Media Reform, The Religious Right and Progressive Dialogue

Attending the National Conference on Media Reform 2008 was, in some ways, like attending a revival meeting. Some in this meeting would cringe at the comparison, however, because great damage has been done by the marriage of right wing politics with evangelical faith claims. The alienating nature of the national conversation the past decade (or longer) has cost Christian organizations respect, trust and credibility among many of these activists.

The image of Christian faith created by the religious right is the primary image many people know and it’s been an image of exclusion. To those of us who felt excluded, it seemed more a monologue, as Sojourner’s Jim Wallis called it, than a dialogue.

In panel discussions and plenary sessions at the conference, I heard humane values and a concern for social justice and human dignity that was solid and deeply moving, and I believe this is where progressive faith and media reform intersect.

A young, fourteen-year-old female spoke of her concern about a mysogynist print ad for a Latino radio station that she believed promoted both violence and sexual abuse of women. When she showed the bus card for the ad, it was clear she had a genuine complaint.

Her recounting of the efforts of a group of young women to get the ad pulled was harrowing. The full force of a corporate media headquarters was brought against these teenagers in an effort to discourage them and scare them away. Yet they persisted and eventually the ad was withdrawn.

As she spoke, I don’t think she was aware of the tears in the eyes of many who’ve been in such struggles and know the costs firsthand.

In an address at the end of the conference, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now recounted an experience in East Timor when she and a photojournalist were beaten and her colleague’s skull was fractured. That day the Indonesian Army massacred 231 Timorese, according to Goodman.

She said “Journalists go to the silence,” referring to the role of journalists telling stories that would otherwise go untold, providing voice for the voiceless and powerless, even at risk of their lives.

There were moments such as this throughout. The media reform movement is passionate, grassroots activisim. It contains a wealth of experience and motivational stories. Sometimes the enthusiasm of some participants leads to rhetorical excess but the substance of presenters and panelists is unsurpassed.

To return to my point at the start of this post; the marriage of right wing religion and politics has been an alienating force that has turned off many caring, concerned people. That point kept concerning me as I listened to touching, inspiring stories, the kind of stories that I’ve heard in religious revivals, and more importantly, as I think about the common values shared by media reformers and progressive people of faith (at least those that I know).

There is common ground. But repairing the damage will take time and it will require new conversation between the skeptic and believer. But it’s important to try. There is much to discuss.

At the very least, the values I heard  professed at the conference are complementary to many progressive faith values. Many Christians are concerned about justice, fairness and a willingness to “go to the silence.” Many are willing to make substantial commitments to partner in ways that lead to transforming the world.

And, as Jim Wallis says, “The monologue of the religious right is over.” It’s time for a dialogue, and action, between religious progressives and reformers. We need to go to the silence–and speak.

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