Whatever happened to the value of objectivity in American journalism? Not so long ago, editors and the public demanded that reporters keep their stories free of personal opinions. Journalists were occasionally allowed to write commentaries, but those columns were clearly marked "editorials" OT "analysis."
A reporter who dared infest a news story with personal opinion would likely have been bawled out by the editor and viewed as either naive or unprofessional. The editor's blue pencil would strike out the offending portions or the reporter would have to redo the story.
But today the state of American journalism has degenerated to the point that journalists' opinions pepper the news pages of national publications and taint the stories of TV news broadcasts.
Let me say clearly: No reporter is free of bias. We all have our opinions. But according to the old-fashioned code of journalism — which I think is far superior to the condescending practices of many contemporary journalists — a reporter should, as far as is humanly possible, set aside his or her own personal opinions. Just give the facts and let the public draw its own conclusions about what to think.
Clearly, this article is not a news story I don't intend it to be objective. Drawing on almost forty years of media consumption and twenty years of intermittent work in and with the news media, I want to vent a bit of professional indignation and sadness at the loss of objectivity as a once-ironclad rule in American journalism.
As an evangelical Christian, I've observed that when journalists voice their opinions it's often in opposition to the Judeo-Christian ethic. Surveys and studies of America's working journalists have revealed a group of professionals who are disproportionately liberal and who largely do not attend church.
Therefore it shouldn't be surprising that when reporters' opinions taint a news story it's often in opposition to biblical teachings and in support of left-wing political agendas.
During the first half of April, I surveyed a number of national newsmagazines, metropolitan daily newspapers, and TV network newscasts. It wasn't difficult to find numerous examples of subtle and blatant bias. Here are some of the signals and indicators of bias I found:
Consider the April 14 issue of Time magazine, which featured Ellen DeGeneres of the TV show Ellen on its front cover. The banner headline read "Yep, I'm Gay."
For months, the show's producers — along with the ABC network and its parent company, Disney — had been coy about whether the character Ellen Morgan would "come out of the closet" and declare her lesbianism. Eventually she did, during the April 30 episode.
Come to find out, the actress is also gay; she declared so earlier this year. Did Time magazine report 'just the facts ma'am"? Not on your life. In an article entitled "Roll Over, Ward Cleaver," the magazine described Ellen as "a gently scatterbrained former bookstore owner who, after years of adult floundering, reluctantly comes to a realization about her homosexuality and begins to take a few hesitant baby steps out of the closet and toward getting a life."
Notice the language that subtly paints homosexuality as innocent: "baby steps" — as if Ellen's realization about her sexuality can be likened to a toddler taking first steps. "Gently scatter-brained" and "floundering" suggest a quiet, searching person in need of a comforting emotional anchor — in this case, lesbianism.
The Time magazine writer, Bruce Handy, had the unmitigated gall to suggest that "Ellen Morgan is Mary Richards (of the 1970s sitcom, the Mary Tyler Moore Show), except she likes girls." Well, in the spirit of Lloyd Bentsen's huffy scolding of Dan Quayle in 1988 when the young, soon-to-be vice president noted JFK had also been elected at a young age, someone needs to tell Ellen and Handy: "I watched Mary Richards when the Mary Tyler Moore Show originally aired; I watched Mary Richards in spring and summer reruns; and I've watched Mary Richards in recent years on Nick at Night. But Ellen Morgan, you're no Mary Richards."
Likewise Newsweek magazine's April 14 issue praised DeGeneres' decision. Writers Rick Marin and Sue Miller wrote, "As a career move, coming out personally is risky and courageous. … The media hoopla aside, there is something refreshingly honest about DeGeneres' decision to emerge from the closet."
Time magazine (April 14) said the announcement of Ellen Morgan's lesbianism brought "predictable denunciations from the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who referred to the star in gentlemanly fashion as 'Ellen DeGenerate." The magazine's writers were clearly being sarcastic and do not realize that etiquette cannot be the primary consideration of contemporary Christians, such as Falwell, who prophetically cry out against the increasing spiritual darkness in American culture.
In the same paragraph, the writers said the announcement of Morgan's lesbianism prompted Donald E. Wildmon of the American Family Association to issue "barely veiled threats to boycott Ellen's advertisers." Anyone who knows Wildmon should realize he doesn't try to hide boycott threats in any way. In fact, it's all public and forthright — not stealthy, sneaky, or "barely veiled," as the article implies.
It seems to be news to some reporters, but the theory of evolution is still an unproven theory. But journalists, like much of the American scientific community, treat evolution and related ideas as absolute facts.
The April 6 edition of The Washington Post carried an article describing microscopic organisms known as "archaea," which the Post said "represent a third domain on the evolutionary tree of life' In a related finding, the Post said recent scientific insights have found that life appeared on Earth much earlier and in more variety than was previously known — as long as 3.8 billion years ago."
