The "Witness" and purple spirituality

Witness_1One cannot overstress the following fact: The whole “red” and “blue” typology works at the level of the Electoral College and, much more so, when applied to “progressive” and “traditional” cultures with counties (think college towns vs. rural) and zip codes (think latte artsy urban vs. Home Depot suburban). But it is impossible to divide American culture into two zones at the level of most people’s lives.

Study the polls and you end up with true reds, true blues and a wide sea of purple. Study opinion polls about abortion. Or look at a Gallup or Barna survey on religious commitment and beliefs. What you find is that somewhere between 8 and 15 percent of the nation can truly be called consistently red conservative on religious/cultural issues. Meanwhile, somewhere around 10 percent or more of the population is consistently secular or blue liberal on these issues. And what is in between? The answers you get seem to depend on how questions are worded and how people are feeling. The great middle ground is what I call Oprah America.

I bring this up because of the ghost that pops into view near the end of Janet Maslin’s New York Times piece entitled “Scott Peterson’s Other Woman Speaks (Again). What’s Left to Say?” The big question: Why is the new Amber Frey book called “Witness: For the Prosecution of Scott Peterson” at the top of the New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list? Take it away, Maslin:

Why would anyone want to read Ms. Frey’s account? Most of it has already been plastered all over every possible tabloid, magazine and television outlet. There’s not much more for her to say, except that Pink Lady is her favorite kind of apple (Mr. Peterson once made her a caramel-coated version) and that her favorite Christmas ornament was an angel made out of a clothespin. Oh, and that “to me, Scott Peterson would always be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

This is a depressing subject for those of us who care about the future of Western Civilization. The answer, of course, is linked to how this emotional, tragic story makes people feel about a host of different hot-button issues that the media often have trouble addressing, covering everything from infidelity to murder, from good-for-nothing husbands to abortion. Calvin College communication scholar Quentin Schultze likes to call these kinds of stories “hypernews,” when they break out of one region and the whole nation gets obsessed.

Lo and behold, there is even a kind of lowest-common-denominator salvation thread in this story. Say what? Perhaps you missed the part when God served as Amber’s romance counselor:

. . . Ms. Frey, a California massage therapist, describes a great deal of weeping, repenting and communicating with God. “You do need someone, Amber,” she says God told her. “And you’ll find someone.” She also writes that God was on her side during Mr. Peterson’s trial. And she recommends that Mr. Peterson, whom a jury recommended be sentenced to death, seek God’s forgiveness in a hurry. The book refers frequently to the Bible, especially when describing the enlightenment Ms. Frey experiences in its closing pages.

“I was overcome by a sense of power and possibility,” she writes. “I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I knew I was on the right path, and I felt incredibly good about myself.”

Well, that’s what really matters. This is also the kind of mushy faith angle that makes red purists and blue purists alike grind their teeth.

Why is “Witness” at the top of the sales charts? Think purple. How are journalists supposed to cover these stories? I think we simply have to let people tell their stories and share their beliefs and then print the results. Who are the experts in this field?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Charlie

    Jonathan Rauch’s essay in The Atlantic (“Bipolar Disorder: A funny thing happened to many of the scholars who went out into the country to investigate the red-blue divide. They couldn’t find it.”) makes some similar claims, i.e. that most of America is neither hard left nor hard right but moderate. Politically, moderates are forced at the ballot box to pull either the red lever or the blue, creating a (false) impression that we’re a 50/50 nation.

    Morally it’s a different story, isn’t it? So, we have the oddity that 80% of the country calls itself born again, but church attendance is falling and those who self-identify as “Christians” don’t seem to live any differently than those who don’t.

    The truth is, journalists love these stories of tragedy and redemption because readers love these stories. They almost always contain religion ghosts and I’m convinced that they shape society’s views about faith and religion. I would wish that instead of closing with Frey’s chipper empowerment quote, the writer had countered with a pithy comeback from a carefully selected moral authority. But that would be preaching and not reporting, I guess.

  • JoJo

    Back to the question of newsworthiness. Why did the Laci / Scott / Amber story get so much coverage in the first place? Yes, the murder was reprehensible, especially because of Laci Peterson’s late term pregnancy. But how many other women were slain by a cheating husband or boyfriend? Is there any reason to believe that the alluring draw of the Peterson case was the perfect cast? A vivacious and attractive young wife, a concerned and attractive husband, and then a blond and attractive massage therapist / mistress. Set in beautiful California, no less. Call my agent!

    “How are journalists supposed to cover these stories? I think we simply have to let people tell their stories and share their beliefs and then print the results.”

    But we can’t tell every story, and we can’t tell every fact about each story that we report. With your background in this area, I’m sure that you’ve given considerable thought to the questions of what to cover, when to report it, and how to approach it. Not to mention the related questions of balance and breadth, and how to make tough decisions given a limited number of column inches. Do you have the definitive Mattingly guide that addresses these questions?

  • ticklebug

    Basically, we have to blame the media rather than their targets. I’m guessing that the media stayed so closely connected to the Scott Peterson case because almost everyday we found Scott up to something new. And once Amber was found out about, the media had a field day with it and found even more lies that Scott told. The media loves drama. And like someone else mentioned here, the media knows we love it too — generally speaking.

    Regarding the quoted text: What more does Amber have to say? The tabloids dished out mostly lies about Amber. For example, Amber never did work in a “Message Parlor”. She worked in a Sports Medicine Clinic. Another lie is that she never did “date” a married man before Scott. She was living with an engaged man that was LEGALLY SEPARATED from his wife. I could go on and on.

    I actually see nothing wrong with the fact that she wants to set the record straight and tell HER side of the story. After keeping quiet for two years and being victimized of the twisted lies and the bashing against her, I’m glad she can finally write about her experience so that she can move on.

    It kills me to think that now Justin Falconer’s got a book in the works, and nobody’s says a word about it.

  • Gary

    Yes, but there is not just one shade of purple. The are bluish purples who are basically blue and and reddish purples who are basically red and a whole pallete of other tweeners. It’s not as if there are the 10% of true believers on either side and the rest are befuddled “Oprah Americans.”

    BTW, see my new blog at