Want an object lesson on how not to mix reporting and opinion? Just look at media reaction to Bill O'Reilly's take on the new Pew Research survey.
The survey, released on Tuesday, finds that American Christians are dwindling, especially Catholics and mainline Protestants. It says also that the "nones," or unaffiliated, have increased, as have non-Christian religions.
Whenever such studies come out, the pundits usually cast about for the "why," and O'Reilly of Fox News was no exception. In his "Talking Points" segment, he says:
There is no question that people of faith are being marginalized by a secular media and pernicious entertainment. The rap industry, for example, often glorifies depraved behavior, and that sinks into the minds of some young people -- the group that is most likely to reject religion. Also, many movies and TV shows promote non-traditional values. If you are a person of faith, then the media generally thinks you are a loon.
He then launches a standard jeremiad about the decline of America, with "corruption" in the Catholic Church and the push to legalize drugs like heroin and cocaine. He unoriginally compares modern America with the Roman empire, saying both declined because their citizens shunned sacrifice for self-gratification.
He ends with a couple of clichés: "But it can be fixed if the electorate wakes up ... That's why the upcoming election is perhaps the most important in our lifetime."
So his sermonette has much to criticize. But as I've said often on GetReligion, criticism is one thing and coverage is another. Tell me what's going on, then tell me your opinions -- but in different stories, please.
Unfortunately, a fair-size segment of the media tried to tell you what to think of O'Reilly's views. And many of the reports pounced on his complaints about rap. Billboard, Huffington Post and the much-quoted Washington Post all spent most of their stories rebutting that one sentence from O'Reilly's comments.
Philip Bump, the Washington Post's political writer, gives a mere three paragraphs to O'Reilly's remarks, then most of the other 11 arguing with them. He points out how rappers like Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar have cleaned up their acts.
Bump also cites numbers on hip-hop and how popular it is with young blacks, and argues that blacks are the least likely to forsake religion. (He admits that rap is actually a subset of hip-hop, but he still tries to make the numbers stick.)
"It's possible that O'Reilly simply doesn't know what he's talking about," Bump concludes Which is actually more polite than the Billboard piece, which leads with: "In news almost too stupid to bother refuting, Bill O'Reilly is blaming the decline of religion in America on hip-hop."
Billboard's Joe Lynch borrows from the Washington Post story, but he adds a heavy accusation of racism against O'Reilly. Why didn't O'Reilly pick on rock 'n' roll, he asks? Why didn't O'Reilly mention pop music, "which has sacrificed lyrical innuendos for blatant sexual references in its lyrics and music videos over the last 30 years?"
"But no, rock and pop are primarily white fields," Lynch says. "So obviously O'Reilly isn't going to target those types of music. Instead, he specifically hones in (sic) on rap." Did Lynch even bother to watch O'Reilly's three-and-a-half-minute video himself?
Radio.com tries to link O'Reilly's pronouncements with those of fellow Fox commentators Geraldo Rivera and Sean Hannity. All three, the story says, call rap and/or hip-hop destructive. The story then quotes the Washington Post incorrectly quoting O'Reilly as blaming rap for the decline of Christianity. This despite quoting O'Reilly also mentioning movies and TV shows.
Also emulating the Post, Radio.com goes on to say how well rappers Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre and Jay Z have turned out.
Huffpost does get feedback from a human being -- the Rev. Tony Lee, an AME pastor: "I think we need to be very careful about some of the coded language in that, because in many ways that is kind of using black culture as a scapegoat for the decline of Christianity." But Lee doesn't address O'Reilly's other four or five points. Makes me wonder if Huffpost asked Lee something like, "Bill O'Reilly says rap is causing the decline of Christianity. What do you think?"
The article then cites WaPo's Philip Bump on how Snoop and Kendrick have gotten respectable. Then, interestingly, Huffpost dips into its own archives for quotes from Christian rapper Lecrae on how he blends his art and his faith to tell a spiritual message. The story doesn't reach for any new quotes from Lecrae, though.
Across the Pond, The Independent got into the act today. Says the lede:
It's always so great when somebody who knows absolutely nothing about hip-hop throws their hat into the ring to blame it for just about any "youth" problem.
So it's thrilling that Bill O'Reilly has now decided that it's the main reason people aren't going to church as much in the United States.
The story then plods the well-worn path in mentioning anti-rap commentary by Geraldo, Rush Limbaugh and Morning Joe. Oh, and the writer cites rappers -- like Rick Ross, Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, Puff Daddy -- who she says have explored religious themes.
All of the above articles share some flaws. First, none are marked "Analysis" or "Opinion" or "Commentary." They're all packaged as news, factual and uncolored by the writer's views.
Second, none of them ask O'Reilly's reactions. His comments are worth attacking, but he didn't deserve a chance to defend them.
Third, none of the articles seek out anyone who agrees with O'Reilly.
Did anyone report O'Reilly's remarks without sticking in their opinions? Yes, but not all of them are distortion free.
The Blaze walks through O'Reilly's talking points in 300 words -- including secular media, individual selfishness, and Catholic corruption -- without making a big straw man of rap. But the story doesn't ask reactions, either from friend or foe.
Business Insider does much the same, at least in the article. The headline, though, falls back on "Bill O'Reilly: Rap music contributed to the decline of Christianity."
The Boom Box, which covers black-interest entertainment, unfortunately joins the rap fixation, starting with the headline: "Bill O’Reilly Claims Rap Industry Causes Christianity’s Decline in America." But at least the writer quotes O'Reilly, not her own opinions. She also adds a paragraph -- though low in the story -- on O'Reilly's complaints about drugs and Catholics. (But she incorrectly has him saying that immigration is leading to Christianity's fall.)
The Boom Box writer also links to O'Reilly video and asks: "What do you think of Bill O’Reilly’s thoughts? See the full video above and tell us what you think in the comments below."
Amazing. A writer who still cares what you think.
Now, don’t get me wrong. In none of this am I defending O'Reilly. He repels me with his strident tone and arched eyebrow. And he blends facts, opinions and preconceived notions as freely as liberal media do. I may be conservative, but I wouldn't cite him in any discussion.
In this video, he makes a lot of stupid remarks. He blames falling Christian numbers on secular entertainment, which isn't shown in the Pew numbers he cites. And as Billboard and Huffington Post say, much entertainment -- not just rap -- carry anti-social messages. Finally, to say social ills will be fixed "if the electorate wakes up" is to urge a political fix for cultural matters.
In the same way, news media shirk their duty if they pounce on one thing O'Reilly said and make it his whole message. They also insult you, the reader and viewer, when they pose as reporters, then mutate into judge and jury.