Monday, March 11, 2013

Mainstream Media Reporting on Papal Transition: Neither Fair Nor Balanced

I'm pretty sure I've told this story before here, but it bears repeating, I think: some two decades ago, I "won" a national essay contest for scholars of religion. The "prize": we winning essay writers were flown in to present our essays at the national center for the study of religion and American culture that sponsored the contest.

We were flown in to read our essays, and then to have the essay critiqued by a respondent to whom we weren't allowed to respond. All the winning essays were toward what might be called the liberal end of the theological and religious spectrum. All the respondents were extremely conservative.

Liberals opine. Conservatives get the final word. That's how the "prize" was configured. It was a set-up designed to let us scholars who had labored long and hard over our prize-winning essays know that what we had to say as scholars endorsing liberal ideas wasn't worth a hill of beans in the eyes of the mainstream media, many of whose leading religion journalists were invited to sit in the audience and watch gleefully as we liberal religion scholars were led one by one to the slaughter.

One of the best essays I heard at that conference was by an ordained Presbyterian minister who is a distinguished scholar of American religious history, and who became a good friend of mine after the conference. We found we really liked each other at this conference and have been in close touch for two decades now. Her essay dissected the dismal fate of a family and sexuality study the Presbyterian Church USA had commissioned. She was among those commissioned to write the study.

The study proposed that the PCUSA alter its traditional teachings on family and sexuality to come to terms with the reality of what family actually meant for most Presbyterians by the final decades of the 20th century. As the PCUSA research group noted, week after week, Presbyterians hear sermons talking about the ideal of family (about the ideal of family as the middle-class nuclear family headed by a heterosexual couple), while a majority of Presbyterians no longer live in such families. In congregations hearing these sermons glorifying middle-class nuclear families, more than half of those listening are now single people, unmarried heterosexual couples cohabiting, divorced and remarried people, same-sex couples. Those living what the church holds up as the normative model for Christian life are in the minority.

And so the commission appointed by PCUSA to study these issues advised the PCUSA to be honest about where people in the pews actually are when it comes to these issues. But then this happened: right-wing groups within the church got wind that the commission the church had appointed was going to advise the church to rethink its traditional positions on family and sexuality--and was going to advise the church to embrace and affirm its gay members--and these groups began to work adroitly with the mainstream media to blow up the entire study even before it was presented to the church itself.

The scholar presenting this paper used her experience on the commission of the Presbyterian church to show how the secular mainstream media in the U.S. are anything but unbiased when it comes to dealing with religious issues. She showed how the mainstream media lean very strongly in a right-wing direction when it comes to religious issues, and how they actively collude with right-wing interest groups inside faith communities to keep liberal thinkers marginalized within those faith communities.

Her respondent: he was a Mormon bishop who talked about how Mormons love homosexuals, but insist that they can and must be cured. He provided testimony about how he knew a young Mormon man who was cured of his homosexuality by the love of his Mormon community and a touch of reparative therapy at a Mormon "boot camp" designed to cure homosexuality. He talked about the normativity and healthiness of heterosexuality and the abnormal nature and unhealthiness of homosexuality.

The journalists of religion attending the conference, almost all of whom were heterosexual married men,  ate this encounter up. They loved the Mormon bishop. They loathed the uppity ordained woman scholar who had exposed their sloppy journalism, their collusion with the religious and political right as they targeted liberal thinkers and liberal groups within American faith communities. They gloated and smirked as she got her comeuppance, and then as I did, and then as another uppity woman, an outstanding Methodist scholar they were rumoring to be lesbian, got destroyed for defending liberation theology.

The entire conference was a set-up. It was designed to teach us liberal scholars of religion where real power resides in American religion--and who gets the final word. It was premised on the model of false balance so beloved by centrist mainstream media gurus, in which positions to the right of Attila the Hun receive legitimacy when they "balance" well-grounded, scholarly legitimate positions that the center wants to delegitimate as extreme and unbalanced.

Bring me a psychotherapist who points to incontrovertible, abundant empirical evidence that a homosexual orientation is a natural variant of human sexuality that is in no way mentally aberrant, and I'll one-up you with a bogus "expert" about reparative therapy who informs the American public that there's "another side" to these questions. That gay folks are most assuredly sick and can and must be cured.

