Thou shalt not Cable News?

Thou shalt not Cable News?

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.

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:

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

BEYOND LEGALISM

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…

13 Reasons Why Not

13 Reasons Why Not

There is a danger in decrying certain elements of pop culture.

In many cases, the very breath that’s used in criticism serves only to fan the flame you’re trying to extinguish.

Boycotts build bestsellers.

And the best way to ensure the popularity of a book or movie is to try and ban it.

So this is not a move to ban or boycott; but it is a note of quiet resistance to what is now the most controversial show on television: 13 Reasons Why.

THE STORY

The series is an adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel chronicling the tragic life of Hannah Baker, a high schooler who kills herself after leaving behind 13 tapes to explain why she did it.

Each tape is devoted to a different person in Hannah’s life, and together they plot a path of bullying, betrayal, and most horrifically–a brutal rape.

At points, the series is poignant and heartbreaking.

The characters of Hannah and Clay (her love interest) are well cast and well acted. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the buzz around the show proves what has been obvious for some time: network television has long-ceased to tell stories that folks under fifty even remotely care about. (This too was a suicide of sorts – but less lamented.)

At other points, however, the show is badly broken.

And not just for moral reasons.

ONLY THE CLICHÉS EMERGE UNSCATHED 

With all the talk of death in 13 Reasons, one thing that lives eternal are the wooden stereotypes.

Indeed, most episodes could have come with a disclaimer that despite appearances, “No clichés were harmed in the making of this mixtape.”

“The popular kids are always mean,” says Hannah. “That’s how they get popular.” No lack of nuance there.

The assessment is fairly simple:

  • Athletes are dumb and despicable.
  • Rebels are kind, though misunderstood.
  • And if you own a letter jacket, you’re half Nazi, half Neanderthal.

While acknowledging that there is some truth to the Darwinian dictum that “the strong eat the weak” within the wild of high school, these sorts of oversimplified clichés are enough to make Saved by the Bell seem complex by comparison.

The real problem, though, runs deeper.

THE BACKLASH

While the show’s intent is (ostensibly) to shine a light on the terrible effects of bullying behavior, many experts say that it will have another consequence: more suicides, not less.

In the view of Trevin Wax (here):

In trying to fight bullying, this show lifts up suicide. It gives the main character a noble way out, a martyrdom of sorts, a tragic but glamorous finale (displayed in graphic detail) that goes against virtually every best practice for addressing suicide responsibly.

For Hannah, suicide is a weapon to be wielded against a culture of shame and brutal violence.

Yet what may escape the audience is that this selfish act merely perpetuates the problem. It continues the graceless cycle of violent shaming. And it ends up valorizing the very beast that devoured Hannah in the first place.

To be sure, Hannah’s predators deserve to be punished—severely. Yet the road she chooses merely reiterates the rapist’s verdict: Some lives are expendable; some bodies are mere means to a vindictive end.

In Wax’s even harsher judgment:

Most people think that 13 Reasons Why is about a group of teenagers, who in their selfish actions and inaction, are responsible for killing a fragile young girl. No. This is a show about how a girl, beyond the grave, kills her classmates.

And I’d add: her parents.

While suicide is complex—with contributing factors like mental illness, clinical depression, and even chronic brain injury—13 Reasons gives little hint that such forces account for Hannah’s choice. She’s just a happy girl who was driven to this end by bullies. What choice did she have?

And that’s a dangerous depiction.

THE OTHER HANNAHS

If there is a silver lining to the show, it is the conversation that it may spark (in places like this) regarding how we ought to deal with bullying, sexual assault, and suicide prevention.

And we must.

The very title of this post was stolen from a message by my friend Aaron Stroman as he preached hope to the high school students in his own youth group.

Instead of 13 Reasons Why, he gave “13 Reasons Why Not.”

Because the Gospel claims that even the darkest moments can be made new.

13whynot

As a ministry professor, one thing I never expected was the number of students—even from Christian families—who would eventually recount for me a tale that sounds a bit like Hannah’s.

“I was bullied terribly.”

“I was raped in high school.”

“I thought no one would believe me.”

Or worse yet: “No one did.”

Yet unlike Hannah, these women did not take the violent way out. They pursued help and hope and healing.

For such reasons, they are the far more interesting case studies.

They are the ones who deserve an audience.

And I’ve learned far more from them than Hannah Baker.