One of the things that most powerfully affected my point of view as a young adult was discovering how deeply I had been deceived about the motives of various groups outside my religious community, especially “liberal elites,” which included journalists, university professors, scientists, government bureaucrats, all the typical bogeymen of the religious right. The gist of all the propaganda I had absorbed about these people is that they knew or were at least in a position to be aware of “the Truth,” but were engaged in elaborate efforts to suppress it on account of their godlessness, anti-Americanism, desire for sexual liberation, financial interests, whatever. The liberal media and the academic elite were against the Truth for predetermined reasons, and could invariably be discovered to be cheating, spinning, lying, or ad-hominem attacking to keep from losing their monopoly on information.
I’ve done my best to puncture some of those myths, but I’ve accepted that the worlds are too far apart and the prejudices too reflexive and identity-based to be overcome with argument. The thing that still gets me, though, is people who ought to know better. People who have been in the worlds they eventually make careers of being alarmists about, people who have the intelligence to attend top universities and get PhDs and hold jobs in high places, and who nevertheless end up repeating the soporific fictions of country preachers. Many on the long list of Christian science-deniers and postmodernism alarmists and liberal bias fighters have decorated resumés in fields that one would think would have offered them some realistic perspective. And their former-insider status contributes greatly to their prestige in the besieged trenches of evangelicalism.
This is a roundabout way of getting to Marvin Olasky’s recent column in World, which I think is a textbook example of taking “half-true” information, to use Politifact jargon, and making it even less true in front of a credulous audience. The brief essay compares the worlds of American media and academia to the “high places” of the Old Testament, the locations where the Ancient Israelites worshipped idols. According to the OT, a series of Israelite kings famously refused to destroy these strongholds of cultural practice despite Yahweh’s explicit demands that they do so. Like the Israelites who couldn’t give up their “backup” gods, we are given to understand, Americans can’t let go of the grip of the liberal media and the “totalitarian” university.
There are a few things here, like comparing abortion to Old Testament child sacrifice, that I can’t seriously even respond to. But there are two points, both about the media, where I think I am qualified to argue the facts. Here’s number one:
Our media high places cover up misdeeds. For six weeks this fall CBS concealed information it had that showed President Obama confused at best and, more probably, lying concerning the Libya attack that killed four Americans. Had CBS released that footage after the second presidential debate, the course of the campaign could have changed.
The right-wing media tried desperately to make the Benghazi attack a scandal during the final weeks of the campaign, and failed to do so because there was no scandal. Conservatives wanted the whole election to hinge on was whether or not Obama called it a “terrorist attack” right away. He sort-of did the day after the attack, and then didn’t for several days afterward. The reason why eventually came out: unbeknownst to most of us, the Benghazi consulate was at the center of a CIA operation, and the agency asked that administration officials not mention terrorism so as not to reveal too much about its work in Libya. (Former CIA director David Petraeus affirmed that this was the reason for the censorship in his testimony to Congress last week.) The Director of National Intelligence, with the approval of the CIA and the FBI, removed references to al-Qaeda from the unclassified administration talking points. The New York Times, Associated Press and others also withheld some of the details of the attack at the CIA’s request.
Obama was not “covering up” the terrorism angle in the Benghazi affair, he was listening to the advice of his intelligence officials who said it could be dangerous to go around talking about Benghazi being a terrorist attack. There remains no political motive for the administration to have lied about the nature of the attack; it looks worse for them if all it took was an overheated protest to breach the consulate’s defenses, as some of their initial spin suggested. Only committed partisans who were trying to use every possible angle to derail Obama’s campaign would think Benghazi was a “scandal,” or that voters cared very much about it, period. It’s unclear why CBS didn’t air the clip where Obama wouldn’t call Benghazi a terrorist attack. But it is of little lasting import what Obama called the attack when, or whether CBS did or didn’t air it. I think they should have, but it would have made zero difference in the outcome of the campaign. Citing this CBS clip as evidence of the media “covering up misdeeds” of a liberal president who was “probably lying” is misleading at best, both on the facts of this case and on that case’s larger importance. And it is extremely weak evidence that the media is a “high place” that wields some sort of insurmountable cultural authority.
That’s number one. On the second issue I want to take with Olasky’s piece, his comments about how the media coverage marriage, he ratchets up this fantastical view of the media’s univocity and power to an even more absurd height. Marriage is a slippery issue and diagnosing media coverage is always risky, but this is pure ideological projection:
More basically, though, the media problem is not what’s omitted but what’s been presented for decades as the new normal: marriage as dull and readily breakable, singleness as sexy and independent. This propaganda-fueled drive toward singleness hurts millions of individuals who learn the downside of no one to depend on. It also has a political kick, as the increasing number of never-married and divorced women depend more on government and vote overwhelmingly for more of it.
