Guilt folder chatter: What happens when newsworthy topics are 'covered' in entertainment?

Faithful GetReligion readers are familiar with our "folder of guilt" concept. If you live online, you have one, too.

It's the large stack of emails that you know you need to deal with, but more urgent (or less complex) emails keep arriving, day after day, week after week. The digital layers between you and the "guilt" emails get bigger and bigger.

The difference here at GetReligion is that some of us have -- literally -- created "guilt" folders in our email software to protect certain stories or op-eds or online discussions that we know we should deal with, somehow, someday. Like today.

This brings me to a 5-star "guilt" discussion that took place recently among the GetReligionistas. This one was important because it cut to the heart of what we do here and, to be blunt, what we may or may not be doing in the future.

The basics: GetReligion has, for 14-plus years, attempted to critique the good and the bad in mainstream coverage of religion. We have deliberately tried to avoid writing about opinion and analysis journalism, other than making references to add depth or perspective to posts about hard-news coverage. We also have the weekend "think piece" feature that points readers to all kinds of journalism about issues linked to religion and, thus, religion news.

Meanwhile, trends in the Internet age have weakened the wall between straight news and advocacy news (#DUH). We know that and we have struggled to cope with that.

But we also know that many of our culture's most important discussions of religious issues and events are taking place OUTSIDE of the journalism world -- in entertainment. That's one of the reasons I left a newsroom in 1991 to teach mass-media studies at a seminary.

So what is GetReligion supposed to do with debates about "news" topics that take place, to cite one example, in a show like HBO's "Silicon Valley"?

This is not a show that I know much about, to be honest. However, you'd have to be a total pop-culture illiterate not to have seen the news hook in that recent episode entitled "Tech Evangelist." Here is a piece of a Vulture.com essay by Odie Henderson about that show, describing the content:

In the IT world, the “tech evangelist” preaches the gospel of the product, and does so with a fervor bordering on zealotry. Though the position has always existed in some fashion, Steve Jobs is responsible for bringing tech evangelism to the forefront and making it such a big deal. It is the marketing job to end all marketing jobs -- one I couldn’t do if my life depended on it.
A good tech evangelist has to have a religious devotion to the product, which is why this week’s Silicon Valley episode’s title is so clever. As we’ll see, it’s a play on words that puts the tech world and religion on a collision course. But the title is the only clever thing this episode has to offer; “Tech Evangelist” plays as if someone wrote a coming-out story and then substituted “Christian” for “gay” in every scene and joke. Now, I have never sought religious counsel of any sort in the 12 years I’ve worked in Silicon Valley, so I’ll have to take the show’s word on how Christianity is as verboten as cigarette smoking.

Now, that's a newsworthy topic -- one that would require lots and lots of research (and open minds in a newsroom). You know that it's a complex topic because this "Silicon Valley" episode appears to be, in part, a satire of the eHarmony "Compatible Partners" website controversy that took place all the way back in 2008. Have scriptwriters been mulling this over for a decade, perhaps in show-running discussions for other programs?

Let me stress that our goal here is not to debate the issue of IT prejudices linked to sex and religion. We also don't need to focus on the fact that the show focuses on prejudices against a gay Christian, as opposed to a straight church-goer.

The question is this: Clearly this topic is newsworthy. Is this episode "news" content, only encoded in a different form?

Obviously, this is not natural GetReligion territory. But what if there was a website that had a much broader definition of "news" and "public discourse," one that included, let's say, mass-media in the fine and popular arts? Fair game?

That's what the GetReligion chatter was about several weeks ago. Then I stashed these links in my "folder of guilt."

To help you think this through, please read this section of a Georgi Boorman essay -- not a news report -- at The Federalist, a conservative site that frequently writes about popular culture. This is long, but essential:

In the episode, Richard Hendricks, the CEO of a small tech company building a “new internet,” is trying to pitch a big vendor on putting exclusive content on his internet. In his effort to talk up the vendors already signed on with him, he accidentally “outs” DD, the CEO of a gay dating site, by mentioning he and his boyfriend regularly go to church.
The mood in the room instantly changes. The expressions shift from excitement and interest to a wide-eyed look of shock and subtle dread, as if they’d been told the deal would require them to eat a box of spiders. ...
“I’m not openly Christian,” a spurned DD whispers after the meeting. “Thanks a lot, you just outed me.”
A puzzled Hendricks tells the rest of his team what happened. Mild-mannered Jared, the COO, gently tries to explain the extent to which the tech hub is biased against Christians. “Here, you can be openly polyamorous and people will call you brave. You can put micro doses of LSD in your cereal and people will call you a pioneer. But the one thing you cannot be is a Christian.”
Even Gilfoyle, a self-professed Satanist on the show, comments, “I find their theology illegitimate and it’s clear that they’re the source of the majority of the world’s problems. But f-ck Richard, even I wouldn’t just out a Christian like that.”

So there you have it. Is this mere entertainment? Is this a case of HBO writers going where mainstream news reporters fear to tread? Is this a business story, in disguise? Is this today's equivalent of a high-quality op-ed page essay? A large-scale editorial cartoon?

Is there journalism in this show, and reactions to it, worthy of discussion?

Click "comment" and go for it.

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