The Campaign Spot

The Media’s Difficulty in Perceiving Christians as Victims

From the Tuesday Morning Jolt:

The Media’s Difficulty in Perceiving Christians as Victims

A point or two that I may not have made clearly enough in last night’s appearance on Greta Van Susteren

Sure, the weekend was a busy news weekend, and thus it’s easy to justify most of the New York Times’ front-page stories: the Denmark shooting, a more in-depth examination of the scandal that brought down Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, a fascinating story about an imam in Illinois accused of abuse, which some might not expect the Times to write and spotlight. The lead article on the New York City economy is pretty justifiable, considering that it’s a New York newspaper.

If I were the editor, I would have put the beheaded Egyptian Christians on the front page and the John Podesta profile or the obituary for Philip Levine on page A7. Ron Fournier’s point that the print edition is less relevant than it used to be is a fair one, but a larger point still stands. It may have been more useful to expand our discussion beyond this particular choice by the late-night front-page editor to U.S. national media coverage as a whole.

For example, CNN’s religion site just declared, attempting to wrap up the week:

Whether you believe that religious violence is fueled by faith or is a symptom of larger factors — political instability, poverty, cultural chaos — one thing seems clear: Last week was hellish for religion.

Across several continents, including North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, scores of religious believers suffered and died in brutal attacks over the past seven days.

The causes of violence are complex, and reducing them to talking points only adds to the problem, scholars say. But if you want to rally troops to your side, few tools are more powerful than religion, said Michael Jerryson, co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence.”

From that painfully generic description, you could easily conclude the violence is perpetrated by Buddhists and Mennonites. Deeper in the story, we see the perpetrators identified: Boko Haram (twice), ISIS, al Qaeda, that North Carolina atheist, and the Denmark shooters. (“One of these things is not like the other…”)

Last night I argued that in most media newsrooms, the notion of Christians as victims doesn’t fit their usual narratives. Fournier argued that there are a lot of Christians in the Times newsroom, and that the Times has a lot of reporters in the Middle East, covering ISIS, at considerable risk to themselves. Both points are true but neither really refutes my argument.

For starters, sure there are Christians in the Times newsroom, but not particularly representative ones. Here’s Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist, back in 2003:  “Nearly all of us in the news business are completely out of touch with a group that includes 46 percent of Americans. That’s the proportion who described themselves in a Gallup poll in December as evangelical or born-again Christians.”

If you swim in a secular culture for most of your young adult and professional life, you’re going to end up with some gaps in your knowledge: “I understand how it can happen. You go to Columbia School of Journalism, you work at the New York Times, you were raised in a secular family, and somebody says, ‘Ephesians.’ And you go, What’s the name of that book again?’”

It’s natural that American media’s coverage of religion would primarily focus upon how it is practiced here in the United States. But in these stories, we keep seeing a simple narrative that usually depicts Christians in some sort of position of power, attempting to force their will upon unwilling participants – Hobby Lobby refusing to provide birth control to employees, Chik-fil-A owners daring to oppose gay marriage. Alternately, Christians are depicted as some sort of strange, vaguely dangerous backwater folk, often by their own choice (and in some cases, marketing). Think of the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty or the Duggars of TLC.

Finally, some newsroom denizens practice an open contempt for Christians and/or religion in general: The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn had no problem openly declaring, “When It Comes to Hateful Internet Speech, Christians Are the Worst.” Separately, the President of the United States just did an interview with Vox’s Matt Yglesias who once declared, “I take an old-school Jacobin-style line that religion should be stamped out.”

The coverage of Christians abroad is pretty skimpy – other than when Pope Francis says something that progressives like. Some of this may reflect the American public’s intermittent-at-best interest in international news. Some of the blame for the media’s lack of coverage of persecutions of Christians abroad may fall on American churches for not discussing it enough.

But note that one of the Daily Show’s recurring tropes was spotlighting some no-name Christian or preacher who claimed victim status and scoffing at how ridiculous the claim was. Sure, some of those figures may come across as whiners, a little too eager to tell everyone how unfairly they’re being treated, but to the Daily Show and its audience, the idea of an American Christian thinking he’s being oppressed or being treated unfairly by someone more powerful was the joke itself.

 

Clearly, there are some media voices who are strongly disinclined to see Christians as victims of other, more powerful forces.

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