The Fairness Doctrine

The Fairness Doctrine was a broadcast regulation that in its simplest form imposed upon broadcasters the responsibility to provide their audiences with a forum for all sides in a public issue that received attention on their airtime. If a so-called liberal spoke on an issue in a public service program, for example, a countervailing viewpoint from the conservative side had to be given equal time.

Utterly
marginalized
in the
post-doctrine
landscape
were the
voices of
women …
people of
color and
not only
progressives,
but even
liberals
–Susan J. Douglass

This doctrine arises from the principle of ownership of the airwaves by the public. In Fairness Now, Susan J. Douglass offers an overview of the Fairness Doctrine, noting that it was not a panacea, but it was better than the present broadcast environment in which dissenting voices and those of women, minorities and others with limited access to media barely get a hearing.

The broadcast spectrum is not owned by individual licensees who use the airwaves for profit. The airwaves are held in public trust, administered by the government. The government is the protector of the people’s rights.

In 1987 amidst great fanfare this simple idea was attacked, mainly by corporate owners of broadcast licenses, and the Fairness Doctrine was repealed. This occurred as deregulation swept through the nation. Today, it’s hardly recognized that this principle of fairness was written into policy to encourage and protect free speech in the public airwaves. It supported the principle that broadcasters operate in the public interest and they must be held accountable to provide for the public dialogue as a condition of being granted the ability to profit from the publicly held commodity, the spectrum they are allowed to use to transmit messages. It remains as a vestige of broadcast licensing and most people are oblivious to the principle of fairness in broadcasting.

Writing in In These Times, Jessica Clarke and Tracey Van Slyke present an historical summary of this battle for fairness and suggest how a wider range of viewpoints could be injected into the public discourse. Writing as progressives, they advocate for the inclusion of progressive voices.

Whether you agree with their politics or not, the point they make about creating a media environment that is more inclusive and diverse is a good thing to consider. Critics from nearly every point of view are concerned about the quality of the public discourse and of news coverage today. That concern alone should motivate consideration of a more inclusive and civil discourse on the the issues that shape our lives together as a society.

Young Adults Abandon Newspapers

…the future of
the U.S. news
industry is
seriously
threatened
by the seemingly
irrevocable
move by young
people away
from traditional
sources of news
–Merrill Brown

I am struck by the stark contrast between two readership surveys I’ve seen recently. Editor and Publisher reports on a study commissioned by The Carnegie Corporation of readership patterns of young adults 18 to 34 years-of-age. It found that young readers are abandoning newspapers at a rate that threatens the future of the publications and, in fact, the rush to the web puts all traditional media in question.

A second study is not yet published but it was completed internally for one of our denominational publications. It reveals a readership pattern that nearly reverses the data. The typical reader of the main program journal of the church is older than 50, female and resides in a small town. This reader does not use the web.

…young people
don’t want
to rely on
the morning
paper on
their doorstep
or the
dinnertime
newscast
for up-to-date
information;
in fact,
they?as
well as
others?want
their news
on demand,
when it
works for
them.
–Merrill Brown

None of this comes as a surprise, but it does point out a challenge that’s widespread in the publishing industry. Publishers face a balancing act to preserve their existing audiences while attempting to attract new audiences attuned to new media. They have their own preferences and needs for information, so it isn’t merely a transition in technology. It’s also a change in culture–in packaging, content and format.

Denominational publishers also face stagnating revenue from book sales and many have reduced staff and taken other steps to reduce costs. Digital content does not, at this stage, produce revenue to replace losses from traditional publications. However, overhead in the form of staff and equipment must be paid. It’s a double bind.

Current profitable operations must be maintained while new media are developed. Some major newspapers have begun to charge for online content, but analysts say this may not be viable in the long term. It is more likely that free content results in a relationship with readers that leads to paid subscriptions in print.

If the economic bottom line is unclear, the bottom line for readership is very clear. Young people are already using digital media and these media are the channels through which they get their information. As the Carnegie study notes, the way we are accessing news today raises fundamental questions about the news as we have known it. The bottom line for traditional media, both religious and for-profit, is clear. It’s change or die.

