Editor’s Note: Olasky and Smith wrote this column in 2013, when P&R Publishing released a 25th anniversary edition of Prodigal Press: Confronting the Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media. Since then some names and faces have changed, but the underlying problems remain. We are reprinting it here because they are featured in an online short course beginning April 17. The course is called “Making Sense of Media: Clarity and Discernment.” For more information: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/colson-center-short-course-making-sense-of-media-clarity-and-discernment-tickets-44398711742
Many Americans, and most conservatives, consider the New York Times virtually symbolic of the liberal news media. The reputation is well-deserved: The Times editorializes in favor of same-sex marriage and abortion. Times columnist Thomas Friedman equated the Tea Party to Hezbollah. Fellow Times columnist Joe Nocera did him one better, saying “Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people.” Sometimes, the Times is so committed to liberal positions it ignores its own reporting. In 2002, the Times reported, “the number of state prisoners has increased 500 percent, growing each year in the 1990s even as crime fell.” The Times completely ignored the possibility that crime fell precisely because criminals were locked up.
It was no surprise, then, when Jill Abramson became editor of the Times in 2011, she elevated the Times to the position of oracle, or demigod. She said, without irony, “In my house, the Times substituted for religion. It was the absolute truth.”
Christians, of course, appeal to a higher source for “absolute truth”: the Bible. Many Christians (and even more Times readers) might be surprised to learn that the Times’ founder, Henry Raymond, was a Bible-believing Presbyterian.
In the 1870s the Times passionately opposed abortion, it “infant murder,” saying the practice is “rank and smells to heaven.” In 1871, Times reporter Augustus St. Clair did an undercover investigation in New York that easily rivals modern pro-life activists Lila Rose and David Daleiden. St. Clair and a “lady friend” visited the most-advertised abortionists in New York, posing as a couple in need of the abortionists’ services. St. Clair described what he saw in the Times in such graphic and horrifying detail that the public became enraged. One abortionist mentioned in St. Clair’s stories received a seven-year prison sentence.
And the New York Times was not alone. Between 1825 and 1845, over 100 cities and towns across America had explicitly Christian newspapers. During that period, New York City boasted 52 magazines and newspapers that called themselves Christian.
So, what has led the American news media to become both proudly liberal and often vehemently anti-Christian? The causes are many, beginning in the 1840s, with the rise of a literary and philosophical movement called Transcendentalism, and extending to today, with the rise of the 24-7 news cycle brought about by cable news and the Internet. We document this descent of American journalism in Prodigal Press: Confronting the Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media. The question we ask today is this: Is it possible to recover the rich Christian heritage of American journalism. We answer “yes” for the following reasons:
- First, the liberal bias of most journalists is so well documented that few continue to deny it. The liberal bias of most journalists is so well documented that few continue to deny it. Beyond bias, Americans increasingly believe journalists are arrogant and lack compassion. Former Oakland Tribune Editor Robert Maynard admitted reporters often “appear to be boorish.” This may be why, according to a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 78 percent of Americans believe news reporters “are just concerned with getting a good story, and they don’t worry much about hurting people.” These data are bad news for the mainstream news media, but good news for those looking for evidence the American people may be ready for a change.
- Secondly, technology is giving us new options. Cable television, beginning in the 1980s, provided competition for the major networks. Digital technologies – satellite and the Internet – offer even more hope. The news and commentary from such outlets as BreakPoint and WORLD, for example, now attract millions of people each year. We believe these trends will continue, and will offer options previously unknown for Christian journalists.
- Thirdly, these options are attracting a new generation of young people who want careers in Christian journalism. Bloggers such as Tim Challies and Ann Voskamp, though not journalists, show how writers with an entrepreneurial spirit can have an impact – and make a living — in a digital environment.
It may be too early to declare the 21st century a new “golden age of Christian journalism” that would rival the early 19th century for that title. That said, we are more hopeful than ever, because we have come to the conclusion that the best way to demonstrate that a stick is crooked is to put a straight stick down beside it. And that, at its best, is precisely what Christian journalism is doing.
Marvin Olasky and Warren Cole Smith are co-authors of Prodigal Press: Confronting The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media.