These were not quotes attributed to scientists but were in fact the narrative of Post writer Kathy Sawyer. In another example, Sawyer wrote that scientists from around the world are "hoping to learn the nature of the cosmic Mother Cell, the universal ancestor of all life." This language smacks of New Age and atheistic terminology. It's degrading to humanity, which the Bible teaches was created by God and in His image.
No one should ask Sawyer to avoid reporting the evolutionary statements of scientists in the news, but reporters should attribute such comments, instead of presenting them as an indisputable fact by way of background.
Robert Wright, a writer in April 14 issue of Time, said, "In child care, as in the behavioral sciences generally, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and trouble by recognizing at the outset that people are animals and pondering the implications of that fact." This is more degrading language: people as animals instead of as created by God with dominion over animals.
Denigration of the Bible
The April 6 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle carried a lengthy story about the Heaven's Gate cult and the weird practices of Marshall Applewhite, whom his followers knew as "Do." Don Lattin, Chronicle religion writer, described Do's theology as drawn from a variety of sources including science fiction TV series, UFO sightings, and — most notable for this discussion — the Book of Revelation.
By way of background, Latin told his readers that Revelation is the "bizarre visionary conclusion of the New Testament." While Revelation may be unique among the books of the Bible, it's a slam to call it bizarre. Applewhite and his castrated cult members were bizarre. Michael Jackson and his bleached skin are bizarre. Renting out the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House is bizarre. But please, Mr. Lattin, don't call the Bible bizarre.
On a very different topic, the ABC-TV program 20/20 aired a special edition on child rearing. Correspondent John Stossel presented the reports, including one in which he and two child psychologists criticized the practice of spanking children.
"There's a long tradition of spanking kids to teach them," Stossel acknowledged. "The Bible recommends it. … The Old Woman in the Shoe knew what to do. She whipped them all soundly and put them to bed. Could hundreds of years of nursery rhymes, tradition, and the Bible be wrong? Today, most every researcher who has studied spanking says, 'Yes, they are wrong."'
It became evident that Stossel also believes spanking is wrong. He doesn't consider the Bible authoritative, but he gushed enthusiastically about studies by child psychologists who oppose spanking and — not surprisingly — claim that spanking is both ineffective and counterproductive.
Stossel's smiling immodesty was evident toward the end of the program in his answer to a question from host Hugh Downs who asked, "After all these reports that you have done, John, are you a better parent than you would otherwise have been?" Stossel replied, "Oh, I think so. I teamed so much. I got a free education. Actually, you paid me. I got paid to learn this."
During Stossels report, child psychologists reviewed videotapes recorded with permission in the homes of four families who spank their children. Typical of the comments from the psychologists to parents was this: "You'll have less hassle with your kids, and you'll have better behaved kids if you use non-spanking methods of teaching and training them. … If you do spank and your children grow up okay, you're not necessarily a good parent; you're just lucky."
These psychologists — who dare to assert their own "wisdom" above that of the God- inspired Book of Proverbs — bring to my mind what Christian humorist Jerry Cower told a woman who criticized him for killing rats: "Lady, it's very obvious to me that you've been educated beyond your intelligence."
Another slam against the Bible came during the April 13 edition of CBS' 60 Minutes when Morley Safer featured Peter Gomes, the official preacher of Harvard University who gained national prominence when he was invited to pray at the inaugurations of Presidents Reagan and Bush. But since then, Gomes has "come out of the closet" and declared his homosexuality.
Comes told Safer that Old Testament prohibitions against homosexuality do not apply today, claiming, "The principle behind those sexual rules in ancient Israel is: The sole purpose of sex is to reproduce the race. We don't live in a world in which we are lighting with the Canaanites and having to (re)produce as quickly as possible. … I want people to realize that the Bible is in fact a created phenomenon. I mean the only thing that is not created of course is God. But the Bible is the result of a very conscientious set of human authors, human editors."
Safer responded wryly that sonic preachers give the impression they believe God is an American and the (Bible) was written in English." I seriously doubt Safer had in mind Peter Ruckman of the "King James Only" movement, which teaches the KJV is superior to Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Rather, the context of the discussion between Gomes and Safer suggested the target was Christians who take seriously Old and New Testament prohibitions against homosexuality.
On the April 4 broadcast of NBC Nightly News, a relatively lengthy report featured well-run day care facilities. After the reporter signed off, anchor Tom Brokaw brought up a story about the First Baptist Church of Berryville, Ark.
Brokaw said the church "closed its day care center last month, saying working mothers neglect their kids, hurt their marriages, and set a bad example for other women. In a letter to parents, church leaders suggested families could get by on one salary if they did without luxuries like big television sets, microwaves, eating out, and vacations. One single mother, whose child was left without day care as a result of all that, said the church's action — in her words — was not Christian."
