Church and Pop Culture, Lecture 3: News Media
Ethics 111 – 3 Credit Hours
1994, Jefferis Kent Peterson
(Licenses to use and distribute this course in other educational facilities are available.)
A Look at the News
As we rehearse the story of our American world view, we constantly encounter threats of violence which threaten to plunge our sense of order, identity, and meaning into the chaotic abyss. Random and senseless violence is just as threatening to our sense of well-being as is the threat of our nation becoming helpless in the face of communist expansion. The primary religious function of TV News is to restore our sense of order and meaning and to prevent our feeling helpless in the face of life’s continual threats. The triumph of injustice and the victory of wrong threatens our sense of value and purpose. If we were to believe that injustice prevails in our society, our morale would be destroyed.
TV News seeks to answer these threats. Thus, it does not merely present a body of information; it is an act of ordering which creates and reaffirms our view of the world; and in doing this, it allays our fears. The TV News does not merely present the truth, but the truth as it sees it. And in as much as the editors and reporters assume an American ideology, they will present the world to us with subconscious values. Thus the TV News is a Model Of our view of ourselves, our beliefs in right and wrong. And because as we watch it, our beliefs are reaffirmed by the very way the news is presented and analyzed, it is also a Model For our belief system. It continues to shape our perceptions and understanding of the world and the way IT OUGHT TO BE! So not only does the news correspond to reality, it also indoctrinates us.
Beliefs of the world that TV News subconsciously reinforces:
1) Capitalism is usually a benign system.
2) Virtue resides in small American towns (not in the corrupt big city.)
3) That American foreign policy is essentially altruistic – we seek others welfare and not our own (though during Vietnam, we began to question it).
4) Welfare cheaters are a continuing menace.
5) That justice ultimately prevails. (And the TV news constantly points out the injustices so that we can right the wrong and restore order and good to our society. Because of our heritage, we constantly see ourselves as going from victory to victory, and though temporarily threatened, we know that we will ultimately win. The rightness of our cause and the assurance of our victory is promised by our God)
Within the past few years, the news media has been presenting an increasing picture of chaos and a loss of identity. While trying to establish a new hope for order, it has turned increasingly liberal in its prescription for the American people. It advocates increased governmental control over various aspects of life, from social programs, to health reform, to gun control, to radical moral (usually anti-Christian) reforms (pro-homosexual and radical feminist and strongly pro-abortion). It has become increasingly biased and strongly critical of traditional moral values, even though the majority of Americans accept those values. It has become propagandistic in its attempt to filter the news coverage (One tactic is under reporting pro life events and numbers; the most blatant example was the 1992 pro life rally in Washington D.C. which had a minimum estimate of 600,000 people, but CNN reported the crowd at a mere 60,000. Ted Turner has publicly stated a desire to crush the pro-life movement and is willing to use his media to accomplish that goal.) By creating anxiety in the people by over reporting economic stress and by criticizing Bush and Reagan for lacking economic compassion, the media created a climate favorable to the election of Clinton. Now the media has taken up gun control as its cause, and by continually reporting on uncontrolled violence and proposing gun control as the solution, it is attempting to force the populace to adopt this solution.
In these instances, the media no longer seems to be supporting the basic values of American Civil Religion, however, when the nation is threatened, as in the Gulf War, the media quickly retreats to a more traditional, nationalistic perspective. Suddenly, there were hundreds of fair and encouraging reports of people going to church to pray for the troops. And religion was treated in a positive light. This sudden change seemed unusual and was out of character with recent trends.
Problems with TV News.
1] The TV was originally created as an entertainment medium. And the TV News is a “show.” Newscasters are performers who must convey benign authority, self-assurance and confidence that says “that’s the way it is.”
2) The TV News must create interest to hold our attention, so it invariably heightens the drama of everyday events. (They tried to make the Bush/Dukakis election a horse race, for example, but it wasn’t even close!) To sustain this sense of drama, threats to justice are always made to seem like ultimate and immediate threats.
3) The news selects news with a particular bias. What is included is just as important as what is not included: When 15 people demonstrate against unfair labor practices at a plant of 100,00 employees, their story usually makes the news. But when 300,000 evangelical Christians gather in Abilene Texas to praise and worship God at a convention, IT GETS NO AIR PLAY at all. Assumptions are being made for us about what is important and what is not important. We don’t really get a say in the TV News. The editing determines what is really important and what isn’t newsworthy; i.e., Christian gatherings aren’t really newsworthy while two dissatisfied workers gain national significance.
4) Commercial TV News is a business with a product, with advertising companies who purchase air time. Therefore, the TV News must deliver an audience to the advertisers. TV’s first mission is not to inform or to entertain, but to move the goods; to round up viewers for the main event: the commercial. The consequence is that
5) Content of the news cannot alienate the audience: it cannot challenge our basic values and self-image. It must assure us that there is still an order to our world and that we have some control over our destiny. And the News cannot portray us as basically sinful. It cannot challenge our belief that our foreign policy is basically altruistic or our belief that we are the saviors of the world, even if those we save won’t admit what a great help we are. It cannot present the view that we are basically a self-interested nation that uses power to get what it wants: (Consider our actions towards the sovereign nation of New Zealand during the Bush administration: we threatened to cut off favorable trade and alliances with them because they did not want to have nuclear bases in their country. Did we act respectfully towards a democratic country with whom we happen to have a difference of opinion? Or were we trying to force our self interest through a pure exercise of economic power?)
6) The underlying theme of mass media is order vs. chaos. The news presents our world as a series of crises and constant dangers which threaten our lives and our nation. The way we meet this threat and restore order is through the use of force and violence (police stories, military preparedness). The TV NEWS continually affirms that the only security in this world is sufficient force (power) to restore order and justice. Violence is seen by the TV News as the solution to our problems and as the answer to the violence and hostility which continually threaten us. As we participate nightly in this ritual of ordering, our own perceptions of the world are reaffirmed and reinforced. We too come to assume that violence and force are necessary means to secure our welfare. However, this is specifically not a Christian value! Jeremiah 17: 5-8. Isaiah 31: 1-3.
Assignment: Watch the evening news on two separate national networks on a single average news night (no thermonuclear explosions or major earthquakes). If you can get a Christian TV news station do that as well. Tape one, both or all, and compare the order of news events (top stories vs. second vs. third, etc.) Comment on the editing and ordering process of what is and what is not considered important for that night. Note also any commentary or opinions on the events and what bias is being revealed.
Nelson: pp. 87-110 (chp.4).
TV: pp. 87-124.