophile" remark is un-Christian; the second is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who finds the remark "deplorable." adding that it is "not surprising coming from the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention."
This is amazing.
Through its cut-outs, the Post professes religious tolerance but then turns around and harshly condemns the Southern Baptists and, by association, their allies on the Christian Right, for failing to honor the Post's own rigid orthodoxy.
There is, however, a shred of consistency to the media position, one inspired not by any liberal ideal but rather by an illiberal and irrational bigotry--and that is the hatred of the so-called "religious right," a collective that the Washington Post once famously stereotyped in a hard news story on the front page as “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” In fact, the Christian right tend to be prosperous, well educated, and less likely to vote in bloc than either blacks or Jews. Where were the Post’s editors that day?
So deep is the animus among the American media against conservative Christian--and, as appropriate, Jews--that the media will assume positions fully contrary to their professed core beliefs to keep the Judaeo-Christian right as far out of power as possible.
This paradox manifests itself along any number of fronts in the ongoing culture war. Among them, as suggested in this instance, is the media's obvious sympathy for Muslims in their perceived conflict with conservative Jews and Christians.
There is an irony at work here. Islamic extremists in America have proven to be exactly the bogeyman that the media have long imagined the Christian right to be--patriarchal, theocratic, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice, and openly anti-Semitic. And according to at least one brave Muslim moderate, Sheik Muhammad Kabani, 80% of the mosques in America are in the hands of genuine extremists, some of whom are not above encouraging murder to get their way.
Had the media bypassed the Baptist gathering in favor of those, say, of the Muslim American Youth Association or the Islamic Society of North America or the Muslim American Alliance, they might have heard songs with lyrics like "No to the Jews, descendants of the apes" or shouts of "death to the west" or the more succinct "kill the Jews," and they might have been the wiser for it.
But the media chose not to report on those meetings. Why should they? The ongoing media morality play is as pre-scripted as a WWF smackdown, and in it, the Judaeo-Christian right enter the media ring as the heavies, no matter the opposition, no matter the facts, no matter the right's guilt or innocence for a given offense.
Take the case, for instance, of Mathew Shepard, a college student whose search for rough sex led him into the night with a pair of parentless, soulless, meth-addled desperados that had likely never been to church in their lives.
From the media perspective, the true Christian, indeed the true Christ-like figure, in this drama was Shepard himself. The networks made no fewer than three movies celebrating his life in each of which he was depicted as being crucified.
This was too much even for the Village Voice. "It can't be coincidental," said the exasperated Voice reviewer, "that both [new] films are being shown in the shadow of Good Friday and Easter Sunday." Mathew Shepard's mother felt compelled to remind his acolytes in the media that Shepard was found slumped at the base of the fence, not strung up on it, and that he was "no saint."
The villain in this same drama is, perversely but predictably, the Christian right. Consider, for instance, Katie Couric's leading line of questioning on the Today Show to the governor of Wyoming, Jim Geringer.
"Some gay-rights activists have said that some conservative Christian organizations, like the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, are contributing to this anti-homosexual atmosphere by having an ad campaign saying, 'If you're a homosexual, you can change your orientation.' That prompts people to say, 'If I meet someone who's homosexual, I'm going to take action and try to convince them or try to harm them.' Do you believe that such groups are contributing to this climate?"
"Convince them or harm them?" Among real liberals, the great satan was Joe McCarthy. His great sin was his imputation of guilt by association. But McCarthy, even at his most reckless, would never attempt an association as insidious as the one Couric casually made between the Christian Coalition and the outlaws who killed Shepard. As I said, illiberal.
Couric's take was hardly unique. Led by gay advocacy groups, her colleagues were widely condemning the Christian right before Shepard's body had grown cold. The fact that Shepard died six weeks before the critical congressional elections of 1998 was a coincidence. The exploitation of his death, however, was as cold and calculated as a truck bomb.
A less serious, but no less indicative media assault on the right occurred in the exquisitely timed days leading up to Bill Clinton's Senate trial. At that time, the lead in a BBC story picked up the networks' spin on this story almost too perfectly, "The innocent world of the Teletubbies is under attack from America's religious right." The BBC posting continued: "The Reverend Jerry Falwell, a former spokesman for America's Moral Majority, has denounced the BBC TV children's show. He says it does not provide a good role model for children because Tinky Winky is gay." The BBC, like the major American media, accused Falwell of being the one man crazed enough to "out" this entirely "innocent" character.
The reporting on this story was so wrong in so many details that it begs explication. For one, Falwell never wrote about Tinky Winky. The "outing" occurred only as one of many brief pieces in a "Parents Alert" section of Falwell's theretofore obscure National Liberty Journal. Nor did the Journal "out" Tinky Winky. Rather, it accurately reported the fact that the Washington Post had outed this character just weeks before and that, as the Post admitted, gay groups had "claimed Tinky Winky as their own." Given the fact that Tinky Winky carries a red handbag, speaks in a male voice, and wears an utterly symbolic purple triangle on his head, one can understand why gays did embrace him. Gayness was designed into his character, and the BBC knew it. Two years earlier, when the BBC, which produces the show, wanted to fire the human who plays Mr. Winky for dancing in the streets wearing only a balloon, gay groups protested.
This story broke when it did to protect Bill Clinton. Clinton may be no saint, read the subtext in this reporting, but he is the man who shields us from the demented likes of Jerry Falwell.