Mainline on the Margins

The Mainline denominations were once at the
center of the national dialogue, especially during the Civil Rights era and
during the Vietnam War. Today they are relegated to the margins, and lack of
media savvy is one reason.

More people
rely upon
media for
spiritual
information
than attend
church on
Sunday.
–Barna Group

More people rely upon media for spiritual information than attend church on Sunday. The Barna Group has completed a nationwide survey that finds that 56% of adults attend church services in a typical month and a significantly larger number report they rely on various media to get spiritual information.

A study recently published by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership compared references to four mainline denominations–Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian–in the New York Times between 1922 and 2002. Mention of the denominations declined dramatically over the 80-year period. Institutional news about the inner workings of the denominations dropped from 85% of total coverage of these mainline groups in 1922 to 4% in 2002. This pattern reflects diminishing coverage overall. Authors David Schoeni and Lovett H. Weems, Jr., write that “mainline denominations are no longer at the center of the national “public square” but seem to have moved to the margins of public discourse…today’s mainline denominations are best known for their influential role in the past.”

mainline
denominations
are no longer
at the center
of the national
“public square”
but seem to
have moved to
the margins of
public discourse
–Schoeni & Weems

It’s a frustrating paradox to some that the marginalization of the mainline has occurred at the same time the evangelical right was ascending. The public dialogue has been dominated in recent years by more aggressive and media savvy evangelical leaders who have made it their mission to get their agenda before the public and political leaders.

There is no single cause and no simple reason for the lowered visibility of the mainline groups. Several factors combine to create this result.

I wrote in an earlier post how public policy limited access to broadcast media. This was especially damaging to mainline groups that had relied upon public access programming to reach mass audiences.

today’s mainline
denominations
are best known
for their
influential role
in the past
–Schoeni & Weems

The mainline was never able to compete in the deregulated marketplace. The VISN Channel, an ecumenical cable network, attempted to operate as a non-profit organization in a market-driven cable television industry that was increasingly profit-oriented and keenly competitive. This failed. Eventually, VISN sold its network holdings to Hallmark and today its successor, Faith and Values, is content to produce an occasional drama or documentary but neither contribute significantly to the public dialogue.
In addition, in the 1970s some mainline leaders made a conscious decision to disengage from the public media and to decrease funding for media production, a process that continues to the present time. Communication has not generally been viewed as an expression of the mission and ministry of denominations. It’s been seen as a tool to distribute messages for fundraising and public relations; that is, until public relations got a bad name and this resulted in even more retrenchment.

Generations that have matured in an electronic environment are bemused to learn that there was also a debate some years ago about the value of print over electronic media. Electronic media were considered inferior in content and rigor. Therefore, educational models continued to rely on print curriculum in the churches even as the wider culture moved to electronic and digital media, and appropriated it with great enthusiasm.

Likewise, popular culture was regarded as low-brow and unworthy of serious analysis. Popular culture shapes attitudes and reflects concerns and values of people in the society. Theology need not affirm the excesses, abuses and superficialities of popular culture to analyze it and understand how and why certain cultural expressions appeal to the inner space of youth and adults who participate in it. But this idea is almost heretical for some in academia.

As a result, this lack of mainstream involvement with media results in more than merely falling behind in technology. It also results in a gaping hole in meaningful analysis and understanding of media. Seminarians in mainline denominations were not trained to analyze electronic media and the popular culture until a few seminaries began to recognize this gap only recently.

The work of cultural critique and media analysis has fallen into disrepute. James Wall, William F. Fore, Martin Marty and Tex Sample gained international stature and influence by bringing theological critique to media analysis. Edwin C. Parker connected media access to justice from a theological base and was influential in shaping public policy. While these pioneers continue to work, some in retirement, no one today in the mainline seminaries, nor other entities, demonstrates their understanding of media, culture, theology or public policy.

In fact, the most common response from mainline academics to popular culture and digital and electronic media has not been informed critique, it has been criticism from a distance. It has reinforced the disengagement of the mainline from the culture and contributed to the marginalization of the mainline voice.

