Blind spot in 20-20 ‘Blind Side’ story?

When religion reporters get together we like to discuss the great mysteries of our field. You know, questions like, “Why can’t more journalists learn that ‘Episcopal’ is an adjective, while ‘Episcopalian’ is a noun, even though it sounds like an adjective?”

Here’s another one: If network-news executives spend millions of dollars on focus groups and surveys detailing the interests of viewers in average American homes, and this research keeps showing that Americans are very interested in faith issues, then why don’t we see more religion-news coverage on television?

Why isn’t there a weekly show on religion news — a news show, not a shouting-match show — on Fox News (in light of that network’s heartland demographics)? And does anyone in a glass tower somewhere remember what the late Peter Jennings once told me about that religion-beat experiment at ABC World News Tonight in the mid-1990s?

It is a mystery. Consider, for example, the following story that ran in the Washington Post under the headline, “As spiritual films bring in the bucks, Hollywood gets more religious.”

Here’s the opening of the report, which is one of those “big picture” features on this topic that seems to sweep through the mainstream press every five years or so. Is this a hot trend or simply a basic fact about Americans and mass media?

It’s everywhere at the multiplex these days: religion. Or if that word makes you uncomfortable, you can go with the more general “spirituality.”

In movies as varied as the dead serious “The Road,” the uplifting family picture “The Blind Side,” the biting comedy “The Invention of Lying” and even James Cameron’s sci-fi opus “Avatar,” issues of faith and morality and mankind’s place in the universe are all the rage.

Not all of these movies embrace religion. Some question human gullibility. Some ask for evidence of a higher purpose in what often seems a random universe. But whether they encourage prayer or doubt, they’re all part of the zeitgeist. But why now?

“There are two schools of thought about that,” said Greg Wright, an editor at HollywoodJesus.com, which examines popular culture from a religious perspective. “The more paranoid elements of our culture tend to think Hollywood has a proactive agenda, that producers have a grand scheme to use movies to shape the thinking of audiences. I don’t subscribe to that school.

“I believe that Hollywood gives audiences what audiences want to see. If people don’t want to see movies with certain messages, they won’t buy tickets.

“So if there’s a trend out there, it’s one reflecting what people are already thinking and feeling,” Wright said.

This news feature even proposes a link between Charles Dickens and “Up in the Air” and it kind of fits. The whole thing is worth reading, even if this hot trend keeps showing up on a regular basis. Americans are interested in issues about faith and eternity! Who knew? I should note that the story does mention the Hollywood Gets Religion mini-wave that followed “The Passion of the Christ.”

At the end of the report there is an annotated list of some of the current “spiritual” movies that are out there or are on the way. Here’s the item about “The Blind Spot,” the surprise hit that is still making waves in theaters.

“The Blind Side”: In the holiday season’s unexpected sleeper hit, a homeless boy (Quinton Aaron) is adopted by a wealthy Memphis family (Sandra Bullock is the force-of-nature mom), and with the family’s love, dedication and disposable income, the kid raises his grades and becomes a terror on the football field. It’s the true story of Baltimore Ravens lineman Michael Oher, and writer-director John Lee Hancock lets us know that the family’s charity is rooted in their Christianity. Hollywood movies rarely know how to handle persons of faith; this one does.

So after reading all of that, head on over to the ABC News site and explore some of the links from a 20-20 report about “The Blind Side.” Then read the print version of the report, by clicking here.

It’s a long story and here’s a key transition passage, early on:

If Oher’s incredible journey weren’t true, you’d never believe it. But it did happen, and it’s inspired one of this year’s biggest films, “The Blind Side.” The movie is a heart wrenching story of amazing twists of fate — and the ultimate gift of love.

Long before Oher made it to the NFL, he didn’t have a family to speak of. He grew up in a rough part of Memphis, Tenn., the son of a crack-addict mother and an absent father. When he enrolled in high school, he didn’t have a permanent home. Then the Tuohy family took him in.

So what forces were at the heart of this amazing story? According to ABC News, those forces were “love” and “fate.”

Several GetReligion readers wrote in to note that the network’s worldview seems to be missing a crucial element of the story. Go ahead, read it all again and see what you think. Is there a “Blind Spot” in this story about “The Blind Side”?

Like I said: It’s a mystery.

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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.

  • Dan Crawford

    I saw the ABC report – it did everything it could to avoid discussing faith, but it couldn’t suppress the fact that the young man went to a Christian school where Christian adults cared for him and a Christian family brought him into their family as one of their own. It was sadly a rather sappy and vacuous report, save for those moments when the principals were allowed to speak for themselves.

  • Dave

    Reviewers who can’t see the religious dimension of a movie are nothing new. Remember “The Exorcist”? One critic thought it was the story of a young woman with a psychiatric disorder.

  • Bern

    Definitely a “surface only” report . . . no why’s allowed. Heck, Oher’s home life prior to BCA is described as “unstable”–when you know his mother was an addict, his father was gone, how devoid of meaning is that adjective? Sheesh.

  • Jerry

    Why isn’t there a weekly show on religion news — a news show, not a shouting-match show — on Fox News (in light of that network’s heartland demographics)?

    That’s a good point and can be paired with how did it happen when that bastion of liberal values public broadcasting have such a good show in Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Could it have something to with, dare I say it, the worship of money? Maybe Fox (and others) focus on shouting matches because that’s what people want and thus advertisers pay for? Maybe the black/white lens that some use to view the media should be replaced by a more nuanced view which acknowledges good stories where-ever they are found.

    And we can add to that how religion is covered in other areas such as a story I suggested about how historians are focusing much more on religion http://www.ethiopianreview.com/37746 and a review of Loreena McKennitt in the Canadian folk publication Penguin Eggs (not available online) included an exploration of her religious background because that was obviously relevant to her music.

  • Ken Briggs

    Terry raises a good question about the dearth of religion coverage on television. My reading of it is that religion has too little effect on public life to make it eligible for more. America certainly has lots of religion, but as the studies show, it has become mostly private. Where it does intersect with the common welfare centers on discrete moral issues like abortion and homosexuality. Otherwise I see little incentive for the major television news outlets to cover it. I think there is a degree of insensitivity toward religion in the media, though not nearly as much as is often assumed by critics, but there is also, in my opinion a great deal of insensitivity by religious people as to the implications of their faith for their lives in the social, economic and political spheres.

  • Dave

    Ken, if there is no incentive then why is PBS covering it?

  • Ken Briggs

    Dave, I’m not sure about PBS’s motives, and am glad they’re doing it, but I believe certain factors were in play. One was that the program took flight during a time when religion was being rediscovered as a phenomenon whose impact was generally exaggerated. It was perhaps not coincidentally a period of economic boom. A second factor was that Abernethy was a tested, likeable performer who gave PBS confidence. And, third, perhaps most importantly, it was a no-risk venture. Lilly money guaranteed it wouldn’t have to encroach on PBS’s drive for funds (footnote: I still think religiously related entities shouldn’t take drug company money). So without denying the worthiness of the programming, other networks or outlets weren’t rushing to match what that program did. Hope that helps.


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