Chris Keithley

Fake News and Evangelicals

Getting evangelicals away from fake news means telling their stories in the mainstream media.

“Fake news” is now a near meaningless political football. The original story–the false blog posts peddling falsified and unsubstantiated stories shared on facebook for profit– has been buried by its own moral panic. The election and inauguration of Donald Trump–a man with a tenuous grasp on the truth, to put it mildly–heralds a “post-truth” era, the commentators say. People gather into “echo chambers” online, reading and sharing only stories that confirm their ideological priors (especially conservative ones.)  It even prompted a change in policy from facebook.

The most bracing talking point, which you’ve probably heard a month or so ago and thought little about since, is how according to one suburban fake news purveyor, conservatives are more susceptible to fake news than liberals. Many explanations have been gleefully put forward. From psychoanalysis to the history of conservatism. The accepted point put forward by President Obama has been that conservative alternative media is the problem. The very existence of Fox News and Breitbart has made half of the country “angry” and “hateful.”

The flagship incident was an armed man entering a pizza parlor to investigate whether John Podesta operated a child sex trafficking ring out of the restaurant chain. The man identified as an evangelical, prompting stern admonishments from evangelical writers at The Washington Post and Christianity Today. Evangelicals, like most conservatives, we are told, have a fake news problem.

Instead of leaving it back in last month’s news cycle where it now sits in obscurity, I want to dredge this allegation up and seriously, because I think if we look hard enough at it, there are actually some lessons about our media environment and how evangelicals experience it. I have some doubts as to whether the charge is wholly deserved, but I don’t have any real qualms with supposing that it is, so I want to do some actual parsing of this phenomenon instead of using it as ammo on our facebook feeds.

When a subculture succumbs to a certain kind of disorder, it’s worth asking how and why it happened. For instance, when young black men murder each other on the southside of Chicago, we are asked, rightly, to attend to the context of poverty and discrimination that surrounds their lives and makes their actions at least partially intelligible. The matter of personal responsibility is not wholly set aside, but it is seasoned by context. And so amid the necessary rebukes against conservative and evangelical credulity and willingness to succumb to mean-spirited attacks against the press, is there any attempt to explain the context evangelicals find themselves in with respect to the press? Is their dislike of the media justified? I haven’t been able to find any explorations of this side of the story among the stack of sanctimonious screeds against “hate” and lectures about “reading comprehension.”


Does the press Get Religion?

To all those discomfited by fake news regardless of your ideological priors, all who call evangelicals and conservatives to respect factual accuracy, who enjoy throwing around the term “post-truth,” who like to complain about ideological “echo chambers,” who feel secure in their reading comprehension, who think evangelical contempt for the press is nothing but partisan brainwashing, I put to you a challenge: put one more site on your blogroll. GetReligion, founded in 2004 by longtime On Religion columnist Terry Mattingly (a Pro-Life Democrat, by the way) exists to shed light on the media’s treatment of religion. Mattingly is joined by a distinguished team of contributors who review news stories both from mainstream outlets (The New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN) and more local papers (The LA Times, the Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News) and ask the question: “does the press get religion?” That the site still has enough material for nearly daily posts after thirteen years gives you an idea of the answer.

GetReligion’s “Why We’re Here” section–and it’s worth reading all three parts of it–includes an important concept, the “religion ghost.” For Mattingly and his team, the press’s sins toward religion are largely sins of omission. For actually religious people, religious belief is a central motivator of behavior and a core constituent of identity. But when the press does not comprehend that component of human motivation and identity their reporting becomes confused and scattershot, especially around religious issues, but also in frontpage news where the role of religion goes unnoticed and so the event is explained confusingly. For example a New York Times piece from 2003 on a bombing in Saudi Arabia, the victims were described as “Arab and Muslim.” Confused about the wording, since many Arabs are also Muslims, Mattingly dug deeper and discovered:

In fact, the evidence seemed to be that the victims were Arabs, but they were Arab Christians.

The wording in the New York Times story did not eliminate that possibility, but it also did not provide that specific information. In fact, it would turn out that it was hard to explain the location of the attack in any terms other than an attempt to kill a specific form of “infidels” — Arab Christians.”

For most of the mainstream press, religion remains a special topic, not a key component in most of human life and behavior. This appears to be especially true for Christianity, but not solely. GetReligion’s best columns show how, had a reporter been educated in basic religious terms and history, he could have made better sense of his stories or even avoided simple factual and phraseological errors. Despite the blog’s long history, the problem of the religion ghost is evergreen. Just take The New York Times’s executive editor Dean Baquet’s word for it. In a moment of admirable candidness, he said this in a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air:

I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans. I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better. And I think there are things that we can be more creative about to understand the country.

