Media and Control: A Futile Exercise

The absence of the voice of Mainline theologians, ethicists and other religious leaders in the public conversation about significant life issues has become obvious to some who have written to me recently.

One note asks plaintively, “Why is my church not offering guidance on these things? I feel like I’m not being heard.” She was speaking of the Terri Schaivo debate.
Over the past two decades the Mainline denominations have consistently made intentional decisions to remain outside the public conversation for many reasons. They once were deeply engaged in media but the current disengagement is both intentional and a result of public policies that marginalized and then eliminated them from public media.
I remember my first day of employment years ago at a national ecumenical organization. At a reception to welcome me, the CEO came to me in the hallway at the elevator on the sixth floor and said, “Just remember this. You do not write or send press releases.” She punctuated her words by tapping my lapel with her index finger.
Since I was hired to be a communications director, this came as rather shocking instruction. But I came to understand soon enough that in this Mainline organization the issue for communication in my unit was not getting the word out. The whole culture was focused on controlling communciation. It was a reactive strategy motivated by damage control on one hand and internal organizational competition on the other. Communication was not about an aggressive proactive strategy to tell the story of the organization.
The effort to control communication didn’t work, of course. It simply gave permission and power to others to frame the organization and create public perception about it. Those who cared enough to do this were antagonists who characterized the organization negatively. Our leaders were in a constant state of defensive reaction.
The harsher the attacks, the more they clamped down. The more then clamped down, the more emboldened the antagonists became because they had the initiative. Eventually, I moved on.
There are many reasons Mainline denominations are not speaking in public media. Lack of financial resources. Lack of experience in media. Fear. Lack of agreement within constituencies about where the denomination should stand.
These uncertainties make it difficult for leaders to speak. However, the requests I’ve had are not for pronouncements from the organization. They are questions of faith. What does the church teach about end-of-life care? How am I to decide upon the ethics of prolonging my father’s life inf the face of great suffering? What are my moral obligations? and in this religious leaders are especially skilled and equipped to share their perspectives.

About the Culture of Life

It’s ironic that the morning after Mel Lehman of Iraq for Children was honored for his writing about the plight of Iraqi children, the AP reported four children were killed by a home made bomb in southeastern Baghdad while collecting trash.

In last night’s award ceremony at the Religion Communicators Council, Mel was gracious accepting the DeRose-Hinkhouse Award for his piece God’s Voice in an Arabic Lesson in National Catholic Reporter. He told the interfaith communicators how important their work is toward creating global understanding. In fact, it is his concern for the children of the Middle East that was justifiably honored and should sensitize us to address their critical needs.

As the war in Iraq grinds on, it grinds up the children. Here are a few of the latest facts provided by UNICEF:

  • Children make up half of Iraq’s population of 25 million.
  • Nearly one in four do not attend school.
  • One million under age 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.
  • Infant mortality today (107 deaths per 1,000 live births) is more than double what it was at the end of the 1980s.
  • The under-five mortality rate (131 deaths per 1,000 live births) is two-and-a-half times what it was in 1989.
  • Preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea and respiratory infections account for 70 per cent of child deaths.

As politicians talk about a culture of life, remembering the legacy of Pope John Paul II, they must be reminded that the children of Iraq urgently need peace that they may have life. Among many humanitarian organizations working to make life better, here are two worth considering:

Reflecting on Digital Empowerment

I’ve been reflecting on the feedback I’ve gotten recently from comments in this blog and in public commentaries I’ve written. Here are a few thoughts:

