Mainstream media’s anti-Christian bias is a very real problem, even if its participants deny it exists. How should Christians respond to it, and continue to effectively engage the culture for Christ in spite of it? During this week’s broadcast, John Stonestreet welcomes guests Warren Cole Smith and Marvin Olasky, authors of "Prodigal Press," to discuss this issue.
Marvin Olasky, Editor in Chief of World Magazine, wrote a book twenty-five years ago that documented and exposed the liberal media bias Christians and conservatives had long accused television networks and newspapers of harboring. Now Olasky has partnered with Warren Cole Smith, another leading figure at World News Group whose life was profoundly influenced by "Prodigal Press," to offer an updated and revised version of this powerful work.Olasky, a former opponent of conservative ideas and beliefs, spent the early years of his career cranking out what he describes as party-line propaganda for a major U.S. newspaper, knows a thing or two about media bias.
"Forty years ago, I was a member of the Communist Party U.S.A.," he says. "The stories I wrote were designed to try to emphasize class warfare...I enormously exaggerated and hyped and so forth. The editors loved it."
But he did an about-face, and after giving up the political commitments which drove him to sensationalize stories to bias readers against conservatives, Olasky compiled his experiences and insights into his devastating first edition of "Prodigal Press."
But the book wasn't and isn't just about conservative vs. liberal politics. It documents a deep-seated disdain within the American news media for Christianity and its influence on society:
"'Prodigal Press' has lots of examples of times when the press was not only liberal as opposed to conservative, but also 'spiked' the spiritual. Editors of newspapers," Olasky explains, "used to have a big spike on their desk, and when they were done with the pieces of paper they’d just stick them on that spike."
That, he says from experience, is how the mainstream media has become accustomed to treating religion. "...we’ve seen over and over again how big newspapers like The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post and others would simply ignore the spiritual dimensions of stories."
Many still insist that the liberal news bias is a phantasm, and that Christians are simply "blowing smoke." But as the book overwhelmingly demonstrates, those who mount such defenses are out of touch with reality. Christians, however, often embrace the opposite error by simply throwing our hands up and declaring the death of journalism.
Warren Cole Smith won't let fellow believers indulge that attitude for long. He thinks those who give up on the press fail to recognize how our Lord works.
“God is in the redemption business and God always works through a remnant, a small number. So on the one hand, it is true. Things look pretty bleak. But we know that the great redemption story of history is God reconciling all things to Himself. So I stand in that hope and that possibility.”
Smith says he practically slapped himself on the head when he first read Olasky's book and realized how much of the picture he'd been missing in his journalism career. Perhaps the most startling part of that picture is how far the American press has fallen. Smith tells how, historically, many of the major newspapers in the United States were founded by Christians, and used for redemptive purposes."The founder of The New York Times was a Bible-believing Presbyterian. In the 1870s, as Marvin documented brilliantly in the original edition of the book, a reporter named Augustus St. Claire actually went undercover in the abortion facilities of New York." The result of this and other such hard-hitting investigations by Christian journalists in generations past, Smith says, was an astonishing positive impact on society. "...there really was this rich tradition of Christian journalism in this country that we have somehow lost, [but] that we have a possibility of recovering. That’s why I’m so excited about this book and why it had such a deep impact on me."
So the media isn't a lost cause. Christians have a duty to engage secular journalists and listen to what they have to say. But what can we do to keep from losing our bearings in the midst of propaganda, and more importantly, what can we do to change things?
Well first of all, says Smith, we need to listen and read more carefully than ever before.
“We’ve got to be so mindful of the way language is used in the media, because we are either practitioners of that craft ourselves or we are consumers or even victims of others who have mastery of that craft.”
"We need to be discerning, but not unplug from the press," agrees Olasky. “Christians should not read The New York Times to find out what’s happening in the world. Christians should read The New York Times to understand how secular liberals are interpreting the world and to learn what they think is happening…That can help us in discerning the world God has made and it can also help us in evangelism. It helps us to understand the mindset of non-Christians.”But in order to transform the field of journalism, aspiring Christian reporters must recover a unique quality, the loss of which Olasky and Smith agree cost us the media business in the first place: good storytelling. The one who effectively tells a culture its stories, they say, has the power to shape it in ways politicians and government officials could only dream of.
“Back in the 1960s," says Smith, "liberals went after the English departments and conservatives went after the White House...by 1980, the conservatives had the White House and the liberals had the English departments. Now fast-forward another thirty years to today and the liberals have both the White House and the English departments. The Point of that story is that politics is downstream from culture. And storytelling is a key part of our culture.”
True storytelling may be what journalism is about. Stories shape us, engage our hearts and minds, and allow us to step into the experiences of others to know the world and souls around us a little more intimately. And as Olasky points out, stories were the medium Jesus Christ chose to communicate His message, and ultimately what God the Spirit used in Scripture. In journalism, telling stories isn't about deceiving people for entertainment's sake, but about sharing our lives with one another and revealing truth in ways no other medium can. That, agree our guests, is how God has called Christians to view our role in the media, and how we can hope to someday call the prodigal press home.
Prodigal Press: Confronting the Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media
Marvin Olasky & Warren Cole Smith | The Colson Center Store