Jesus, Is This News?

BY Susan J. Douglas

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Blinded by their own erroneous news frame that the last election was all about "moral values," the news media are devoting more airtime to everything Jesus.

No matter how much columnists and media critics bemoan the sorry state of American journalism, no matter how low the press sinks in the estimation of the American people, the news media, particularly on television, remains defiantly abysmal. Now, on top of the usual toxic doses of runaway brides, irrelevant celebrity trials and President Bush holding hands with Crown Prince Abdullah, we have the rise of Jesus News.

Blinded by their own erroneous news frame that the last election was all about “moral values,” and pressured to give religion more coverage by an evangelical right running on methamphetamines, the news media are devoting more airtime to everything Jesus.

The ghoulish death watch of Pope Paul John II (“Is he dead yet?” “No, Bob, not dead yet, back to you.”) hogged nearly an hour of total news time on the three networks from March 28-April 1, and his death and funeral preparations garnered 129 minutes of network news attention the following week, making it the year’s third biggest story so far. By contrast, that same week, Tom Delay’s ethics problems received four minutes of coverage on ABC and CBS combined, and none on NBC. By the week of April 18-22, when the networks devoted 37 minutes to the Conclave of Cardinals (“Is the smoke white or black, Bob?”) and another 32 minutes to the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope, one might have thought Catholicism had become our state religion.

The week of May 2, ABC news inaugurated a series called “Under God,” about how conservative Christians are “searching for new ways to make their mark on popular culture.” First up was a story about Christian cheerleading camps, and the next day a story about how Christians like to spank their kids. By the time Thursday’s episode, “Faith and Fashion Under God” aired, one sensed that some at ABC had been a bit hoodwinked. Here we learned that “a growing number of people, especially young people, are proudly wearing their beliefs.” Cut to a picture of the campy baseball cap that has a picture of Jesus on it and reads, “Jesus is my Homeboy.”

My daughter has that cap; so do quite a few of her friends. They have it because they find it hilarious and irreverent. It is the ironic juxtaposition of hip hop slang with evangelism that they love; the last thing they are doing is “wearing their beliefs.”

And then there’s Fox News. It routinely traffics in interviews with folks like the Reverend Franklin Graham, whose newsworthy pronouncements include “Jesus … came to this Earth to take sinners and save us from our sins … [we need to] receive Christ by faith.” Fox is the platform from which James Dobson of Focus on the Family can accuse Democratic Senators of being, well, the infidel. Not be outdone, NBC’s “Dateline” with Stone Phillips had a story about an exorcism to rid a man of demons.

What are we to make of the rise of Jesus news? Yes, it is indeed important to know what the religious right is up to, especially as they seek to pack the courts with Jesus freaks, outlaw the teaching of evolution, reverse decades of environmental regulation because “the rapture” is just around the corner, and suppress free speech and academic freedom on college campuses by charging that evangelical students are “silenced’ and “harassed” and thus should be able to sue.

But that’s not the detailed coverage we’re getting, at least not on TV. Instead, Jesus news embezzles time away from stories people really need to hear, like much more detailed coverage of the Bush/Republican energy bill, which got a total of six minutes of coverage from all three networks when it passed the house the week of April 18.

Not to mention local news. Here in Michigan, we are contemplating, and not without bitterness, the famous 1955 quotation from Charlie Wilson who said of his company “What’s good for General Motors is good for the rest of America.” In that year, GM sold over half of the cars purchased in the United States. Today, GM has been downgraded to junk bond status. The company’s arrogant, willful myopia, which has kept it producing gas-guzzling, poorly designed, undesirable cars, could very well lead to a major fiscal disaster in Michigan and elsewhere. But except for the business pages, (and the Detroit News and Free Press), this has not gotten near the attention that the religious invocations used at NASCAR rallies has.

The parade of evangelicals on TV exaggerates the numbers of these folks and makes them seem much more influential than they are–or certainly should be. Rather than clones of the Christian Broadcasting Network, we need solid, investigative work about the money, organizations and, indeed, the cynicism behind all of these crusading efforts to turn our country into a giant Bible camp.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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