  • The electronic, digital culture has arrived. In addition to traditional (or old) media venues, the national dialogue is taking place now in blogs, e-mail, chat rooms, electronic forums (fora, if you are really traditional) and other Internet-based settings, and they will increasingly become central to the exchange of ideas and information-sharing.
  • Digital media are empowering. They make it possible for individuals to reach people directly with their messages and they make it easier to gather a wide database of information. There’s been plenty of discussion about the credibility and trustworthiness of some of this information, but that aside, it’s possible to go to many sources of information that in the past were not easily accessible to the average person.
  • Digital media are creating a new form of multi-platform storytelling. Plenty has been said and written about convergence. It’s a reality and it will only become more common because we want to see, hear, read and react to information today. We are more experiential and involved.
  • The dialogue is profoundly different in immediacy, participation and reach because of these media. They not only empower individuals as no other media have done (at least to my knowledge), they make it possible to give feedback and stimulate action. This is different from the traditional media which are less interactive and in many cases less timely.
  • The quality and character of the dialogue is changing. I’ve gotten literate, thoughtful and deeply moving email about the Schaivo episode, for example. I also got a note that was written in the heat of anger and I doubt the individual would have said the same things to me in person that he wrote in his email. Immediacy coupled with anger isn’t a good mix if it results in words that stop the conversation.
  • The new media allow us to frame the conversation. Framing is critically important. Contemporary mainstream journalism made a turn somewhere in the past few years toward isolating messages (sound bites), often by leaving out context and presenting the most controversial voices. I hear, read and see stories today that don’t even include the old standards–“who, what, when, where, why and how.” Stories are framed as if there are only two opposing positions. This “either-or” form of storytelling doesn’t really get at the complexities that lie somewhere in the middle. It’s sensational and often it’s just plain sloppy journalism. New media allow us to tell our own story.

I welcome your thoughts about these new media and how they are affecting you. I will continue to reflect on these changes because it seems to me the new media are giving us a creative new opportunity to shape the civic community. The question is, what shape will that community take?

Projecting Religion

What projection
does the
Pope reflect
back to
us about

A report from Rome this morning on NPR presented an interesting discussion of the reaction to the death of Pope John Paul II.

What caught my attention was a statement that he filled public squares, but not churches. The point was that he drew huge crowds into open spaces but his religious teachings were rejected by many of the same people who came to celebrate him.

I view this less as criticism of the Pope than as a modern paradox of belief. We celebrate the ideal and project into the celebrity whatever it is we hope for, then we go about our own lives doing what matters to us in our day-to-day existence.

I’m reminded of what my friend Dennis Benson said about rock stars many years ago. Dennis said fans project their own expectations and hopes onto the rock stars. The performers, knowing this, act out on stage those expectations. But neither the fans nor the performers are really what is acted out. There is a great deal of theatrics in these “acts.”

One of the wisest performers to express this is Dolly Parton who has said many times that women who come to her concerts are saying to themselves that she’s just like them. With a bit of luck or some other intervention of fate, they could be up on stage getting the attention and acclaim. She embodies their projection.

I’m not comparing the Pope to a rock stars. Nor am I implying that he enacted hollow theatrics. He did quite the opposite. He was committed to values and principles that he lived out and that were important in changing attitudes in this world. So, I’m not diminishing the great contribution he made.

But as the Pope is celebrated in death, the number of worshippers declines across Europe and Roman Catholics live by values that are contrary to the teachings of the church, as in the practice of birth control, to name only one example. This raises a question of what exactly people are projecting onto this Pope.

That he was able to generate this much respect and acclaim is remarkable. He captivated the imagination. But what is it that we imagine? There is much more here to be mined. What projection does the Pope reflect back to us about ourselves?

Two Views of Legacy

He may,
in time
to come,
be credited
with destroying
his church.
–Thomas Cahill

Two views of the legacy of Pope John Paul II reveal how thoughtful people differ today about the role he played in the world and the religious community.

As one on the outside looking in, Thomas Cahill’s extremely sharp critique yesterday took me aback. Upon reading it, I had to take a breath and re-read his words. I can imagine equally sharp responses to his opinion.

of us
to pretend
to honor
him by
lowering our
flags while
an amoral
to genocide.
–Nicholas Kristof

On the other hand, Nicholas Kristof points to the “culture of life” legacy that the Pope advocated,
and how this should be the motivation for specific actions in Darfur, Sudan to stop the rape and killing there. The world knows of this suffering created by conflict in the region and seems unable to put a stop to it. Kristof offers specific steps that would honor the Pope’s commitment to human rights and justice.