Coming from the executive editor of the most venerable news outlet in the country, this is no small admission–and hear me, I’m not criticizing Baquet for saying it, I think he’s quite honest and even brave to say so. But unfortunately, he is also quite right. Religion, to mainstream media, is a ghost.

But GetReligion documents other sins as well, some more tangible than ignorance about faith. Kellerism, named for a quote from former New York Times editor Bill Keller, is a shorthand term that describes how mainstream media outlets rarely hold their reporters to the same standard of balance and fairness about reporting on certain moral commitments the paper finds objectionable: particularly those held by many conservative Christians regarding homosexuality and abortion. According to Keller, the case is closed on some moral issues. Of course, as an editorial attitude more than a stated policy, there’s never any smoking gun for exposing Kellerism in the same way as a Religion Ghost, but GetReligion has slowly gathered a body of compelling evidence for why Kellerism is the dominant attitude of the mainstream press.


Our story is not being told.

And now turning from the experts for a moment, I’d like to add a few impressions of my own as an evangelical and avid newsreader. A few propositions. 1. When reporters or columnists set out to write something, they do not say they are writing “the facts” they say they are writing “the story.” Facts buttress a story. Facts are not bundled together as bullet points and delivered to readers to make of them what they will. The story is frame that arranges the facts and makes them intelligible. You can’t have facts without story. 2. A story is also an occasion for facts to be reported. It’s very important to ask why it is important that one story be told and not another–and good newsrooms ask this question constantly, so it’s appropriate that readers do as well. What is the thing that occasions most stories about evangelicals?

Let’s take this NPR interview with Josh Harris, evangelical author of the 90s bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye to flesh out what I mean. Before we ask whether Harris is fairly represented here (it’d be hard not to since it’s his own words) we should ask why Rachel Martin is interviewing an evangelical pastor who authored a popular book in the 1990s. The answer comes in the first prompt after the introduction:

“MARTIN: Joshua Harris has been reflecting a lot on the impact of his book. He’s heard from people who felt his writing taught them to be ashamed of their bodies and to feel guilty for having any sexual desires. The criticism came out recently on Twitter. One woman reached out and said the book was used against her like a weapon. Joshua Harris apologized.”

What’s the occasion for the interview with Harris about his book? It is certainly not the book itself. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published in 1997 as part of a long dormant (though influential in its day) purity movement in evangelical youth culture. In fact, it was the recent comments on Twitter that caught Rachel Martin’s (staff’s) eye. So let’s be clear, the occasion for the story isn’t a pastor reflecting on the impact of his book, but a recent Twitter fracas that involved the pastor and the impact of his book. This may seem like a minor point but I think it’s crucial to understanding the set of assumptions that guide a story (and yes, an interview is a story) as it develops.

Leaving aside whether a few comments on Twitter provide enough controversy to occasion a story at all (another post for another time) let’s next ask why Josh Harris is interesting to Rachel Martin. Surely there are many people who have written opinionated books on social topics that have angered people. But the idea that criticism comes with the territory of being an author developing an argument doesn’t seem to inform Martin’s line of questioning. She does not ask Harris to restate what his book was trying to get at, what social issues it was responding to, and how his beliefs informed his arguments. Instead she asks “As you have gone back through the book, where have you changed your mind?” assuming Josh Harris has changed his mind about his book! Harris said nothing about changing his mind. Apologizing for how his book has been used to hurt people and recanting his book’s core argument are not the same thing. And indeed, Harris’s rambling response reveals that he has not really changed his mind about his book. The question leads to a dead end, partially because Harris does not answer clearly (he obviously doesn’t want to appear defensive and prickly) but mainly because Martin does not treat his book as an intellectual work with a thesis worth explaining and exploring except inasmuch as it has offended people. So Martin is not really treating Josh Harris as an author at all, but as someone who said some things that offended some people.  A fair restatement of Martin’s prompt before her question would be: “Your book and ideas are interesting to me because of how they seem to have hurt people.” Each question proceeds from this basic starting assumption: “your perspective has made people feel needless shame, what do you have to say for yourself?” This is the occasion for NPR’s interview with an evangelical, and it is a typical one for the mainstream media.

The occasion sets the terms for what story is going to be told, NPR’s point of entry into evangelical culture. Rachel Martin was not interested in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a 20 year old book from a small Christian press, for the many health benefits of abstaining from sex or even the potential impact of late 90s purity culture on the life choices of millennials in the present who are voluntarily having less sex. She isn’t even interested in anyone whose life may have been affected positively by Harris’s book. She was interested solely in how a once-prominent evangelical had angered people, and a few comments on Twitter and a website with some earnest though tepid responses from the author were enough to declare it a story worth seeking comment.

Then the cascade: after NPR’s initial stab, there came a flurry of subsequent articles from other outlets–both mainstream and special interest–about Josh Harris. This one is the thinkpiece version: longer, replete with new perspectives and talking heads, this one is a shrill editorial, but the story is essentially the same: Joshua Harris wrote a book that damaged people emotionally.

