Tuesday, May 10, 2005

On Christian Media

I'm sure that you have heard your fair share about the so-called liberal media in this country. If it weren't for the Fox News (and a few other networks better left unnamed), all the news would be delivered to us in pink-tinted commie packages, right?

What you might not know (given that you are reading this blog) is that this country also has a Christian media, one with religious-right values and a selective take on the news of the day. True, it is not yet a large proportion of the total media industry, but it is a rapidly growing one. The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which produces Pat Robertson's 700 Club, is only one of many Christian television and radio networks:

Conservative evangelicals control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation's more than 2,000 religious radio stations. Thanks to Christian radio's rapid growth, religious stations now outnumber every other format except country music and news-talk. If they want to dwell solely in this alternative universe, believers can now choose to have only Christian programs piped into their homes. Sky Angel, one of the nation's three direct-broadcast satellite networks, carries thirty-six channels of Christian radio and television — and nothing else.

An intriguing thought, this: that Christians can choose to receive nothing but Christian news. We are slowly moving towards a system where Republicans will only accept Republican news and Democrats only Democratic news. So why not have religious news broadcasts to groups who are especially religious?

The logical conclusion to this trend is frightening: a nation where no values are shared, where nobody can communicate with the members of groups who think differently and where nobody agrees on what is actually happening. Trends like home schooling could exacerbate this outcome.

But of course these Christian news providers are not truly separate from the Republican news producers. The Christian media is right-wing and evangelical. What this means for the bias in the news it chooses to cover is obvious:

Many evangelical networks and program producers are also tax-exempt nonprofits. But while most were careful not to endorse candidates by name, they openly pushed the Republican ticket in the run-up to the 2004 election. During his last pre-election broadcast, the International Intelligence Briefing host Hal Lindsey told audiences that liberals were determined to "bring about our literal annihilation," and that "a vote for the conservative cause . . . is a vote to . . . reverse America's decline and restore her to the path of morality, conscience, and strength of character. It's a vote to continue America's return to her rightful place as the strongest beacon of hope in a terrified world." Other broadcasters went further, launching and promoting massive voter-registration drives with the apparent goal of helping Republicans clinch a victory. The host James Dobson held pro-Bush rallies that packed stadiums and told his 7 million U.S. listeners that it was a sin not to vote.

During the pre-election frenzy FamilyNet, the television arm of the Southern Baptist Convention's media empire, added a political talk show to its formerly entertainment-heavy lineup. It was also during this period that it established its news department. The network, which reaches 30 million homes, reported live from both parties' conventions, and ran evening coverage on election day — all of it salted with pro-Bush commentary. Several other Christian networks also ran continuous, live election coverage for the first time. Much of it carried a clear bias. USA Radio Network, for example, ran pieces produced to sound like news stories, but with a single conservative perspective. One segment, based solely on an interview with the former CIA analyst Wayne Simmons, reported that Osama bin Laden spent years laying plans to destroy America, only to have them thwarted by a tough-talking Texan. "He never planned on running into a president with the strength, character, and conviction of George W. Bush," Simmons said. "If George W. Bush wins the presidency, his fate — meaning Osama bin Laden's fate — is sealed. If John Kerry wins, he'll go back to business as usual because he knows he'll have another administration in there where he did nothing and let them plan attacks on us."

It's possible to conclude that the Christian media is a subsection of the conservative media, one which focuses more on religiosity but no less on the conservative talking-points. What makes this combination tricky is the holy flavor it imparts to purely secular political concepts. How will a Christian consumer of biased news interpret them? As just opinions, or as divine messages?

We shouldn't be surprised by any of this, given that president Bush himself views the world in the starkly simple terms of good and evil. Still, there is something exceedingly creepy about this description of a Christian lobbying trip:

The role that evangelicals are credited with playing in the recent election seems only to have improved broadcasters' access to power. During the opening session of the 2005 NRB convention, Wright described a recent lobbying excursion to Capitol Hill. "We got into rooms we've never been in before," he said. "We got down on the floor of the Senate and prayed over Hillary Clinton's desk."