Monday, November 30, 2009

Leave Tiger Woods Alone

Okay, so Tiger Woods got into a rather odd accident in the wee morning hours after Thanksgiving. There was apparently some property damage, and Woods was briefly taken to a hospital to be checked out. But the media fallout ever since would have us believe that Woods's accident and subsequent reticence to make a flashy public statement is the most important thing to have taken place since, well, the last most overblown important thing, whatever that was.

Look, I understand the public's fascination with Woods, and I understand why people, media and regular folk alike, would want a full blow by blow of what happened, how it happened, and the circumstances that surrounded what happened early Friday morning. But wanting to know is a very different thing from having a right to know. Folks in the public eye are just like the rest of us, in that they are entitled not to disclose aspects of their lives to the public so long as such disclosure refusals don't involve not cooperating with law enforcement and things of that nature.

Press people so often seem to believe that the public's 'right to know' somehow trumps the individual's right to not be an open book. In the case of Tiger, it has been argued by some in the press that because Tiger works so hard at crafting a public image that allows him to make millions in endorsements and product merchandising, he therefore can't turn around now and go mute. The obvious implication being that people in the public eye who 'work the system' to their advantage forfeit the right to later keep things out of the public eye. This is crazy.

Nobody, not the press, not the public, has a right to know the circumstances surrounding Tiger's accident. If the event was such that Woods isn't even required to talk to law enforcement, then why exactly is he required to talk to anyone? The answer, of course, is that he isn't required to cooperate with the press on anything at all. And that's what the press folks don't like. As with many sports and entertainment celebrities, the press seems to believe these public figures are obligated to cooperate with them. Sorry, but in this country, individuals are the ones who decide whether to disclose things about themselves to the public, and they get to decide how to do it, when to do it, and to whom or through whom to do it. The public's insatiable appetite for gossip and juicy circumstances is not a substitute for an authentic 'right to know'. Leave Tiger alone.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hitching our Wagon to Flickering Stars

Christians are as susceptible as anyone to becoming starstruck and becoming part of the celebrity worship culture. When I was at seminary, a wise professor once said (in the context of putting certain theologians on pedestals) that we should make sure to remember that our heroes are very human. By this, he meant that besides Jesus, even the greatest among us are decidedly imperfect, and our level of allegiance to them should always keep this in mind, lest we worship false idols who devastate us in the end with their imperfections. This is very sage advice, and one the church at large really needs to adopt.

Evangelicals, for several good reasons, feel a bit under siege today. The inroads we thought we were making in gaining respectability in our culture have been met with increasingly shrill opposition that has resonated. This has made us far more willing to exalt any allies in the culture we feel we might have, and go to the mat for them. Two prominent examples come to mind, and in both cases, evangelical allegiance to them has, to some degree, blown up in our faces.

Example #1: Mel Gibson
In the months leading up to the release of his Passion of the Christ movie, Gibson actively courted prominent evangelicals to build Christian support for the movie. In a movie industry in which Christianity and Jesus himself were routinely belittled, distorted, ridiculed, and raged against, Gibson's depiction of Jesus was considered refreshing in its seriousness and even reverence. Evangelical leaders praised Gibson, stood by him as he endured criticism from Jewish groups and others, and urged Christians to flood the box office in support of the movie. The result was seismic - huge box office receipts that made Gibson rich and stabilized his production company, and evangelicals feeling like they had made a resounding statement to a Hollywood machine that at best dismisses them and at worst disdains them. Everyone was happy.

There was only one problem. Gibson was never one of us. This is not a statement about Gibson's personal faith, but rather his questionable brand of Catholicism mixed in with his own track record in the entertainment industry. Gibson's questionable attitudes about Jews were largely ignored. And responsible evangelical critiques of his Passion movie were in short supply, even though the movie minimized the resurrection and provided an imbalanced understanding of the crucifixion (substitutionary atonement is rarely even hinted at in the movie). Because we had found a supposed ally, we were willing to overlook quite a bit as part of defending him to the hilt. It wasn't difficult to see what would happen next.

In the years since the Passion movie was released, Gibson was arrested for driving drunk, during which he uttered a slew of anti-semitic epithets. More recently, Gibson stepped out on his wife and family and has fathered a child with another woman and seems quite happy about it all. Few responsible evangelicals would consider him an ally of their values today. Yet, the total and complete support Gibson enjoyed from evangelicals (despite some obvious warning signs) has resulted in the credibility of evangelicals being tarnished. We had embraced the celebrity culture and made ourselves a hero, and we're now paying a price for our short-sightedness.

Example #2: Carrie Prejean
When Ms. Prejean was forced to go public with her stance against gay marriage at the Miss America pageant, much of the culture vilified her. But many evangelicals rushed to her defense and praised her profusely. She instantly became a hot commodity on the evangelical speaking circuit and on conservative media outlets. She hired an agent/spokesperson. She was young, pretty, and photogenic. It was inevitable that she would become an evangelical celebrity. But again, her elevation to evangelical superstar was done despite some warning signs that should have given evangelicals pause.

