Monday, January 09, 2006

The Business of American Religion is Business--Calvin Coolidge

Admittedly I am wandering into Metacomments territory here, but this entry at the CBSblog is related to a discussion that started here, and it makes some interesting points.

First, Bob Schieffer says:

"I think we have to be very careful about quoting Robertson, because I'm not sure who he represents anymore," he said. "His comments have gone beyond interesting and into bizarre." The "Evening News," he points out, has not covered Robertson's recent comments.
But unfortunately, no one else picks up on the issue: just who does Pat Robertson speak for? And why did anyone ever decide he spoke for anyone except Pat Robertson? Even Schieffer falls for the error that media presence = representation:

So who does he think is a better representative of evangelicals? Jim Wallis, who Schieffer calls "very compelling." (It's worth noting that many consider Wallis to be left-leaning, unlike most evangelical leaders.)And then it sort of goes downhill from there:

Michael Bass, the executive producer of the "Early Show," also gave me his take on the issue. "We would only try to book Pat Robertson when he's a newsmaker and we want to interview him to ask him about it," he says. "Otherwise he would not be a choice for us because there are other people who speak for many more people."
And Pat Robertson speaks for people because he has a TV audience?

Bass says two of his favorite voices when it comes to religion are Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," and Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church. He also mentions Billy Graham, who these days is rarely available for interviews, and his son Franklin. "They're worthy of the following they've inspired," he says.
Now, I can't quite argue about Billy Graham; but Joel Osteen would only speak for Lakewood Church; which is a big church, but if it is associated with a denomination, it's not obvious from its website. They do claim to reach 200 million households, though.) Rick Warren is a best-selling author; as is Osteen, for that matter. So I guess that makes them "leaders." But again, of who? TV watchers and buyers of books?

Getting still closer to the nut of the matter:

Gal Beckerman, who wrote a piece asking why journalists don’t “get” religion for Columbia Journalism Review, says figures like Robertson and Jerry Falwell are overcovered. "They have the most bombastic thing to say. It's like anything else – you go to the guys who give you the best quotations," he says. "They make for good TV. It's unfortunate." (Bass, for his part, says Falwell "has been a guest several times and we like him.")

Beckerman says that the media's reporting on Robertson's extreme comments "does evangelicals a disservice." Other, more representative evangelical leaders, he says, are more likely to "give nuanced answers – and from a media perspective that makes them less interesting."

This isn't, ultimately, just a religious issue, says Schieffer. It's rooted in larger questions about the way the media functions. "One of the problems we have in TV is that we too often go to the first person who has something to say – and that's often the person we should be paying the least attention to," he says. "We go out and find the people who are on the most extreme sides and let them scream at each other."

Media outlets don't just want the most incendiary quote, however. They also want a familiar face. That's why, Sullivan argues, Robertson and Falwell continue to get significant coverage. "As for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, their heyday was twenty years ago; the only reason they're still booked as talking heads is that most producers don't know these two men no longer have any power," she writes. Sullivan says that Ted Haggard, Warren, Brian McLaren, Osteen, Rod Parsley, and Franklin Graham, among others, are religious leaders who should be featured as evangelical voices of today.
I guess it's a question of what power you're talking about, since Robertson has a pretty good sinecure (thanks to NYMary for that link). There is business power, and then there is leadership power, apparently.

But I'm still left wondering why any of the people Sullivan lists should be considered "leaders" of public opinion among evangelicals. Especially since the anointing of such a person tends to be a tautological one: "they" are leaders of "that group" because we said so, which gives "them" a "leadership position," because the media all says so.

And round and round it goes.

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