Former NPR CEO visits Jesusland! Returns with sobering media-bias truths for left and right

Oh my. What's a GetReligionista to do?

There are so many journalism and Godbeat think pieces from the past week that I would like to run in this Sunday slot. Some of them are going to turn into daily pieces, methinks. Some are headed into my large "file of guilt" for later.

But let's start with a very unusual byline atop an op-ed essay at The New York Post. This byline is so strange that the copy desk decided to celebrate it right there in the headline: "Former NPR CEO opens up about liberal media bias."

Then again, it helps to know that former National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern is about to release a major-publisher book with this title: "Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right." An essay in the libertarian Post made lots of sense.

Now, as a non-Republican, I care little about the political language of the book title. As someone who has spent his life studying media bias issues linked to religion coverage, I am interested in the methodology that Stern used in this book.

Brace yourselves. He went out into flyover country (also known as "Jesusland") and talked to people.

Journalists -- hopefully on the left, as well as the right -- will want to know that his stated motive for writing this book was his horror at the current state of public discourse in our nation. This is not a "Yea Trump!" essay. It's an essay by someone who is concerned about the press and its old -- now dying, I fear -- role as a fair-minded middle ground in American life. Here is a key passage:

Spurred by a fear that red and blue America were drifting irrevocably apart, I decided to venture out from my overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood and engage Republicans where they live, work and pray. For an entire year, I embedded myself with the other side, standing in pit row at a NASCAR race, hanging out at Tea Party meetings and sitting in on Steve Bannon’s radio show. I found an America far different from the one depicted in the press and imagined by presidents (“cling to guns or religion”) and presidential candidates (“basket of deplorables”) alike.

Now, what does this have to do with religion-beat work?

Stern quickly realized that religion plays a major role in the lives of a high percentage of flyover country Americans (and -- sssssshhhh! -- in blue zip codes as well). Thus:

I spent many Sundays in evangelical churches and hung out with 15,000 evangelical youth at the Urbana conference. I wasn’t sure what to expect among thousands of college-age evangelicals, but I certainly didn’t expect the intense discussion of racial equity and refugee issues -- how to help them, not how to keep them out -- but that is what I got.
At Urbana, I met dozens of people who were dedicating their lives to the mission, spreading the good news of Jesus, of course, but doing so through a life of charity and compassion for others: staffing remote hospitals, building homes for the homeless and, in one case, flying a “powered parachute” over miles of uninhabited jungle in the western Congo to bring a little bit of entertainment, education and relief to some of the remotest villages you could imagine. It was all inspiring -- and a little foolhardy, if you ask me about the safety of a powered parachute -- but it left me with a very different impression of a community that was previously known to me only through Jerry Falwell and the movie “Footloose.”

There's much here to discuss. Pig hunting in the wilds of Texas isn't my thing, but his observations on hunting culture are interesting, especially since he ended up sharing the company of "a Hispanic ex-soldier, a young black family man, a Serbian immigrant and a Jew from DC." It wasn't an NRA cartoon kind of thing.

Yes, there is quite a bit of commentary here on complex issues linked to guns. However, Stern also spent lots of time with Rust Belt people and heard their stories of life in the new economy. And he listened to their critiques of the mainstream press.

This brings us to another major theme in this piece -- which is his fear that declining respect for the press is, in the long run, not going to help anyone in America.

Amen. Preach it, brother.

Some may take pleasure in the discomfort of the media, but it is not a good situation for the country to have the media in disrepute and under constant attack. Virtually every significant leader of this nation, from Jefferson on down, has recognized the critical role of an independent press to the orderly functioning of democracy. We should all be worried that more than 65 percent of voters think there is a lot of fake news in the mainstream media and that our major media institutions are seen as creating, not combatting, our growing partisan divide.
Some of this loss of reputation stems from effective demagoguery from the right and the left, as well as from our demagogue-in-chief, but the attacks wouldn’t be so successful if our media institutions hadn’t failed us as well.

Please pass this essay on to anyone you know in leadership in the media or, come to think of it, your own religious congregation (should you have one). Journalism professors! Hand this out to your students.

Please, read it all.

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