Her highly contentious relationship with pageant officials was a harbinger of things to come. Over the last year, numerous revelations have surfaced about her own conduct - some of it smelling quite opportunistic and diva-ish. Lawsuits were filed and settled with pageant officials, a book deal was inked to cash in on her notoriety, and very recently, the release of a rather salacious video has forced Prejean to make Clintonian distinctions about all matters sexual. She has donned the martyred victim hat in her book and in interviews, the most recent of which was an erratic display on Larry King which has now been followed by several cancelled book tour events. Whatever fortitude Prejean displayed in her stance on gay marriage has now been overshadowed and undermined by both prior and subsequent wobbly conduct. It was there to be seen, but in our rush to find friends anywhere we can, we overlooked (and continue to overlook) way too much. Evangelicals at large are now being lumped in with Prejean. We're paying the price yet again for embracing and even fueling the cult of the celebrity.

Evangelicals are hardly the only ones who embrace celebrity idolatry. We aren't even the worst offenders; not by a long shot. But what makes us different is that we're supposed to know better. We, who believe that the world in its present form is passing away (1C 7.31) and are instructed to set our hearts and minds on things above (Col 3.1-2) should know better than to embrace the world's pursuits, employ the world's methods, and seek the world's approval. But I fear that even though the evangelical subculture is somewhat unique and separate from mainstream culture, it embodies too much of the world's values to prop it up. Hitching our wagons to flickering stars is one obvious example of our capitulation.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Bob McDonnell and the Washington Post

What follows is adapted from a post I made at the Post's website today regarding 'Winners and Losers' from the just completed election cycle:

Among the losers, we should count the Washington Post for its highly problematic coverage of the Virginia governor's race:

1) The editorial board's endorsement of Democrat Creigh Deeds was no surprise, but the partisan and selectively one-sided nature of it indicated a lack of seriousness in appraising the campaign.

2) The Post's polling approach lacked credibility, and it showed. Not only were the Post's polls consistently wrong in lowballing the margin between Republican Bob McDonnell and Deeds (the Post's polls put the margin between 9-11 points), the Post actively poo-pooed other polls that had a far more accurate grasp of the true margin of separation (many other polls had the margin between 14-18 points). McDonnell won by 17-18 points. A 7-8 point margin of error makes the Post's polling methodology unreliable, and yet the Post was labeling the accurate polls as such. Can you say 'credibility gap'?

3) Related to #2, the Post seemed to take a 90 degree turn during the campaign in covering other poll results. In the beginning, the Post went on record saying they would not publicize other polls that they (the Post) had problems with in terms of methodology. After getting skewered over this highly subjective and arbitrary decision, the Post reversed course in the last month and was giving some limited airplay to other polls (which turned out to be more accurate than the Post's own polls). This indicated the lack of a reliable compass in guiding what the newsroom (not the editorial staff) thought was newsworthy. The Post's late stream course correction was the right decision, but it highlights how completely wrong their original position was as a matter of journalistic integrity. This kind of fumbling, bumbling, and stumbling is what hurt Deeds's credibility. It hurts the Post's as well.

4) The Post's metro section made a serious investment in pushing liberal concerns in its reporting. Beyond the Post's infamous obsession with McDonnell's thesis, the metro staff (again, I'm not talking about the editorial board) repeatedly approached the economic and transportation plans of the candidates from the perspective that higher taxes were the only real solution. First, one wonders if these people have looked at the economic condition in Maryland (high taxes, high unemployment, a population exodus to states with lower tax burdens) as part of formulating their own worldview. Second, it is a bit disingenuous for the beat staff to regularly trot out the line that a high wall of separation exists between the editorial board and the metro staff, as if this org chart somehow gets the metro staff off the hook for bringing their own biases to their coverage. It doesn't. It never has, it never will. Just because the metro staff at the Post might take umbrage at this suggestion doesn't make it false, at all. More likely it highlights the objectivity and non-agenda self-delusion that's so common in the press corps.

Nobody I know expected the Post's editorial board to give McDonnell a fair shake, and that's fair enough. While regretable, it's at least consistent and offers few surprises. But the conduct of the metro staff in this campaign has been noticed by many outside the beltway. After years of the Post taking tangible steps to improve its image as a news outlet that shows at least some concern about being fair with diverse viewpoints, I fear that its performance this time around will undo a good bit of that among those who are not partisan Democrats.

In a follow-up editorial today, the editorial board expressed its hope that McDonnell will prove them wrong on all the areas in which they took issue with him. Well, many of us are quite entitled to petition the Post for the same thing. If I were to write an editorial to the Post, I would urge them to seriously listen to the many well deserved criticisms they have received about their conduct in this campaign. Their performance has been disappointing as a matter of journalism. The Post needs to be more intentional about promoting viewpoint diversity in their own ranks to help ensure that future campaigns are covered with a level of respect for differing views that comes with having a staff of differing views. I fear that absent this, the Post will continue to fundamentally misunderstand non-liberal thought and those who adhere to it, and that this misunderstanding will continue to taint their coverage and invite deserved repudiation.