The evangelical right, on the other hand, has not only been quick to utilize new technologies. It has also been attentive to reading the culture and formulating messages that resonate with the inner yearnings revealed by cultural expressions. Like it or not, this engagement has meant evangelical Christians have been doing theology in the culture and in the process, have found their voice.

While they represent a small minority (Barna says 7% of the U.S. population), they exert considerable influence on how Christians are perceived in the public mind and they have gained significant influence on public policy in recent years.

Today the mainline community finds itself in the unenviable position of lacking the savvy (the exception being Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches) to engage in the dialogue that is shaping public policy and unprepared to effectively communicate on a sustained basis in public venues to influence social values. There is a decided lack of passionate theological motivation to engage the culture through digital and electronic media, and no theoretical framework from which this engagement would be understood as a legitimate expression of mission.


The tragedy is, this is occurring at a time when more people are turning to media to get the information they use to try to understand their spiritual yearnings. Moreover, new media are proliferating and these media help to form perceptions and inform values. They offer an ever-increasing field of opportunity to engage in two-way dialogue and communicate important messages.

The new media provide the mainline with new opportunities to re-engage. Some have even attempted to enter the old, traditional public media through advertising and they have benefitted from increased visibility as a result. The United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA have all conducted, or will conduct soon, public media campaigns.

The use of blogs, Internet meeting sites, targetted e-mail, information websites and a host of other media provide the means to share information and to interact in meaningful ways. They offer one more chance to move from the margin and get back in the conversation. The larger question is, “Will they take up the challenge?”

(note: The following posts in this series are:
Reflecting on Digital Empowerment
New Media, New Journalism
A Mediated Culture of Sadism
Out of Sight, Out of Credibility
)

Are Mainline Christians Waking Up?

Right-wing fundamentalists are threatening the
meaning and practice of Christian faith but mainline Christians are waking up to
the need to confront them, according to Paul Gason writing in the Washington
Post. Writer Colbert King says moderates and progressives should be mad enough
to fight.

Mainline Christians are waking up to the threat posed by right-wing fundamentalists, according to Paul Gaston writing in the Washington Post.

It is a
battle over
both the
meaning and
practice of
Christianity
as well as
over the
definition and
destiny of
the republic.

He frames the threat as two-fold: first, it is a threat to the meaning and practice of Christian faith and, secondly, it’s a threat to the principles of the republic. Those principles include freedom of religion and freedom to practice religion without state interference.

Gaston contends the attack on the judiciary is a smokescreen that covers the efforts of the religious right to wrest control of the faith away from those called “mainline.” This, in turn, covers an agenda to impose theocracy on the republic.

Colbert I. King writes the right wing has hijacked Christianity and it’s time for moderates to get mad and do something about it. He refers to a Bergen Record editorial (the Record is a major northern New Jersey daily printed in Hackensack), that says the religious right’s agenda is frightening. King says “baloney.” It should make moderates and progressives mad. Mad enough to fight.

To suggest
Democrats
are out
to get
people of
faith” is
despicable
demagoguery
that the
truly faithful
ought to
rise up
and reject.
–Colbert I. King

King cites how the right claimed the flag and patriotism after the Viet Nam war, an assumption that offended him when he returned to the U.S. after working overseas on security issues. Now, he says, the religious right has hijacked Christianity and it’s time for other Christians to fight back.

Increasingly people are asking for guidance from the leaders of the middle, looking for balance in a polarized public conversation in which extremists have demonstrated greater ability to frame issues and use media. The mainline voices are not experienced in these tactics and have tended to search for middle ground, favoring reason and quiet persuasion. Mainline leaders embody the pastoral more than the pyrotechnic.

But their restraint is characterized by the secular and religious extremists as lack of conviction, weakness, or worse, as relativism, secular humanism, left-wing politics or revisionist. In the understandable and commendable moderation of the mainline leadership, the extremists on the right have had the advantage. They have been able to characterize all but themselves as wrong.

Now the debate is being framed as “orthodox” Christians against “progressives,” as if there are only two sides and one is faithful to the history and traditions of the church while the other is apostate. I think we’ve seen this before and it’s far too simplistic.

