Let’s start with what Skye Jethani gets partly right in his push-back against the push-back against the appalling public theology of the religious right.
In his Out of Ur essay “No, We’re Not a Hate Group,” Jethani discusses the way the “sensationalism” of the spotlight-grabbing media stars of the religious right can make them seem disproportionately influential:
In the free market of the media it is not fair and accurate reporting that gets rewarded, but page views, clicks, and [Nielsen] ratings. With online and cable news outlets struggling for viewers (and revenue), there is constant pressure for these organization to not just report news but make it. Therefore, when a Christian leader is needed to comment on an event, they are more likely to invite a Crazy Uncle Christian known for shooting his mouth off and insulting minorities than the thoughtful, reflective Christian offering wisdom.
… If you’re behind the editorial desk at CNN and desperate for page views, which story are you going to publish: “Christian Leader Fasts and Prays for Victims of School Shooting” or “Christian Leader Blames Shooting on School Prayer Ban”[?]
Sadly, when sensationalism sells it’s going to be the crazy uncles in Christendom that get media attention.
Yes, “sensationalism sells.” But Jethani apparently didn’t watch CNN in the days and weeks following the Newtown shooting. The former story — “[Christians] … Pray for Victims” — was reported dozens of times covering numerous events. They reported — positively — on sermons at several area churches. They quoted from clergy who spoke at funerals. It wasn’t just CNN, either — one prayer vigil was broadcast on all the major networks — with NBC interrupting Sunday Night Football to show it live. Look through CNN’s Belief Blog over the past month and you’ll find many, many thoughtful, reflective, restrained and respectful articles commending the responsible reactions from numerous Christian leaders following the tragedy.
Sure, CNN also covered the statements by Huckabee, Dobson, Fischer and Graham, but they didn’t interrupt Sunday Night Football to do so. And they had to cover those statements because they are news.
It’s the man-bites-dog principle. The old saying is that “Dog Bites Man” is not news — that’s what dogs sometimes do, and it’s just a routine occurrence. But “Man Bites Dog” is news — it’s something unusual, unexpected and noteworthy.
Similarly “Pastor Provides Pastoral Care” is not news. Nor is “Shock-jock Says Something Shocking” newsworthy. But if the “Morning Zoo Crew” on the local radio station dispenses with its usual crude antics in the wake of a tragedy, organizing a vigil and rallying community support for the victims, that would be news — a reversal of the usual roles, something surprising and unexpected.
By the same token, when a religious leader, of all people, responds to tragedy by making the sort of shocking statements one usually expects to hear from Zoo-Crew shock-jocks, that’s news too.
One could, in a sense, regard the newsworthiness of Huckabee and Dobson’s comments as a kind of slantwise affirmation of American Christianity. Despite a decades-long pattern of white evangelical spokespeople saying appalling things in the aftermath of tragedies, those comments are still regarded as news — meaning they are still perceived as surprisingly out-of-character, as unexpected, Man-Bites-Dog incidents.
The larger problem with Jethani’s lament about CNN supposedly ignoring that story they didn’t ignore — “Christians Pray for Victims” — is that he seems to want media coverage of the church to be like one of those children’s events where everybody gets a trophy just for showing up. His fine whine reminds me of Chris Rock’s most notorious routine — the one in which he outlines the difference between black people in general and a small sub-set of the black population with whom he is sorely disappointed (I’m paraphrasing). Of this latter sub-set, Rock says:
[They] always want credit for some [stuff] they’re supposed to do. … [He] will brag about some [stuff] a normal man just does. [He] will say some [stuff] like “I take care of my kids.” You’re supposed to, you dumb $@%#. … What are you bragging about? What kind of ignorant [stuff] is that?
“I ain’t never been to jail.” What you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having $@%#.
This seems to be the gist of Jethani’s complaint about Cheshire’s complaint, of his criticism of Cheshire’s criticism. He wants reporters to ignore religious leaders who behave badly. And when religious leaders do not behave badly — when they do [stuff] they’re simply supposed to do — he wants a cookie.
Cable news is certainly often guilty of “sensationalism.” CNN has an infamous tendency to go into histrionics over stories of missing white women. But the correction to that would be for CNN to cover such stories in a more restrained and proportionate manner. It would not be for CNN to ignore such stories completely while covering, instead, the stories of the many millions of white women who are not missing.
The news media may be suckers for sensational claims, and the Crazy Uncles of the religious right may be virtuosos at exploiting that weakness, but cable news did not create the religious right. Nor did the critics of the religious right create it.
The religious right arose from within white evangelical Christianity. And it continues to thrive and to be enormously popular within white evangelical Christianity. That’s not something that we can blame on CNN, or on me, or on Michael Cheshire.