So keen are the media on exploiting the perceived threat from religious conservatives—a “far greater threat than the old threat of communism” to quote the Reverend Meneilly, the leading mainstream protestant spokesman in Kansas City--that they are not above manufacturing crimes of which to accuse them, none more egregious than the burning of black churches. "Arson Study Finds Racism Runs Deep," screamed the USA Today headline in the presidential election year of 1996. "Church Fires Show Racism, Panel Says," echoed the New York Times.
And who was responsible for these fires? For the answer the media turned to people like Mary Frances Berry, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (U.S.C.C.R.). After the Christian Coalition had set up a fund for burned black churches, Berry was quoted widely as saying, "You have the very people who created the context for the fires rushing over and saying `Let us help you put them out.'" Had Joe McCarthy known the word "context," he would have loved it.
In fact, there was no epidemic of black church fires that year. Indeed, no more black churches burned down than normally did. Of the 90 or so fires studied by Berry's commission only three could be laid at the door of the racist "establishment," and these were the work of drunken rednecks. Indeed, more white churches were burned by blacks than black churches were burned by whites. To the degree that there were any identifiable themes among the arsonists they were insurance fraud and satanism, and it is hard to imagine that the Christian Coalition contributed to the "context" of either.
There was, however, one deliberate church burning during the Clinton years in which 28 innocent black people were killed, ages six to sixty-one. They were members of the Mount Carmel community, a multi-racial group whose philosophy offended certain sensibilities and for which their community was destroyed. Haven't heard about this one? There is a reason why. The media perceived the group as being of the religious right and thus not worthy of support or even sympathy. And so when the Clinton Justice Department stormed this enclave on the lonely plains outside of Waco, Texas, the media chose not to protest the most egregious assault on civil liberties since Wounded Knee. More insidiously, they shielded the American people from knowing that most of the dead were racial minorities. Such knowledge would only confuse the morality play.
As I said, illiberal.
I could cite a score more comparable examples. One that I am currently researching is the Clinton Justice Department's pursuit of Catholic activist James Kopp for the murder of abortion doctor Barnett Slepian ten days before the 1998 elections. Within hours of his death, without a shred of evidence, an outraged media were laying that murder at the feet of the pro-life movement. “[Slepian’s] death shows again how tentative the right to abortion has become in the face of terrorism by anti-choice fanatics,” thundered the New York Times. Within 48 hours, Eliot Spitzer was running ads denouncing pro-life incumbent New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco for contributing to the "context" of that murder. The Justice Department announced Kopp's alleged involvement on election morning just in case anyone had forgotten who was responsible. Spitzer overcame an 8 point margin in those last ten days to win by a disputed half-point and has been paying NARAL back ever since. But more on this case some other time.
If you don't mind, I'd like to get back to that demon-possessed pedophile remark. For starters, I checked to see if, in fact, the prophet Muhammad was a pedophile. What I learned, depending on the source, was that he had somewhere between 11 and 14 wives, some of whom, by our standards, were underage. At least one of these sources identifies his third wife, `A´isha Bint Abi Bakr, as being either six or seven at the time of her marriage to Muhammad and nine at the time of consummation, but I don't know the source well enough to substantiate the claim.
I will leave the job of making unsubstantiated claims of pedophilia about someone else's religious leader to the media. They seem to have been doing an excellent job of it lately. You have to ask yourself, though, what has so enraged the media of late about pedophilia?
When director Roman Polanski got a 13 year-old girl loaded up on qualudes in 1978, raped her and then fled the country, he lost no luster in Hollywood. Just this year he won the top prize at the Cannes film festival. When in 1983, Congressmen Gerry Studds was censured by the House for getting a 17-year old House page drunk and then seducing him the media scarcely took note. The good people of Massachusetts elected him five more times before he retired, and Studds is now something of a folk hero in liberal circles. When in 1988, at the Democratic convention no less, actor Rob Lowe made his own little porn film of himself and a 16 year-old, he served--get this--20 hours of community service as punishment. Today, with art imitating life, he unashamedly plays a Democrat on TV. When in 1993 Michael Jackson reportedly paid 13 year old Jordy Chandler 18 and a half million dollars to buy his silence in a child molestation case, he bought the media's silence too. Last seen, Michael Jackson was headlining a Democratic fundraiser at the Apollo with Bill Clinton, himself with a known penchant for exploiting young girls sexually and occasionally, dare I say it, even raping them, for one of which alleged rapes he was actually impeached.
So why are the media so upset with Catholic priests, why especially the Boston Globe which has supported homeboy Gerry Studds. I have heard it said that the scandal was not really about pedophilia but about homosexuality which is essentially true, but homosexuality in the church would upset the Globe and other media less than pedophilia. After all, the Globe has supported Barney Frank, the Massachusetts congressman whose roommate ran a call boy ring out of Frank’s house in Washington.
No, the scandal isn't really about pedophilia or about homosexuality. Although lord knows Catholic priests have been guilty of both, the media would never have invested the emotional energy and resources to expose either issue. They are openly sympathetic to homosexuals and largely indifferent to pedophiles.
No, the Church's largely left-leaning hierarchy has cast its lot with the religious conservatives that the media so thoroughly disdains on the one issue that matters most in America's newsrooms--life. Life. If the media have to ferret out every homosexual among the catholic priesthood to destroy the single greatest world wide proponent of the culture of life, so be it.
As I said, irrational, incoherent, illiberal.
(Webmaster's Note: This is the article that got Jack Cashill banned from the Chautauqua Institution's Department of Religion.)
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