Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Deconstructing Reality

That there is a liberal bias in the mainstream media is a part of the dogma of conservatives. And even many liberal newspaper people will admit, in their private moments, that most newspaper people tend to be more liberal than the communities they serve.

But, interestingly, it is to the editorial pages that both sides resort to make their cases. It’s understandable that conservatives would point to the editorial pages, most of which contain a preponderance of liberal opinion, because it is easy to find evidence there. But many liberals point to the editorial pages. Often, they point to the token conservative columnist and say, “See, we have conservatives on our editorial pages. Or, more often, they confess the liberalism on the editorial pages, but add something like this, “Well, yes, the editorial page may skew liberal, but the rest of the paper is balanced and objective.”

That’s why I thought it would be interesting to take an article not from the editorial pages, but from the front page of “The Charlotte Observer,” and attempt to deconstruct the worldview that is dominant in the newsroom of a typical big-city daily paper. That story is “Churches find little unity on homosexuality.” It is from the June 29, 2006, issue of “The Charlotte Observer,” and it’s written by veteran religion editor Ken Garfield. You don’t have to go any farther than the headline to find problems.

Garfield’s story appears under the headline “Churches find little unity on homosexuality.” Under this head is the following sub-head: “Denominations grappling with division on issues of gay clergy, unions.”

Before proceeding with my critique, it’s important to note that somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of all readers of a newspaper will read no further than the headline. To cite just one study: The Readership Institute Impact Study reported that 85 percent of readers do not read beyond the headline. What this means is that even if Garfield’s story is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – but the headline is a lie – then 85 percent of the readers have been fed a lie.

So, is the headline the truth, or a lie? As it turns out, it is closer to a lie than the truth on two counts. First of all, the head and sub-head fail to accurately represent the story; Garfield’s story carefully sticks to the proceedings of two denominations, the Episcopal Church USA and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). The head and sub-head lead the reader to believe that this story is about all denominations, and not just these two.

We might be able to forgive that problem if, in fact, all churches were struggling with that problem, and these two churches were merely emblematic of the problem. But the hard reality is that most churches are not. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is crystal clear in its opposition to homosexual marriage, ordination, and activity. In fact, there are at least a half-dozen Presbyterian denominations. Though the PCUSA is the largest Presbyterian denomination, the combined membership of the other denominations exceeds 1-million. And the PCUSA is the only one of the Presbyterian denominations that is struggling with this issue. Taken as a whole, of the more than 60 Protestant denominations in the country, only the United Church of Christ officially sanctions the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

So what is the factual “bottom line”? The City University of New York did a survey in 2001, called the American Religious Identification Survey. The survey found that 79.8 percent of Americans identified themselves as Christians – including Catholics and all varieties of Protestants. If you take these numbers at face value, you end up with the following situation: while the issue of homosexuality is hotly debated in the culture, and while there is no doubt that a vocal minority continues to raise the question in the ECUSA and the PCUSA, in the vast majority of other Christian churches, homosexuality is a “settled question.”

Of the more than 220-million Americans who identify themselves as Christians, only 1.4-million of them are members of a denomination that sanctions the ordination of homosexuals. This issue is not dividing the American church. It is dividing a very small number of denominations, and – by the way – these denominations are no longer the largest Protestant denominations and they are shrinking fast. To state or imply otherwise is simply not telling the truth about the state of the American Christian church.

In fairness to Garfield, he probably didn’t write that headline. On most big-city dailies, one person writes the story, and another person or other people put the paper together. Of course, that just makes the problems worse, since editors – once removed from the “streets” where facts and reality are stubborn things – become even more likely to get sucked in to the liberal ideological vortex that typifies the leadership of most newspapers.The Bible says that “For lack of knowledge my people are destroyed.” Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to our dealings with the media. Christians should arm themselves with knowledge, and read with discernment, or their faiths can easily be destroyed by the constant diet of falsehoods – large and small – in the mainstream media.

Warren Smith is the publisher of the “The Charlotte World” and the Evangelical Press News Service. He can be reached at