Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Jesus, Is This News?
Jesus, Is This News?
By Susan J. Douglas

No matter how much columnists and media critics bemoan the sorry state
of American journalism, no matter how low the press sinks in the
estimation of the American people, the news media, particularly on
television, remains defiantly abysmal. Now, on top of the usual toxic
doses of runaway brides, irrelevant celebrity trials and President
Bush holding hands with Crown Prince Abdullah, we have the rise of
Jesus News.

Blinded by their own erroneous news frame that the last election was
all about "moral values," and pressured to give religion more coverage
by an evangelical right running on methamphetamines, the news media
are devoting more airtime to everything Jesus.

The ghoulish death watch of Pope Paul John II ("Is he dead yet?" "No,
Bob, not dead yet, back to you.") hogged nearly an hour of total news
time on the three networks from March 28-April 1, and his death and
funeral preparations garnered 129 minutes of network news attention
the following week, making it the year's third biggest story so far.
By contrast, that same week, Tom Delay's ethics problems received four
minutes of coverage on ABC and CBS combined, and none on NBC. By the
week of April 18-22, when the networks devoted 37 minutes to the
Conclave of Cardinals ("Is the smoke white or black, Bob?") and
another 32 minutes to the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the
new pope, one might have thought Catholicism had become our state

The week of May 2, ABC news inaugurated a series called "Under God,"
about how conservative Christians are "searching for new ways to make
their mark on popular culture." First up was a story about Christian
cheerleading camps, and the next day a story about how Christians like
to spank their kids. By the time Thursday's episode, "Faith and
Fashion Under God" aired, one sensed that some at ABC had been a bit
hoodwinked. Here we learned that "a growing number of people,
especially young people, are proudly wearing their beliefs." Cut to a
picture of the campy baseball cap that has a picture of Jesus on it
and reads, "Jesus is my Homeboy."

My daughter has that cap; so do quite a few of her friends. They have
it because they find it hilarious and irreverent. It is the ironic
juxtaposition of hip hop slang with evangelism that they love; the
last thing they are doing is "wearing their beliefs."

And then there's Fox News. It routinely traffics in interviews with
folks like the Reverend Franklin Graham, whose newsworthy
pronouncements include "Jesus ... came to this Earth to take sinners
and save us from our sins ... [we need to] receive Christ by faith."
Fox is the platform from which James Dobson of Focus on the Family can
accuse Democratic Senators of being, well, the infidel. Not be
outdone, NBC's "Dateline" with Stone Phillips had a story about an
exorcism to rid a man of demons.

What are we to make of the rise of Jesus news? Yes, it is indeed
important to know what the religious right is up to, especially as
they seek to pack the courts with Jesus freaks, outlaw the teaching of
evolution, reverse decades of environmental regulation because "the
rapture" is just around the corner, and suppress free speech and
academic freedom on college campuses by charging that evangelical
students are "silenced' and "harassed" and thus should be able to sue.

But that's not the detailed coverage we're getting, at least not on
TV. Instead, Jesus news embezzles time away from stories people really
need to hear, like much more detailed coverage of the Bush/Republican
energy bill, which got a total of six minutes of coverage from all
three networks when it passed the house the week of April 18.

Not to mention local news. Here in Michigan, we are contemplating, and
not without bitterness, the famous 1955 quotation from Charlie Wilson
who said of his company "What's good for General Motors is good for
the rest of America." In that year, GM sold over half of the cars
purchased in the United States. Today, GM has been downgraded to junk
bond status. The company's arrogant, willful myopia, which has kept it
producing gas-guzzling, poorly designed, undesirable cars, could very
well lead to a major fiscal disaster in Michigan and elsewhere. But
except for the business pages, (and the Detroit News and Free Press),
this has not gotten near the attention that the religious invocations
used at NASCAR rallies has.

The parade of evangelicals on TV exaggerates the numbers of these
folks and makes them seem much more influential than they are--or
certainly should be. Rather than clones of the Christian Broadcasting
Network, we need solid, investigative work about the money,
organizations and, indeed, the cynicism behind all of these crusading
efforts to turn our country into a giant Bible camp.