Tell me that the earth is billions upon billions of years old and that human beings evolved over the course of time, and I'll match you with someone who knows the "other side," and can prove that humans and dinosaurs cavorted together in the years after God made both of them through a divine word--a word uttered some 5,000 years ago, to be exact.

This false balance game is all about shielding and preserving the status quo, and the unequal balance of power built into the status quo throughout all its powerful institutions, from the business sphere to the political and religious spheres. It's about assuring that women don't attain power sufficient in any of these areas to unsettle the power of male elites in any fundamental way. It's about assuring that liberal thinkers and groups are effectively disempowered in the mainstream media, since their ideas threaten to unsettle the power of wealthy elites. It's about keeping gay and lesbian folks firmly in their places, because the world is made to be ruled by heterosexual men.

This false balance game is one that the American mainstream media play rather shamelessly when "big" religious news of any sort breaks. They're playing it now with a vengeance as the election of a new pope nears. My posting on Saturday about the curiously recycled Bishop Finn-vs.-NCR news being shopped around by AP now was one among many examples of how the right-balancing-left game is being played as the Catholic church is discussed in the media during this transition in the papacy.

Last week, I turned on NPR's news to discover that this leading--and supposedly "balanced"--news outlet had brought together Notre Dame's Scott Appleby, a somewhat conservative-leaning centrist, and Ave Maria's James Towey, to parse American Catholic identity for the world on the eve of the papal election. James Towey, a member of George W. Bush's senior staff, who now presides over right-wing Catholic Ave Maria University in Florida. A right-wing Catholic university closely allied to right-wing Republican activist pizza magnate Tom Monaghan.

James Towey, who used the bully pulpit NPR provided him last week to inform the many people who turn to this network for "unbiased" news coverage that he knows many of the U.S. cardinals personally, that studies of American Catholic viewpoints which don't distinguish between Catholics who go to Mass each Sunday and those who attend church less frequently (if at all) are fundamentally flawed, and that the church is "always going to be standing" against the "Kardashian" mainstream culture, just as it has always stood consistently against artificial contraception, well, "for decades."

Do you see my point? This is not balance. This is spoon-feeding the most extreme right-wing Catholic viewpoints imaginable to the American public under the guise of "balancing" a conservative centrist viewpoint. Appleby and Towey were commenting on the recent New York Times/CBS poll which finds the Catholic hierarchy significantly out of touch with the views of lay members of the church, an overwhelming majority of whom approve of the use of artificial contraception, and 62% of whom approve of same-sex marriage.

In the "balanced" discussions of Catholic identity in even "unbiased" news venues, the voices of real lay Catholics, who are far to the left of the center imposed by the "unbiased" media, aren't even represented. Our voices are represented by an extreme right-wing viewpoint captive to the super-rich and enmeshed with the political views of a party that the majority of American Catholics repudiated at the polls last fall, or by centrist voices too timid tell the truth about what we American Catholics really believe. And about how many of us really do strongly oppose the pastoral malfeasance of our current leaders--of those cardinals to whom Towey boasts about having personal connections.

If you doubt my analysis here, then read Frank Cocozzelli's valuable new essay at Open Tabernacle, discussing these very same dynamics with the reporting of NBC on the papal transition--and asking why NBC insists on giving a bully pulpit to the "Catholic neoncon par excellence," George Weigel, during this papal transition period, while never acknowledging Weigel's exceptionally thick ties to one right-wing interest group and think tank after another. Ties that disqualify Weigel from being presented as a "balanced" and "dispassionate" commentator on matters Catholic . . . . 

How is any of this going to change? It will change only when lay Catholics demand that the mainstream media provide more accurate and really balanced presentation of what Catholics actually do believe. And it will change when people who care about sound religion reporting in the American mainstream media begin to push back against the meme of false balance which is really all about providing cover for extreme right-wing Catholic views in the mainstream media, and for presenting those views as an accurate reflection of Catholic teaching and belief.

P.S. Still not a peep from NPR in response to my repeated complaints that they continue to publish false information on their website about the percentage of Catholic adults leaving the church in the U.S. What's up with that, I wonder? It's almost as if NPR wants to provide "balanced" coverage of Catholic issues that's essentially right-wing propaganda disguised as "the other side."

The graphic is from a discussion of false balance in the media at the Media Watch website of ABC Australia.

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