Those who think this kind of purification will lead to a stronger community and a more faithful theology had best best give serious thought to history, not just the history they want to recall as the tradition of faithfulness, but the sweep of history that these purifications create. Careers destroyed, knowledge undermined, progress halted, communities ripped apart, wars ignited. Think twice. It’s not just words we’re talking here. It’s passion being stirred in unhealthy and dangerous ways. For some, these are fighting words.

People for the American Way — New Ad


The battle for public opinion continues. Tonight the television program will be cablecast that claims the filibuster is being used against “people of faith.”People for the American Way are countering with this ad.

It’s an interesting time to be working in communications. All forms of media have become more important as the charges and counter-charges escalate and as stories develop that involve the use of communication tools to influence the public dialogue. This raises so many interesting and important questions it boggles the mind.

The op-ed commentaries are alive with sharp critiques from all sides on nearly every significant public policy issue and many theological issues. The larger question that must be considered is how all of this will affect us going forward. It’s quite possible that the rhetoric will not merely turn off the great, silent middle, it may also have the effect of leaving more people feeling that religious faith is more divisive than helpful.

If this is the case, it will do more harm than good. I’ve wondered about the reaction of people who are coming to faith commitment for the first time, or who are genuinely seeking a deeper faith and hear this heated, polarizing language. Why identify with any group that is so divided and apparently unable to make peace among themselves? Better to go the mall than get involved in this.

It is energizing core groups who feel threatened by the claims and counter-claims. Already we’re seeing fundraising by both the left and right making claims that the threats require a stepped up effort to defeat the opposite side.

There isn’t much dialogue apparent in the current media environment. I continue to hope this will occur. However, if the blogs are an indication, the positions are becoming more hardened and less open to constructive interchange.

an “outrageous,
egregious,
and dangerous
affront.”
–Martin Marty

The harshness of the rhetoric has a desensitizing effect on us. The harshness escalates. Criticism of specific policies devolves to personal attack. When judges are equated with the Ku Klux Klan, that’s a step beyond irresponsible.

Martin Marty writes that the claims that the judiciary and Democrats are attacking “people of faith” and the participation of Sen. Bill Frist in the “Justice Sunday” telecast are an “outrageous, egregious, and dangerous affront.” He says Frist and Rep. Tom DeLay should be on their knees begging forgiveness for slandering others with their claims. Dr. Marty is far from a partisan extremist and his reaction should cause Frist and others to take notice. They should see that they are offending the sensibilities of those who are not partisans, and who are, in fact, responsible voices of moderation and faithfulness. But more, they are undermining the democracy that has protected our rights to free speech.

Perhaps it’s too early to draw any conclusions about the possibility of reconciliation between moderates and conservatives. It’s becoming harder to even define with precision what these terms mean. They don’t capture the subtleties or complexities of the many different voices speaking of faith today.

But it’s clear the seeds of division and exclusion are being sown widely and with great fanfare. Where this will end is anyone’s guess. There are those advocating schism in the Mainline denominations. Commentators reviewing Pope Benedict XVI’s record write that he may be satisfied with a smaller, “purer” church.

Beyond being an interesting time, it’s a dangerous time, a time when damaging words and intolerance threaten to divide us into opposing camps and tear apart faith communities. It’s hard to see this as witness to the Prince of Peace. It’s easier to see it leading to the prince of darkness.

Groups Challenge Frist

An interfaith coalition is planning a conference call with journalists today to ask Senator Bill Frist to reconsider his participation in a television broadcast that is promoted as critical of the U.S. judicial system. The charges, made by the James Dobson, the leader of the Focus on the Family, among others, claims the judiciary has overstepped its bounds and is limiting the rights of “people of faith.”

…the Roman
church is a false
church and it
teaches a false
gospel…the
pope himself
holds a false
and unbiblical
office.
–Robert Mohler
President,
Southern Baptist Seminary
Louisville

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Council of Churches is conducting the call.

A coalition of conservative Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians is seeking to stop the 200-year-old practice of invoking the filibuster to slow judicial nominees on the Senate floor. Frist has proposed to eliminate the rule allowing this practice.