This is fairly typical of how the news cycle, which parrots the same stories occasioned by the same events to confirm the same set of assumptions–like…like…an echo chamber?–treats evangelicals. Some more impressions from my (too) regular news diet: Rarely do evangelicals occasion a story in a mainstream press outlet unless they have angered someone or have been caught in scandal. To some degree this is understandable. The news, like any good story, needs controversy and conflict to be worth reading. One ought to expect news involving any subculture to circulate around these things. But when your people seem always to be the antagonist in those stories, ever the alien party whom even the most honest and best intentioned reporters need to do extra homework to understand their strange worldview, (regardless of the fact that the majority of people in your country still share that basic frame of reference) a certain fatigue sets in, an attitude of defensiveness and frustration, even the beginnings of anger. Whether it is a productive anger or a destructive one has as much to do with how mainstream media outlets are willing to respond as evangelicals are willing to check their facts.


Beating alternative media means paying attention to alternative media.

Remember, the story is the line that connects the factual dots of any story. The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and many more of the news services that have lately stepped forward to trumpet their undying devotion to “fact.” But what about their commitment to balance in a story? Here resides the evangelical mistrust of the popular media. Our story is not being told and it’s what drives evangelicals and other conservatives into the arms of “alternative media” who are willing to. Some of these outlets have shoddy fact-checking practices and professional standards. Some are outright ideological propaganda. But when alternative media is the only place to go to find a certain story angle–one that does not assume evangelicals inhabit a world of hypocrisy and moral cretinism–then that is where evangelicals will go.

Not that alternative media is always a source for bad facts. Does the story of an abortion-providing death doctor who caused the deaths of dozens of children and mothers reported only on alternative news outlets sound like fake news? It would to me too right now, but it wasn’t. When the trial of Kermit Gosnell–the now semi-infamous abortion death-doctor–was all but blacked out by the mainstream press, it was conservatives on alternative media sites that forced the story into the mainstream. The story of the insufficient coverage should be a wake-up call for mainstream media outlets to check their blind spots and ask themselves how they missed (or why they decided to stay away from) a grisly, eye-catching story with an obvious angle on a hot social issue. The most likely answer is Kellerism: because the story seemed to support the opinions of those who hold moral beliefs the press does not think it needs to cover fairly. Pro-Lifers for this reason have long relied on alternative media outlets to cover the stories and facts they find most important to attend to, and the Gosnell case was a moment when the alternative media successfully held the mainstream press accountable to report those facts.


The way forward

To be an evangelical reading or watching reports about evangelicals on a mainstream news outlet is to see one’s churches, heroes, and beliefs as nodes in a constellation of unsavory controversies. The flashpoints covered are typically cultural in nature: feelings against feelings, crusaders for rights against their prejudiced enemies, vulnerable minorities against the comfortable and selfish whose vices are calcified by culturally constructed (and therefore wholly mutable) beliefs. Gender, sexual orientation, and race are the constants, belief is the variable. It’s not the facts that are warped so much as the arrangement and orientation of those facts. The facts are deployed to buttress the story, and you don’t have to be a literary critic to get the one that is being told about evangelicals.

The way to battle fake news is not to push for smarter algorithms or hold websites like Facebook and Twitter to dubious ethical standards. That would only fan the flame of conspiracy-mongering and would likely screen out legitimate conservative alternative media (as Facebook has already been caught doing.) The way to draw readers away from alternative media is to compete with them. It’s to be willing to tell the stories that are important to conservatives and evangelicals. This does not mean eliminating good stories that are challenging or critical of evangelical culture. It means letting evangelicals, theologically conservative evangelicals–that means those who do not support same-sex marriage, abortion, and other issues near and dear to liberals’ hearts–who are intelligent and journalistically responsible chase the stories alongside their more liberal coworkers. That means reporters who attend conservative churches regularly, who are proud of their identity (though that doesn’t mean never critical of it.) That means more than just editorial columnists, that means evangelical reporters and journalists that get bylines on the front page.

As with any rule, there are some shining exceptions out there, but they are too few and, as Dean Baquet aptly put it “all alone.” There are many more fine conservative and evangelical columnists out there, but columnists don’t have anything to do with the news and how those stories are reported. If conservatives and evangelicals find that they can read the New York Times and tune into NBC and find their stories and culture represented and respected (and very recently, there have been some promising signs that this is happening) then fake news posts and factually irresponsible alternative media outlets that only tell people what they want to hear, will lose their luster. At the schools where I taught in minority neighborhoods in Chicago, all teachers recognized that getting students to increase their reading comprehension meant assigning them material that was relevant, not dismissive nor ignorant of, their own cultural context. It’s time for the mainstream media to learn that same lesson and act on it.

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