Over at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax is asking whether Christians should consider “pulling the plug” on an increasingly unsanctified form of television entertainment.
No, it’s not the racy or gratuitously violent scenes on “Skinamax” or other channels— it’s cable news.
Here’s the money quote:
In a culture that has lost its appetite for truth and has developed an appetite for coarseness and sensationalism, cable news plays to our worst tendencies.
(Read the full thing here.)
Like me, Wax admits to having once been a bit of a “political junkie.” But as he puts it, “Election 2016 changed that.”
It wasn’t because, this time around, I was unable to enthusiastically support either candidate. It was a growing concern with the toxic atmosphere of the cable news channels and the worrisome trends they reveal about our society.
He then gives three reasons why the rise of niche-market news channels–tailor made to heighten our existing biases–have had cancerous effects.
Here they are:
- The Disappearing Aim of Journalism
While absolutely no one is unbiased, the claim here is that today’s cable news outlets (whether Fox News, CNN, or MSBC) aren’t even trying.
The aim is no longer truth or journalism; it’s ratings via sensationalized pandering to a specific demographic. For proof, one need only recall the admission of a CNN producer that the Russia scandal was “great for ratings.”
- The Disappearing Desire for Truth
Worse yet, many viewers do not seem to care. We tune in for validation, not objectivity, and the media on both sides plays the music to our band.
- The Rise of News as Show
Wax’s third claim is that the line between news and entertainment has all but vanished. What we have now are “shows,” or rather: “food fight journalism,” dished out by the likes of Hannity, Maddow, and (formerly) O’Reilly.
On this point, Wax gives a telling example from the life of Roger Ailes, Fox News founder and longtime Harvey Weinstein impersonator:
Ailes knew what types he wanted on that show: the “bombshell blonde,” the middle-of-the-road guy, the renegade, the brunette, and the token liberal (white or black) to round out the panel. When casting the show, he made it clear to the panelists that they were replaceable precisely because they were typecast.
In the end, such typecast replicability also led, by all accounts, to a newsroom that made Ron Burgundy’s look like a paragon of gender equality and female respect. The non-disclosure agreements were stacked like papal indulgences.
WAIT A MINUTE
But wait a minute… is all this an exageration?
Despite such strong indictments, Wax doesn’t want to go too far.
As he notes, moments of real journalism do sneak through on the cable channels. And in moments of crisis, like the recent hurricanes, we are thankful to be “inspired by the stories of individual families, of daring rescues, and the ongoing relief efforts.”
Cable news is not all bad; not all options are equally biased; and simply tuning out to world events does not seem like a great alternative.
Perhaps one possibility then is to step away from cable–millennials like myself have long since done this (what are channels?)–and get our news from a variety of other sources.
The best of these may even involve (wait for it…) reading. While this would hardly free us from the grip of bias, the choice to read our news from more reputable sources would eliminate the endless food fights (read: panel discussions), engineered by Ailes and others. It would also prevent the binge-newsing that fuels an obsessive and over-politicized paranoia.
In the recent words of David Brooks:
[Our] public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised … we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.
A PROBLEM ON BOTH SIDES
As Wax makes clear, the problem exists on both the Right and Left.
In this, we have yet another example of how both extremes within our current culture wars are locked in a symbiotic existence that is simultaneously a carnal embrace.
They need each other; they are producing offspring (“As even your own poets claim”); and they ought to be in each other’s Christmas cards.
In the end, the greatest danger is what such WWE-inspired journalism does to us.
It changes us in subtle ways. And it leaves us drawn (perhaps subconsciously) toward leaders with these qualities.
We form our media; then our media form us.
Before we know it, one might even feel “strangely warmed” toward a figure whose philosophical and rhetorical inspirations seem like an odd amalgam of Gordon Gecko and Ric Flair. Hypothetically.
After reading Wax, my own takeaway was not a legalistic command along the lines of “Thou shalt not cable news.”
In all honesty, my own tradition has sometimes erred in this direction. My grandparents tell an old story of unloading the family moving van at a new church parsonage, only to be asked brusquely by a church elder:
“Do you own a television?”
“No,” replied my grandfather.
“Good; we throw those in the river!”
Neither Wax nor I are advocating this.
Even so, perhaps evangelicals would do well to recognize that “sex and cussing” are not the only forms of television viewing that can malform us when it comes to holiness.
Oh be careful little eyes…