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Saturday, July 15, 2006

From the why-they-just-can't-get-it desk: Aw, slay 'em all

Clued-in religion journalist Terry Mattingly has written a valuable piece on the disastrous state of religion reporting in North America today - a problem which spills over into the intelligent design controversy.

Mattingly recounts, for example:
Picture this scene. A flock of Pentecostal Christians has gathered at the U.S. Capitol for yet another prayer rally about sex, abortion, family values and the public square.

"At times, the mood turned hostile toward the lawmakers in the stately white building behind the stage," wrote The Washington Post in its coverage of the event. Then, without explanation, the story offered this on-stage quotation from a religious broadcaster: "Let's pray that God will slay everyone in the Capitol."

Slay what? Clearly, the reporters didn't know about the experience that Pentecostal Christians call being "slain in the Holy Spirit," in which they believe they are transformed by a surge of God's power. The result was a journalistic train wreck that ended up in the book The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.

"The problem," wrote authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, "was that the reporters didn't know, didn't have any Pentecostals in the newsroom to ask, and was perhaps too anxious for a 'holy sh-t' story to double-check with someone afterward whether the broadcaster was really advocating the murder of the entire Congress."

Some have assured me that, once word gets around, this whole decades-long problem will stop. Reporters will feel humiliated after discovering that they have made a wrong call.

Oops, not so fast. Ignorance about religion is not a SHAMING ignorance in newsrooms today! Yes, it should be, but it isn't. Indeed, ignorance about religion conveys, shall we say, a certain cachet of sophistication.

After all, would the journalist prefer to admit that (1) he doesn't know anything about Pentecostal experiences or (2) that he had one himself years ago, before drink, drugs, and sex snuffed out its effects? Gimme a break.

Thus, to know so little about the Pentecostal as to muff their story is an entirely forgivable dilemma in many media quarters. I am sure there is much more real career risk there in not knowing which brand of beer is cool.

Some blame the churches, claiming they should do more PR. Well, perhaps they should. But who would heed their PR? For that matter, who can be seen reading a book sympathetic to their tradition ("just for research") without making a snide, self-protective comment?

There is a wide gulf between the media culture that we North Americans reward and the culture we actually live.

For example,many polls that show that most North Americans do not believe in Darwinian evolution (the creation story, after all, of radical materialism). How do most media treat this story? Well, the story is written exactly as if most of us DO believe in the creation story of materialism and thus we are wondering about the small minority who don't. No one asks why the materialists believe what they do, as if that could be any kind of a problem. No indeed, their view is supposed to be the "overwhelming consensus of science" because science is conflated, without question, with materialism, just as religion is conflated, without question, with vulgar superstition.

It is seldom assumed that skeptics of Darwinian evolution have rational, evidence-based reasons for their views. Similarly, when Darwinism is forced on Darwin skeptics, a victory is proclaimed for science; actually, it is usually a victory for the suppression of evidence against Darwinism.

However, there are signs of a shift, not in the attitudes of newsrooms (which I wouldn't bother to wait for) but in the difference those attitudes make. The growing power of the blogosphere has made it impossible for a small media cabal to simply control the way stories are told today. As we all know, Dan Rather could NOT stop the pajamaheddin from revealing quickly that his memos were fakes. Circulation, ad lineage, and audience attention to legacy mainstream media are down, and falling. So the Pentecostals should probably just blog, and forget the legacy mainstream media.

Ah yes, ... and what more heavenly smell at 4:00 a.m. than fresh pajamas and a wee mug of hot coffee!!
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove ?

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being denied tenure at Baylor.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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