The conservative coalition is more united on political outcomes than on matters of faith. Robert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville has attacked Sen. John Salazaar of Colorado, a Roman Catholic, for not opposing candidates who support the right to an abortion.

As reported in the New York Times on Friday, Salazaar responded by releasing comments by Mohler in which he states,”the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel” and “the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.”

“Despite the media
frenzy surrounding
the influence
of evangelical
Christians
during the
2004 presidential
election,
the new study
indicates that
evangelicals remain
just 7% of
the adult
population.
That number
has not
changed since
the Barna Group
began measuring
the size of
the evangelical
public in
1994.

While the public debate heats up a State of the Church in 2005 report by the Barna Group, an evangelical research organization, shows little significant change in the religious landscape of the United States.

“Despite the media frenzy surrounding the influence of evangelical Christians during the 2004 presidential election, the new study indicates that evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994,” according to a statement on the Barna Group website.

The Times reports a survey by NBC and the Wall Street Journal finds 50% of the population favor retaining the filibuster rule, 40% would revoke it and 10% are undecided.

The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, an official of the Presbyterian Church USA, of which Sen. Frist is a member, says the senator’s participation in the telecast undermines the historic understanding of the church to the First Amendment respecting the establishment of religion.

New Media, New Journalism


Many years ago Margaret Mead, the late anthropologist, noted that the introduction of something as small as a needle and thread into a society would change that society. Her point was that even when technology appears benign, it isn’t. We are shaped by technologies, no matter what their scale.

This isn’t necessarily destructive, nor deterministic. It just is.

Today this seems simple and obvious. We adjust to a flow of technologies coming at us in a cascading stream that sometimes becomes a torrent. We wade, swim and sometimes are swept up in the waters of this change.

For example, in barely four years the iPod transformed how we listen, share and purchase music. One study noted that people with earbuds walking on city sidewalks seemed oblivious to the external environment . It called this a condition of the iPod culture.

Since its launch In October, 2001, ten million iPods have been sold and a new form of content-sharing and audio production is underway. Months ago no one had heard of Podcasting. Today producers of podcasts are ubiquitous.

we have to answer
this fundamental
question: what
do we -? a
bunch of digital
immigrants –
need to do
to be relevant
to the digital
natives?
–Rupert Murdoch


We participate in this change as if it were a matter of course. It hardly seems remarkable. But it is remarkable. Digital technologies are changing our institutions and their practices in fundamental ways. Broadcast radio and television face competition unlike any they have known before. I listened with great fascination recently to a conversation in which the broadcast media (radio and television) were referred to as “old media.” It was as if they are passe’.

Recently when Pepsi introduced a new soft drink it not only avoided broadcast television, it also avoided the “traditional” thirty-second spot format, choosing instead to take its message to the Internet and other digital media. In addition, a variety of alternative media were employed including sponsorship of extreme sports and word-of-mouth “viral” marketing.

The new media not only provided the company with cost savings, they also allowed for more accurate, targetted marketing.

The loss of audience share by broadcast networks has been widely documented. But broadcast television is not alone. Christian radio saw its audience slip 10% between 1992 and 2005, according to a survey by Barna Group.

Equally intriguing is the generational divide that marks media use. National Public Radio, Public Broadcasting, network news and Christian television are all seeing their audiences grow older without replacing them with younger viewers and listeners. Barna says, for example, that Christian television is viewed by “people in their 60′s and older, females, residents of the South, African-Americans, people with limited education and income, and born again Christians.”

The only mass medium to increase its audience share in recent years is the Internet. The number of younger users have grown faster than older groups. And people under 40, according to Barna, show little interest in Christian media of any type.

give the
people
control
of media,
they will
use it.
Don?t give
people
control
of media,
and you
will lose
them.
–Jeff Jarvis

As Kartik Subramanian writes, the iPod playlist makes possible 10 million unique experiences of music. It’s this individual empowerment that is fundamentally re-shaping the social context.

Excerpts from a symposium on digital technologies and journalism in The Nation, list how these basic changes are affecting traditional journalism and creating new forms of content sharing.

