I recently took a trip to England
and France for a number of reasons: to broaden my horizons, to see some
shows, and to come up with stuff to blog about that’s a little outside
the norm. I didn’t really think I would find blog fodder watching
TV or reading newspapers, but turns out that’s the sort of thing you
do during all the downtime you have traveling. At first, I didn’t
notice anything unusual on the BBC or on international versions of American
cable news shows like CNN. Government scandals, the elections
in India, the effects of global warming (okay, this last one was covered
at a length unusual in the U.S.)–mostly the same kind of news, right?
Probably indistinguishable from what’s considered news on similar
channels at home, right? After all, MTV in Europe still offers
"Pimp My Ride," so really, there’s more in common than not.
Generally speaking, that’s
true, but when I returned to the States, one significant difference
in what is considered news in the U.S. as opposed to in Europe stuck
out dramatically: the "story" about the non-controversy of Obama
delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame.
After taking a two-week break
and coming back, what was shockingly obvious is that the American media
has no qualms about turning non-stories into huge controversies, if
they can stoke religious and cultural tensions in doing so. It’s
not just the Obama- goes-to-Notre-Dame story, though I think it’s
hard to imagine that would even be a story if the American media hadn’t
concocted it almost out of whole cloth. It’s the Americans calling
The real story–that Americans still largely resist banning abortion
(even, if you’ll recall, in super-conservative states like South Dakota)–was
ignored in favor of stoking resentments and anxieties, and empowering
people who live to sniff their neighbors’ panty drawers. When
it comes to culture war stories, our mainstream media has moved from
reporting the story to creating the story.
News led the pack on the Obama protest story, repeatedly featuring spokespeople
from the small anti-Obama student minority, as well as Alan Keyes. But MSNBC, CNN, and the AP used their coverage to elevate marginal
figures without noting how marginal they are, imply the protests were
much bigger than they were, neglect to mention that Notre Dame is closer
to a secular university than right wing religious schools like Liberty
University, and either conceal or bury the fact that the students and
faculty at Notre Dame put their support behind the President.
Of all the extensive coverage I saw of what should have been a non-story,
accurately contrasted the small, wacky minority of anti-choicers with
the feelings of the majority.
They also made a point that other outlets skipped over, which is that
most of the protesters weren’t students, but the same group of people
who spend their free time picketing clinics.
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Going back over what I missed
on American cable news shows while in Europe, I was shocked to see this
story growing to the point where it exploded all over cable news, with
Alan Keyes in particular wearing out his microphone denouncing Obama’s
pro-choice position. Interestingly, in all the coverage I saw
of this, never once did I hear it mentioned that Alan Keyes was humiliatingly
defeated in the race for Illinois Senator in 2004, an election in which
Obama won with 70% of the vote. Nor did I hear it mentioned that
Keyes, along with being an anti-choice nut, is also a conspiracy theorist
who believes Obama faked his birth certificate.
Not a whiff of information indicated that Keyes might be riding these
Notre Dame protests because he has a personal vendetta against the President,
rather than a pure love of embryonic life.
The problem with this story
was terminal silliness. Notre Dame had never before had an anti-feminist
litmus test for commencement speakers, and Notre Dame students and faculty
largely supported the President coming. Based on sheer numbers,
this story shouldn’t have been a story–you can find a tiny minority
of people to rile up about any foolish thing, and that a well-funded
anti-choice movement was able to do that in this case was no more news
than the fact that a percentage of people continue to believe the moon
landing was faked. But even if we don’t take numbers into account,
this story was stupid. Notre Dame may be a Catholic university,
but like most of them, its primary goal is to compete with secular universities
and provide a real education, not turn its students into dogma-spouting
automatons. As someone who went to a Catholic school, I can assure
you that the small fringe of hard right conservatives find themselves
as marginalized by other students as on any other campus, and all their
actions reflect their bitterness about this more than a commitment to
whatever cause they’re rallying around that day.
And if the sheer smallness
of the problem wasn’t enough, then you get to the terminal silliness
of the protesters themselves, who showed up pushing plastic dolls in
strollers they’ve covered with blood. When you do something
like that, you’re begging the mainstream media to treat you like a
circus sideshow, instead of serious people with an actual point to make.
But despite the way pro-lifers acted, they were accepted like moral
warriors speaking for Catholicism, instead of the shrill and silly minority
Despite obvious reasons not
to treat this as a real story, the mainstream media in the United States
forged ahead, concocting a fake controversy, and going out of its way
to stir antagonisms between culture warriors who already feel huge amounts
of resentment towards halls of learning at Notre Dame and elsewhere.
Watching much of the coverage, you would have thought there was an actual
chance the Notre Dame would just give up on being a real university,
and instead commit itself to pushing the most outrageous strikes against
academic freedom requested by the religious right. They’d probably
give up their football team sooner.
While our cable news networks
create culture war stories out of scraps, the entire journalism industry
is suffering a major financial crisis. Newspapers are being shut
down, massive layoffs attempt to stave off the crisis, and investigative
journalism is disappearing as an art, because no one wants to pay for
it. Real news is just way too expensive, it turns out. Much
cheaper to find minor culture war stories, and turn them into major
stories. If every twist and turn of the story is actually caused
by the media, they don’t have to pay anyone to go out and get the
real story. If the airwaves are filled with these non-stories,
media execs don’t have to worry about filling time, and resorting
to the expensive method of actually seeking out and writing the news.
You can do less, but get more
with culture war stories, too. After all, people get confused
by all the jargon and complications you get with stories about the economy,
the war, and government corruption, which causes them to flip the channel
to simpler fare, like "Friends" reruns. But sex and religion?
Well, everyone understands that. Or they think they do.
Truth is, people are just as ignorant on these issues as they are on
all others, and the situation is only made worse by sensationalist coverage.
If you actually watched and believed the news reports on Obama’s appearance
at Notre Dame, you walk away even more ignorant than before. You
may have erroneous notions about what kind of institution Notre Dame
is, thinking that it’s less a university than it actually is, and
more a hodge-podge of superstition. And you definitely won’t
get as full a picture of how nutty the anti-choice protesters are, nor
how few in number.