Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Republocrat: Chapter 3 "Not-So-Fantastic Mr. Fox"

The scandal and turmoil engulfing Fox News Channel reminded me of this post from 2010. It was part of a series I did on a book by Carl Trueman called Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative.

Shortly after moving here from England; Republocrat author Carl Trueman was told by a well-meaning Christian friend that he should watch Fox News because -- "that's the unbiased news channel." Upon investigation it turned out that FNC wasn't that historical rarity: a truly unbiased source of reportage, instead, it was a source of around-the-clock conservative commentary and spin. Lest you're thinking this assesment of Fox News is a case of British snobbery, the venerable BBC comes in for some harsh criticism too: "Visiting home recently, I was shocked to see that, in my nearly nine-year absence, the BBC seems to have been taken over by a bunch of New Labour groupies. . ." (p. 41)

The point is -- the BBC has a left of center bias, as do most of the mainstream media institutions in the United States (e.g. CNN, MSNBC, New York Times). It's fine and good that Fox News wants to provide an alternative viewpoint to the left-wing MSM, but don't say with a straight face that Fox is unbiased. As Trueman points out -- we all have our biases. In his history class he makes an important distinction between objectivity and neutrality.

I like to argue in class that in the writing of history, no one can be neutral, but historians can be objective. (p. 42)

Some historians are more objective than others, and so are some news channels. On the rare occasions when I watch cable news I usually turn to CNN because (in my opinion) they do a better job of giving a full picture and more objective viewpoint than the outliers on the right and left (see, I have a centrist bias). The fact, though, that CNN's ratings have been in decline relative to their main competitors is an indication of what the public wants.

What the public increasingly wants, it seems, is news and commentary that confirms what they already believe -- and the more outrageous and shrill the better. Instead of exposing ourselves to a variety of voices we gravitate to those that validate our prejudices and stoke our fears. If you're a worried conservative who believes in your gut that they (liberals, Europeans, George Soros, etc.) are out to get us, then the fevered monologues and talking points of Beck and O'Reilly will strike a chord. This in itself isn't all that remarkable. What is remarkable are the legions of conservative Christians who've reacted to the bias of the "liberal media" by annointing Rupert Murdoch's channel as defender of traditional values and purveyor of all that's true, right and good.

How well does this reputation stack up with reality? After a devastatingly funny deconstruction of a couple of representative quotes from the aforementioned stars of the Fox firmament (see pp. 44-49) the author turns to Murdoch and his media empire. I have to say that Trueman really has it out for Mr. Murdoch. In fact he admits a Beckian conspiratorial bent in his fixation on the Aussie mogul.

To start with -- Murdoch personally is no paragon of family values. He's on his third marriage to the young vice president of one of his many media properties (Star TV) who he married mere days after his second divorce. That behavior in itself isn't necessarily a reason not to watch his channels or read his newspapers. I've written in this space about my admiration for the movies of Woody Allen -- this despite his tawdry personal life. However, while conservative Christians are quick to condemn the private peccadillos of a liberal like Woody Allen, "the Christian Right. . . is often very forgiving of the private failings of its heroes, as in the case of Rush Limbaugh with his various marriages and his well-publicized drug addiction." (pp. 51-2)

Beyond Murdoch's personal life there's his ownership of The Sun -- "a tabloid known for setting the bar as low as it gets when it comes to journalism" and it's "daily diet of beautiful, topless women. Indeed, prior to the advent of the World Wide Web, it is possible that Murdoch was responsible for putting more soft pornography into more houses than anybody else in history." (p. 52) Trueman wonders aloud how Christian fathers would feel if they opened up the newspaper and saw their daughter posing naked for the leering masses. Also, it's easy to forget the Fox part of Fox News -- that network whose stock-in-trade is raunchy sitcoms that mock the values cherished by conservative Christians and encourage us to laugh at family dysfunction.

The take-home message from this chapter is that Christians should be more "eclectic" in what they read, watch and listen to. Don't get all your news from the same source. Realize that all news channels have their biases. Be intentional in exposing yourself to voices that challenge your view of the world. If we take into account the wide-ranging impact of sin on people and institutions then we'll approach any media outlet with a degree of skepticism. Trueman encourages his readers to emulate the Greek apologists of the early church by taking seriously our responsibility to be the most thoughtful and informed citizens we can be, as opposed to those who traffic in "clichés, slander, and lunatic conspiracy theories." (p. 59)

In short, the primary aim of this chapter isn't to convince Christians that they shouldn't turn on Fox News. It's to convince them that they shouldn't turn on Fox News with their God-given critical faculties turned off.

Next: the uneasy marriage of Christianity and capitalism.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

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