He urges the following action steps:

  • expand UN and African ground forces
  • urge Congress to pass Darfur Accountability Act
  • visit to Darfur by Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice to emphasize U.S. priority.

I Blog, Therefore, I Am

What should
we make
of blogging?
Is it simply
the latest
internet fad,
a truly
tool for
change or,
as some
have suggested,
a vehicle
for mob
–David Reid

The BBC has put together a package on blogging that discusses why people blog and how blogs are being used today.

The package discusses the advantages and risks inherent in blogging and explores different types of blogs.

When I wasn’t blogging people asked why not. Now that I am, some ask why. (Not really, just kidding.)

However, there are risks and advantages to blogging. They need to be considered beforehand, rather than after.

Thomas Freidman Says the World is Flat, After All

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Thomas Friedman lays out his case that the world’s flat after all.

It’s flat because new technology makes it possible for anyone with the smarts, a computer and an Internet connection to collaborate in a global network of knowledge.

This is the newest wrinkle in globalization, according to Friedman who has written on the subject in The Lexus and the Olive Tree and Longtitudes and Latitudes.

are being
and value
is being
less and
less within
silos and
more and
more through

–Thomas L. Freidman

It’s a
Flat World,
After All

Globalization is the social and business reality in which faith and culture are being shaped and lived out. It’s more than a wrinkle, really. It’s already having profound impact on how corporations function, as Freidman illustrates. The collaborative workstyle he describes is a whole new way of working across distances and other boundaries.

In meetings I attend there is often discussion about a “global church” but the meaning of the phrase is still very murky to me. Is it about organization? Is it about theology? Is it about worship? Is it about changing relationships in mission?

Friedman makes clear that in the corporate world globalization is about basic challenges to existing management styles and organizational structures. I suspect the biggest challenge globalization presents to organizations and individuals is the need to re-think our place in the world.

The potential is profound. It will mean all of us have to re-think our roles and responsibilities as workers and as citizens. What will the future hold in an interactive, collaborative, participatory, always-on, pluralistic environment? What will faith look like in these circumstances?

Corporations are coming to terms with a very different competitive environment that is knowledge-based and geographically distributed across the globe. Imagine what this means for management and control.

It’s not just where we’re heading. It’s where we are. In some ways faith communities have been at the leading edge of thinking about life in a holistic way. We know that we are connected with people in ways far more binding than technology and national boundaries. And, at least as I understand it, Christian faith provides us a basis for viewing this reality in a constructive and expansive way, not in a fearful and defensive way.

I think Freidman’s contention that the world is flat presents us with an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is to interpret this new understanding so that we don’t live in fear and to find words to talk about our responsibilities as members of the global community. The challenge is to support policies that provide opportunity to all people–workers in the U.S. and workers beyond the U.S.–in a just and equitable sharing of the world’s resources so that we can sustain the environment and live purposeful lives wherever we are.

I know how grandiose these words sound. But, faith is a fairly grandiose enterprise if it helps us understand our meaning and purpose in life. For me, coming to terms with the flat world means coming to terms with new words to discuss the global community. It means working to create a new global awareness. It’s an exciting challenge, trying to figure out how to get around on this flat world.

Practicing Healing

One of
the most
things we
can do
to heal
one another
is to
listen to
each other’s

–Rebecca Falls

I continue to receive deeply moving stories in response to my commentary on Terri Schiavo.

Whether writers agree or disagree with me, many tell of painful struggles around their own life and death experiences with loved ones. I am moved by the real pain in these stories.

They are changing my skepticism about our ability to have a constructive dialogue about life and death decisions.

If my respondents are any indication, then most people remain open to further discussion of these issues in a civil and responsible manner. That means they are willing to listen but they also want to be heard.

Many have said they have felt no one in the public media has spoken for them. With very few exceptions, they say the language of the debate has been extreme and they don’t like this.