Digital technologies, according to Jay Rosen , NYU professor of journalism, have changed the social context:

  • there has been a power shift from producers to users, mostly because of the Internet;
  • this has led to a loss of sovereignty in the press. What I [Rosen] mean by that is simply a loss of exclusive control;
  • Objectivity as an ethical touchstone, as one of my sources said, is faltering in mainstream journalism. Problems of finding a believable voice keep growing in mainstream journalism, and this is related to the shift in power;
  • (blogging) is well adapted to a world where the shift in power is taking place, to a world where there are many centers of sovereignty;
  • Blogging is well adapted to two-way dialogue as opposed to one-to-many dialogue, which is also part of the media shift that we are living through;
  • professional journalism, the way we teach it and understand it, [is] in fact an artifact of a one-to-many world.

There is a radical shift underway in media production and use. It is a shift toward empowered individuals. It involves many “centers of sovereignty,” in Rosen’s words. The old centralization of information and power–the one to many model–is breaking apart. Generations under 40 are opting out of traditional media and moving toward digital media, especially the Internet. As this happens, more people are getting religious information through media than through churches. Young people are looking for interactivity and functional information they can use. They are skeptical of centralized information sources. And, of course, people under 30 are native to the digital culture, unlike their elders who were formed in a pre-digital culture.

The implications for the culture and for religious organizations are striking. I’ll be writing about this in future posts.

Assaulting Compassion

The Moral Bankruptcy of the Bankruptcy Law

…even though
people “own”
possessions
they’re actually
mere stewards
over God’s
property.
–Sean Gonsalves

The bankruptcy law has passed and the politicians seem proud. But the questionable morality of the law remains. Columnist Sean Gonsalves writes the most concise and compelling biblical critique of the law that I’ve seen. It’s an unusually good piece of social criticism. He uses biblical sources in an accurate and responsible narrative. I was impressed.

Bob Edgar on Senator Frist

The Rev. Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, distributed a letter to the editor today expressing concern for the plans of Sen. Frist to appear on a telecast denouncing judges and alleging they are silencing people of faith.


Dear Editor:

We are surprised and grieved by a campaign launched this week by Family Research Council and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who said that those who disagree with them on President Bush’s

[The] attempt
to impose
on the
entire country
a narrow,
exclusivist,
private view
of truth
is a
dangerous,
divisive
tactic.
– The Rev.
Robert Edgar

judicial nominees are “against people of faith.” This campaign, which they are calling “Justice Sunday,” should properly be called “Just-Us” Sunday. Their attempt to impose on the entire country a narrow, exclusivist, private view of truth is a dangerous, divisive tactic. It serves to further polarize our nation, and it disenfranchises and demonize good people of faith who hold political beliefs that differ from theirs.

To brand any group of American citizens as “anti-Christian” simply because they differ on political issues runs counter to the values of both faith and democracy. It is especially disheartening when that accusation is aimed at fellow Christians. The National Council of Churches encompasses more than 45 million believers across a broad spectrum of theology and politics who work together on issues important to our society. If they disagree with Senator Frist’s political positions, are these 45 million Christians now considered “anti-Christian”?

In the spirit of 1 Timothy 6:3-5, we urge Senator Frist and the Family Research Council to reconsider their plan. We will be praying for the Lord to minister to them and change their hearts so that they will not continue to take our nation down this destructive path.

Bob Edgar, General Secretary
National Council of Churches USA
New York City

Coming almost simultaneously with the election of a new Pope, the letter will probably receive little, if any, attention in the media, but the scripture reference zings. This brought to mind a note on Methoblog that Jay wrote to four detractors (A Letter to the Boys) calling for continuing conversation between diametrically opposed groups in The United Methodist Church. As the rhetoric gets hotter around these issues, I wonder if considered, constructive dialogue is possible.

In an interview recently on the television program Religion and Ethics Weekly , Mike McCurry expressed his belief that within the church community we can still talk to each other. I share his optimism, but must admit that the more I read the headlines the less optimistic I am. Partisan politics and religion have merged. When that happens, political rhetoric assumes a place in what should be the language of faith.

Faith informs politics, but politics is not faith.