Care to read some provocative thoughts on the state of religion-news coverage, care of pastor and theology teacher Scott Stephens, who is now the Religion and Ethics editor at ABC Online, way down under? I hope so.
You see, Stephens once stuck his finger in the eye of the mainstream press with a blunt working hypothesis that he says has guided his journalistic work ever since. It went like this, and he has unfolded it a bit:
The more widely reported the remarks of a significant religious leader are, the less consequent they are likely to be.
I've since come to the conclusion that the likelihood of this hypothesis being true increases exponentially if the religious leader in question happens to be the pope.
The perfect example of this (no, no, no, this was before the dogs go to heaven row), he argues, was the remarks by Pope Francis on the Big Bang, science, evolution and faith -- all of which were completely compatible with the statements of earlier popes. The key is that most journalists seem to have decided that the pope's words are "newsworthy" to the degree that they can be framed in such a way as to confirm the "putatively progressive agenda they've assigned to him." Wash, rinse, repeat.
Now, Stephens has flipped his theory inside out. As in:
... Sstatements that truly are significant rarely receive the public attention they deserve. Consider the pope's recent address to the European Parliament. The media's coverage, such as it was, fixated on his admittedly impressionistic, rather cliche quip that Europe today seems "somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion." Meanwhile, his more urgent appeal for European society to reforge the bond between human dignity and transcendence was passed over as a perfunctory nod to certain "hot button" issues.
While the pope is everywhere at the moment, in terms of news coverage, Stephens stressed that it's crucial to see the trends here as being larger than warped coverage of one media superstar.
This leads us to one long passage -- under the headline "Doomed to banality?" -- in this think piece that I want to share, while urging GetReligion readers to, yes, read it all.
... It would be a mistake to think that this is somehow all about Pope Francis, that he has received unfair treatment at the hands of what his predecessor less than affectionately termed "the tribunal of the newspapers." In fact, strictly in terms of publicity, this pope has benefitted tremendously from the media's inattentiveness and its predictable, almost Pavlovian, response to any seeming departure from Church teaching. (I am not suggesting that this is a good thing, mind you. At best, the pope has - intentionally or not - entered into a kind of Faustian pact with the media. To what extent this will have a corrosive effect on the public witness of the Catholic Church remains to be seen.)
There is more at stake here than the popularity of the pope, or the fortunes of any particular church or religious community. But the specific examples I have selected from Francis's public remarks are not merely illustrative, either. They go to the heart of what I take to be the most pertinent issue: Is the media able to provide a forum in which serious ideas are treated seriously and made available to all -- even those ideas that run counter to its ideological creed? Or, as Hilaire Belloc claimed as far back as 1929, can the media do little more than confirm "the Modern Mind" in its imbecility, plunging liberal individualism "lower than it would otherwise have fallen" by insulating it against every serious suggestion that the way things are is not the way things are meant to be?
I think there is little doubt that the media is too intellectually impaired, or simply too feckless, to perform the task of fostering sustained self-critical moral deliberation. This is due, in no small measure, to the fact that after Watergate and with the rise of digital social networks, the media was emboldened to conflate a self-righteous brand of "gotcha" journalism with brazen whoring after audience share. And then there is way that the astringent scepticism of the likes of H.L. Mencken or the disciplined curiosity of Ben Bradlee have been replaced by a cheap and all pervasive cynicism, which attempts to legitimate its nihilistic insouciance by crowning disbelief as the chiefest of journalistic virtues. Not even the emergence of so-called "ideas journalism" and the ever proliferating "ideas festivals" can disguise journalism's steady descent into what David Bentley Hart has rather ungraciously, but not wholly inaccurately, described as "the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose."
Too nasty? Right on? Please leave some constructive comments.