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Posted January 9, 2004

An Excellent Book for Understanding the History of Catholic as well as Protestant Ventures in and with the Media

Book: Christianity and the Mass Media In America: Toward a Democratic Accommodation
Author: Quentin J. Schyultze
Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, Michigan, pp. 440

Excerpt from Jacket:

The mass media and religious groups in America regularly argue about news bias, sex and violence on television, movie censorship, advertiser boycotts, broadcast and film content rating systems, government regulation of the media, the role of mass evangelism in a democracy and many other issues. In the United States the major disputes between religion and the media usually have involved Christian churches or para-church ministries, on the one hand, and so-called secular media, on the other. Often the Christian Right locks horns with supposedly liberal Eastern media elite and Hollywood entertainment companies. When a major Protestant denomination calls for an economic boycott of Disney, the resulting news reports suggest business as usual in the tensions between faith groups and media empires.

Schultze demonstrates how religion and the media in America have borrowed each other’s rhetoric. In the process, they have also helped to keep each other honest, pointing out respective foibles and pretensions. Christian media have offered the public as well as religious tribes some of the best media criticism — better than most of the media criticism produced by mainstream media themselves. Meanwhile, mainstream media have rightly taken particular churches to task for miss deeds as well as offered some surprisingly good depictions of religious life.

The tension between Christian groups and the media in America ultimately is a good thing that can serve the interest of democratic life. As Alex de Tocqueville discovered in the 1830s. American Christianity can foster the “habits of the heart” that ward off the antisocial acids of radical individualism. And, as John Dewey argued a century later, the media offer some of our best hopes for maintaining a public life in the face of the religious tribalism that can erode democracy from within. Mainstream media and Christianity will always be at odds in a democracy. That is exactly the way it should be for the good of each one.

Excerpt from Book:

Mainstream Journalism as Informational Fundamentalism

In 1994 the Washington Post published a notice for the position of “religion report.” The notice included the following description of the kind of person that he paper hoped to recruit: “The ideal candidate is not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.” It is hard to imagine a similar job posting for a political or business reporter. The Post’s job listing captured the profession’s sense of uninterest in religion as well as its owns skepticism about religious people. Why not require a reporter who writes about religion to know something about the topic — even if he or she is not personally religious? Perhaps knowledge is commitment, and commitment might lead to subjectivity and a lack of balance in reporting. In this case ignorance — religious ignorance — is not bliss, but it certainly can seem professional. Like the image of the cold, dispassionate scientist, the Post’s description of a reporter suggests that good journalists should not get too close personally to their subject. According to this popular hermeneutic of reporting, news should focus on what Park calls the “transient and ephemeral” qualities of stories.

Marvin Olasky argues nearly the opposite, calling for engaged, perspectival reporting anchored in the reporter’s religious worldview. In Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism he suggests that journalists resuscitate the early colonial style of reporting that grounded daily stories in divine providence expressed through the Christian meta narrative. A Christian journalist’s “news and feature stories should have some implicit Christocentric content,” he says, in opposition to the “world’s definition of objectivity.” He defines this as directed reporting that combines biblical direction and detailed reporting. Olasky concludes that the goal of such reporting is “perspective that is grounded in a biblical worldview. If there is insufficient biblical rationale for a story theme, out it should go.” If most mainstream reporters favor news that is reported without any accompanying personal or institutional perspective, Olasky seeks the reverse — news reports framed by a tribal vision of truth. Olasky’s proposal suggests that news needs an overarching perspective, such as Christianity’s worldview. His directed reporting seems to support St. Augustine’s idea that true knowledge always stems from the fear of God — that faith precedes knowledge.

Modern journalism, however, rejects such religious assumptions in favor of a commonsense objectivity. Although human objectivity is now contested in most academic fields, journalists strongly defend their ability to be detached truth-tellers. Every profession has its ideology, of course, and in the news business the rhetoric of commonsense objectivity is foundational for journalists’ professional integrity. Journalists purport to solve the subject-object dichotomy, the problem of bias, by resorting to their own version of literalism. This hermeneutical paradigm is remarkably close to the interpretive method that many religious fundamentalists use to exegete sacred texts. The worldview of American daily news reporting is a form of informational fundamentalism that emphasizes facts, actions, and conflict with little regard for historical context and motive.

Table of Contents:

Chapter I: Conversing About Faith and Media in Ameria

The rhetoric of conversion
The rhetoric of discernment
The rhetoric of communion
The rhetoric of exile
The rhetoric of praise

Chapter II: Praising Technology: Evangelical Populism Embraces American Futurism

Christian optimism and technology
Evangelical theology and mass communication
The mythos of the electronic church
Prophetic mythos as science fiction

Chapter III Leading the Tribes Out of Exile: The Religious Press Discerns Broadcasting

Pressing for tribal loyalties in a strange land
Commonweal: the primacy of community
America: Freedom of the airways
Christian Century: The ecumenical spirit
Christianity Today: marketing the Gospel
Catholic World: An apostolic tool

Chapter IV: Converting to Consumerism: Evangelical Radio Embraces the Market

The rise of religious radio
The “Bazaar” rhetoric of public interest
Marketing religion on the radio
The struggle over network broadcasting
Marketing religious consumerism

Chapter V: Searching for Communion: The Christian Metanarrative Meets Popular Mythology

Religious uses of narrative communication
The liturgical character of mass-mediated narratives
Media criticism as tribal exegesis and prophetic imagination
Four examples of tribal criticism

Chapter VI: Communing with Civil Sin: Mainstream Media Purge Evil

From sin to evil
Civil sin
Civil sinners as victims of immanent causality
Purging civil sinners from the media world

Chapter VII. Discerning Professional Journalism: Reporters Adopt Fundamentalist Discourse

News as the “Good News”
Mainstream journalism as informational fundamentalism
The power of news as unimaginative social liturgy
Christian news in the public square

Chapter VIII: Praising Democracy: Embracing Religion in a Mass-Mediated Society

Balancing culture in time and space
Balancing tribal and public interests
Balancing religious and secular culture
Balancing technology and culture