During the days since The Washington Post published religion-beat pro Sarah Pulliam Bailey's much discussed essay, "Evangelicals, your attacks on ‘the media’ are getting dangerous," several readers have sent us links to published responses online.
I have declined to post several of them because I don't want to point readers toward often nasty, straw-men attacks on (a) the skills, and even the Christian faith, of a highly talented and respected former colleague and (b) my own profession as a mainstream-media journalist.
Obviously, GetReligion is known for taking shots at organizations in the mainstream media that, as we say, "just don't get religion" (Hello Dean Baquet). There is a difference, however, between attacking, and documenting, case-studies of media abuse and simply saying (to wax theological for a moment) that an entire profession/vocation is Satanic, somehow, and certainly not part of God's good creation.
One of my few criticisms of Sarah's essay here at GetReligion was that I thought it was a bit soft on the fact that many religious believers, not just evangelical Protestants, have been prejudiced against journalism for a long, long time (not just during the Donald Trump melodrama) and that includes academic elites who simply think journalism is a shoddy, shallow line of work. Truth be told, religious readers in lots of academic and denominational buildings need to realize that they are part of the problem, when it comes to a lack of intellectual and cultural diversity in American newsrooms.
But this brings me to an essay responding to Sarah that is worth serious thought, offered by the Rev. Al Mohler, a podcasting commentary star who is also president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Actually, this is an edited transcript of the Dec. 9 episode of his "The Briefing" podcast, which ran with this title: "The Real Consequences of Fake News: Why Evangelicals Should Be Concerned With The Truth."
Mohler opens with some comments on the Bailey text. Let's listen in to that process, with Sarah's quotes in italics:
“The jokes aren’t funny anymore. We are living in a post-truth time of fake news and misinformation, something that should be deeply troubling to people of faith who claim to seek truth in their everyday lives.” ...
“My parents would pull out books for Bible study in the morning and plop them next to the local newspaper. The Bible and newspaper went together like cereal and milk. I grew up believing journalism was a noble profession because the best journalism is based on the relentless pursuit of truth.”
Sarah Pulliam Bailey then goes on to describe why the mainstream media should be invested with a certain kind of journalistic and truthful authority. She points out that even though there are problems with the mainstream media, still there are certain protections, certain standards of professional journalism that pertain, certain structures of accountability including publishers and editors and others. In her words,
“What separates journalists from someone else posting information on the Internet? As journalists, we are guided by certain standards and ethics, taking issues of fairness and bias seriously, including avoiding conflicts of interest. With few exceptions, we are careful to attribute information we report to named sources. We conduct original research, and we fact-check what we write.”
In her concluding words she writes,
“To demean a journalist’s profession of ‘truth-telling’ and to suggest that reporters are uniformly dishonest in their search for the truth threaten to undercut the idea that truth exists and that it can and should be pursued. We know this is true: Firing a gun in a pizza parlor over fake news is no laughing matter.”
Indeed, of course, it is not.
As a theologian and educator, Mohler is most concerned about the impact of the "fake news" debate on concepts of truth in public information and life. There is too much meat here to chop it up. You simply must read it all.
But let's end with one major slice of what he has to say about news in the Internet age, now that the mainstream press has lost much of its old power in public discourse:
... That monopoly has long since been broken and we are now living in what can only be described as a Wild Wild West of information.
But of course if it’s the Wild Wild West of information, it is similarly a vast frontier of misinformation as well. I think at this point from a Christian worldview perspective we should register a significant problem with the very category of fake news. For one thing, Sarah Pulliam Bailey is clearly right when she argues that Christians should be very concerned with the issue of truth, if anything that’s an understatement. But the problem is that the word ‘news’ and the word ‘truth’ are not exactly the same. We would certainly hope that the news contains the truth and nothing but the truth, and we would also hope that the truth makes news. But what is now routinely called news is actually, let’s be honest, a consumer product. And where there is a consumer product at some point that product is going to have to meet consumer demands.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey is writing as a Christian and she comes from an evangelical family that has been invested in journalism as a profession for a very long time. And I certainly share with her the concern about the decentering of the very idea of authority and truth telling in terms of the news media. We also have to recognize that she’s absolutely right -- this is a point we’ve made over and over again -- that evangelical Christians have to be very concerned about the reality of truth, and we have to be very determined to do our utmost to separate the truth from error.
But the problem with the category of fake news is that the news as a category simply isn’t able to sustain this level of scrutiny. A couple of quick observations here. You’ll notice on The Briefing that in almost every single case in which I mention an article on this program, it is an article from the mainstream media. Why is that so? It is because of my own background in journalism and my own investment in the news industry and my own understanding that there really is a set of professional standards that applies and is very important, that there really is a certain level of credibility that is attached to the Washington Post and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and to other mainstream branded media, simply because they are committed to a certain level of journalistic excellence and they are accountable to specific journalistic standards.
But at the same time, I would have to blame many of those very same mainstream media outlets for being part of a culture that has subverted the very idea of truth and the idea of authority, and has simultaneous to holding themselves to these journalistic standards failed to make the distinction that is necessary between opinion and news.
You don't have to agree with everything Mohler has to say to grasp the importance of his observation that the blurring lines between news and opinion/advocacy in the mainstream press -- yes, the GetReligion term "Kellerism" leaps to mind -- has made it harder to trust the press lord's attempts to tell us what is "fake" and what is "real."
As I have argued here at GetReligion (and in that a podcast), waves of biased, skewed and at times simply messed up coverage of cultural, moral and religious issues has certainly played a role in pushing millions of readers to the point where they are tempted to belief fake, dishonest and dangerous "news" products online.
Keep reading and read it all.
He ends with this thought, however: "Shrugging at the truth is a luxury that Christians cannot afford themselves."