These notes reflect far more thoughtful perspectives than the sharply worded sound bites that we’ve heard. Many writers advocate a point of view, but they do so without rancor, or without taking absolute positions that allow no room for a different opinion.

I think local churches and other community groups would serve us well by offerring dialogue groups on the various issues that cluster around life and end of life ethics. If we truly listen to each other in an attitude of respect, we might begin a process of healing that will move us forward in our common desire to respect life and create a more just and humane world.

Changing the Conversation

We can
draw to
the surface
without inciting
people to

A google search of “dialogue” turned up more than 2 million entries. More than I’ll get read this weekend!

However, I wanted to see if there are guidelines that might be helpful to read as we discuss critical issues in our civic life about which we disagree strongly.

In fact, there are. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation provides a variety of useful tools and connections to groups that are conducting dialogue for constructive purposes.

First, I’m concerned that the whole culture has become more coarse and crude. It isn’t prudish to not want to be exposed to sexually explicit, dehumanizing language when you’re sitting in the privacy of your own home watching television, for example. But this is a common occurrence and the only way to avoid it is to turn off the TV. I think we’ve done terrible disservice to our children to provide popular culture that is so disrespectful of human dignity.

But I also think that poverty and social injustice are disrespectful of human dignity as well and if we don’t address these we we demonstrate a coarse disregard for the sanctity of life, so it’s not just popular culture that needs attention.

Secondly, I’m concerned that the political conversation has become toxic. It’s common to hear personal attacks, highly charged rhetoric, condemnation and negative stereotyping that only results in response in kind. This isn’t dialogue and it won’t help us to resolve our differences. In fact, it could well undermine our civic community.

As I write, I risk sounding as if I’m pontificating. I’m aware this can be called naive’, or prudish, or unrealistic. Maybe so. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, too. But I think this kind of behavior desensitizes us to the humanity of others and, ultimately, is dehumanizing for the whole of society.

And I think we need to call it into question when we hear it, especially in the political or religious dialogue where we can make a difference. And I think we need to be advancing for discussion alternatives about the important issues that we face and lay aside the personal attacks and inflated rhetoric.


My commentary on Terri Schiavo has drawn considerable e-mail response. The vast majority of writers express appreciation and agreement. Some tell of tortured personal experiences similar in nature. A few are rather sharply worded attacks, but only one is really nasty.

This feedback tells me a couple of things. First, people on all sides of the issue identified personally with Ms. Schiavo’s ordeal, and in doing so, they read their own lives into the dilemma; thus, the rush to prepare living wills and advance directives. Second, people are deeply, emotionally involved in this situation. It is not an abstraction, it is up-close-and-personal.

Can we
engage in

With her passing, the next phase of the public debate lies before us. This is the debate over public policy regarding end-of-life issues and the seating of judges. This raises a question that continues to perplex me, especially because many, many writers tell me they feel voiceless and ignored. They also express frustration that the extremes have been in the media spotlight and have framed the issues.

The question is this: How can we engage in a respectful dialogue about issues that are important to the whole society in a way that encourages participation? And most importantly, how can we do this so it leads to constructive ends?

It will require the media, political and religious leaders to behave differently. Frankly, I doubt this will happen. I’m not going to bash the media or the politicians in this post. But it’s clear to me that harsh rhetoric only invites harsh response. It’s an escalating war of words. I don’t see how this helps us deal with the tough questions we must resolve.

However, for the survival of a diverse and democratic state, we must change the quality of our conversation or we will lose those values that we have all enjoyed as the “great democratic experiment.” I don’t think it’s rhetorical flourish to say, as Bill Moyers said recently, that the soul of democracy is at stake.

Beyond the important specific issues in the debate about end-of-life decisions are the questions of how we talk, listen and learn from each other; and how we learn to disagree without destroying ourselves or the social fabric. This is an urgent concern right now. It must be addressed as we enter into this next phase of this debate.

I believe we will need to call ourselves to account; politicians, clergy, journalists, and ourselves. What is at stake is more than winning a debate. What is at stake is the quality of our civic society and how inclusiveness and participatory it will be.