During the report, Brokaw seemed to be irritated by what he apparently saw as the gall of the Berryville church. I replayed a videotape of the report several times — sometimes in slow motion — and saw Brokaw twice bare his teeth and once purse his lips tightly in apparent disapproval. His head turned to his right, then back — as if to shake his head disapprovingly — while his eyebrows climbed higher on his forehead.
Why did Brokaw bring up a report from the previous month? Since the NBC report aired on April 4, perhaps the church had closed its day care facility during the final days of March. But Brokaw did not specify the date, leaving it vague — raising the possibility that the story was really not current, perhaps even a month old. Even though newscasters don t normally air "old news," this seemed a prime opportunity to slam a church that dared to suggest mothers should stay home with their children.
Slams Against Political Conservatives
On the April 2 edition of the Today Show, Katie Couric interviewed U.S. Rep. Peter King (R.N.Y.), an outspoken critic of what he saw as House Speaker Newt Gingrich's abandonment of conservative principles. Comic asked King, 'What is wrong with Newt Gingrich reaching out to some other groups, extending himself? … Isn't there something about that and perhaps the rigidity of some of the conservative Republicans and their almost religious adherence to the Contract with America? Didn't that ultimately backfire on them?"
Comic's accusation that the Republicans maintained an "almost religious adherence" to the Contract smacks of religious bigotry and hypocrisy. Does Comic really believe that she or any other national journalist would have allowed conservative Republicans to go unchallenged if they had seemed the least bit ambivalent about the Contract which was a key campaign promise?
In the April 7 edition of The New York Times, writer David E. Rosenbaum claimed House Republicans who controlled the investigation into campaign finance abuses seemed "to be most interested in developing information that will at least be embarrassing to President Clinton and possibly bring him down." That might be true, but Rosenbaum cites no evidence or proof and offers no quotes from anyone — even unnamed sources — who can document such an assertion.
likewise Rosenbaum calls Indiana congressman Dan Burton "one of the most combative Republican representatives." A Democrat on Burton's Government Reform Committee fares a bit better; Rosenbaum labeled Henry Waxman of California as "aggressively partisan."
Even the Clinton administration, whose leader probably received disproportionately more votes from journalists than from the population at large, is not exempt from journalistic slamming. In the April 14 issue of U.S. News &World Report, an article said "more White House documents were released showing the brazenness of the administration's donations-for-access operations."
Well, yes. That does seem brazen. But I don't need a journalist to tell me so. As a media consumer, I can draw the conclusion on my own. Just report the facts, and let the reader's judgment do the rest. The same reporter who calls the President "brazen" today may call someone of the Republican party "mean-spirited" tomorrow.
Sometimes journalists use New Age and occultic terms in passing. In the April 6 edition of the Chicago Tribune, writer Veronique Mistiaen referred to Brigitte Bardot as "the French sex-goddess-turned-animal-rights-activist." Why couldn't Mistiaen just call Bardot a star instead of deifying her?
Denise Caruso, a writer in The New York Times on April 7, wrote, "Since the beginning of the decade, the struggling interactive media industry seems to have been racking up bad karma by forcing itself into existence before its time." Karma is a doctrine of reincarnationists that seems oddly out of place in an article on technology.
During an April 1 broadcast, CNN anchor Linden Soles interviewed the director of media relations for Boston's Logan International Airport, which was in the midst of a fierce bli7zard. At the end of the report, Soles told the official, "Best of luck to you folks." (Truthfully, more than a few evangelical Christians probably use the same kind of terminology, but luck is far from being a biblical idea. Perhaps Soles could simply have said, "We wish you all well.") But to Soles' and CNN's credit; there was little evidence of bias in the rest of the newscast.
What Can We Do?
Christians should raise their voices against journalistic bias in the nation's media. Two key strategies include: (a) avoiding newscasts or subscriptions to magazines that repeatedly demonstrate bias in reporting, and (b) stating your concern in letters to the purveyors of bias — namely reporters and their editors — and to advertisers, who provide much of the revenue to pay journalists' salaries. Complaint letters should be stated with both conviction and Christian love. Shorter letters are more likely to be read thoroughly, because most journalists work under limitations of space or time in the stories they prepare. For them, brevity is a virtue and an expectation.
Finally, pray for those who work in the nation's secular media. Even when they denigrate the Bible or otherwise criticize our faith, we should remember the words of Jesus to pray for those who oppose us. Pray also for the relatively few evangelical Christians who work in the newsrooms of publications and TV networks and stations. God can use them to provide their colleagues with a better understanding and improved perspectives of what the Christian faith is all about. Most importantly, these Christians can give an evangelistic witness to their colleagues about the power of Jesus Christ who alone can forgive sins and provide a truly abundant, transformed life.