Conservative resentment narratives are usually built around something that is somewhere close to true: that the media ignores stories that make conservative points, or that media coverage of marriage leans toward the unsexy, etc. But this whole paragraph depends on the common conservative assumption that “the media” decides what it will “present” as cool, and Americans are helpless, passive consumers of the “propaganda.” In reality, the news media is in business to make money, and it does so by “presenting” what it thinks its customers want to buy. A lot of that reflects the outlook of people in the media, who tend to be liberal and cosmopolitan, but a lot of it doesn’t. There is no Liberal Media summit where everyone gets together to decide how it is going to “present” a controversial cultural issue like marriage, as if such a thing were even possible. The media is a massive, highly fragmented entity, where all kinds of perspectives get play and information from almost anywhere can end up setting the agenda. If there’s a sense in “the media” that marriage is in crisis, it’s not because “we” decided to “present” it that way, it’s because that is what all kinds of people who write about cultural issues are seeing happen in the lives of people they know.
Just start looking at random media coverage over the past few years and you won’t find the univocal anti-marriage propaganda Olasky claims is out there. The New York Times has run at least two deeply-reported front-page stories this year about the decline of marriage, stories that included frank admissions that social science shows children are better off with married parents. The New York Times Magazine ran a long feature in 2010 about the health benefits of marriage, and in 2009, another one about the promises and pitfalls of “marriage improvement” projects. Earlier this year, the paper’s “Modern Love” column ran this aching essay by a former colleague of mine confessing that, had she married the longtime boyfriend she loved, they probably wouldn’t have had a tragic breakup. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Times’ “philosophy” blog had a long post about how to fix modern marriages from a public policy standpoint. Stepping out of New York for a moment, The Atlantic, a popular monthly magazine read by upper-middle-class liberals, has run two equally controversial cover stories arguing that women should “settle for Mr. Good Enough” (2008), and that they shouldn’t (2011). These are just a few of countless examples; it is no exaggeration to say the news media is obsessed with marriage, who’s marrying and who isn’t, why and whether it matters, and even how to make it work. Olasky’s “propaganda-fueled drive toward singleness” simply does not exist.
Olasky didn’t specify whether he meant the news media or the media in general, but if he was lumping in television, his case is even harder to make. So Modern Family, which is about three relatively happy marriages, presents singleness as “sexy and independent”? Or Parenthood, with its cluster of mostly-positive family relationships? Or 30 Rock, in which the female lead is portrayed as chronically sad and lonely because she can’t slow her career down enough to keep a man? Or Parks and Recreation, which just culminated in a hysterically sappy proposal episode? Or The New Girl, in which Jess can’t understand the concept of short-term relationships, and is busy trying to get her divorced parents back together? Or The Mindy Project, about a single woman desperately trying to find a man? Or The New Normal, about a monogamous, married gay couple trying to adopt a kid? In fact, it’s difficult to imagine mainstream American TV being any more cruel and unforgiving to single people.
These are two unrelated issues that illustrate how standard misrepresentations and ideological clichés get woven together into resentment narratives that are rarely challenged in the conservative media, and never in the conservative evangelical media. And very often, they’re the work of people who should know better. Marvin Olasky is too smart, too well-traveled, and too well-read to believe such simplistic, obsolete things about the media and repeat them to readers who see him as a trusted intellectual. He’s also too smart to think this type of small-minded grievance-mining is going to help his point of view outlive the generation that pioneered it.
Ronald Reagan and the Bushes did not remove the high places. We need a Hezekiah, but we need more: America is not ancient Israel, and the president does not have the power to remove high places. We fall for the blandishments of big media and academia because we are ready to fall: If we concentrate solely on their sin we won’t come to grip with ours.
This all means that breaking bamah pillars is the work of every generation, but providential technology—online courses and publications—is opening wide a door in our day for Christian education and Christian publications. I’ll discuss in my next column how we can run through that door.
Does it really seem likely that Christians are going to be breaking the chains of the previous age when they can still barely get accurate information about the world from their most serious publications and institutions? When their biases and prejudices are all nicely catered to by people in a position to expand their horizons? When every chance to deepen their understanding of culture becomes more fuel for the resentment machine?
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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