The Briefing 02-12-15

The Briefing 02-12-15

The Briefing


February 12, 2015

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Thursday, February 12, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Brian Williams and Jon Stewart stories reveal danger of blurred line between entertainment and news

For some time now it has become increasingly apparent that Americans are having great difficulty separating the worlds of entertainment and the news. And, at least in part, that’s due to the fact that there has been an intentional blurring of the lines between the news (defined as, supposedly, reporting the facts) and entertainment, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with any kind of factual claim. And what we’re looking at in terms of the last 48 hours is a very ironic and historical convergence of two events that points to this very quandary.

In the first place we have the spectacle of Brian Williams. Since 2004 the anchor of the NBC nightly news, who was voluntarily withdrawing himself from that post after accusations had been made that he had inflated claims made from an event in Iraq in 2003. And then, NBC News reported yesterday that he had been suspended for six months without pay. Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, said,

“This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position,”

She was speaking of the fact that over time he had changed a story, rooted in an experience while covering the Iraq war, of being in a helicopter behind one that was eventually shot down to actually being shot down on that helicopter. Now NBC News says that as Brian Williams has admitted to the so-called conflation of these memories, he arrived himself of the necessary credibility to be the anchor of the NBC Nightly News. As reporters Emily Steel and Ravi Somaiya reported for the New York Times, Williams’s departure,

“…culminated a rapid and startling fall [from grace]”

They described that at age 55 he was head of the highest rated evening news show, the winner of top industry accolades, a coveted speaker at dinners and panels, and a frequent celebrity guest on entertainment shows.

Now as I began, one of the major problems that we’re now facing in America is an inability to discern between what is packaged as entertainment and what should be received as a news account. Now in terms of recent American history, this has become a great deal more difficult. But what many in the media have failed to acknowledge is that it’s not just the intentional blurring of the lines, it’s the fact that the lines were actually blurred quite a long time ago and no one was admitting it.

Embedded in that New York Times article about Brian Williams was the statement that he was “a frequent celebrity guest on entertainment shows,” and this particular incident points to the fact that when Brian Williams made the untrue claims about having been on that helicopter that was shot down in Iraq, he did not make those claims on what was packaged as a news show, but rather he made those claims on a late-night entertainment program – in this case, the “David Letterman Show.” The statement from NBC News indicated that he had also made misleading claims on his NBC Nightly News program, but the central claim that led to his fault was made on an entertainment program where NBC executives, according to many reports, had encouraged him to go in order to boost his profile, in order to boost ratings for the NBC Nightly News.

Now as one who was a child during the 1960s remembering the reports of anchors like Huntley and Brinkley on the one hand and Walter Cronkite on the other, at least there was, at that age, an understanding that television news was following in the example of Edward R Murrow, who trained an early generation of television journalist and anchors in the task of journalism that had previously been honed on the radio and in print media, especially in newspapers. But what’s been going on in terms of television news has born little resemblance to that for a very long time. One of the saddest aspects of the fall of Brian Williams – now again suspended for six months without pay by NBC news – is the fact that NBC News and the other nightly news programs have basically been packaged as entertainment for a very long time. And that’s true almost universally of everything that is now sold as news. And the reason for that should be very apparent: these shows have no commercial value whatsoever if they are not supported by advertisers, and the advertisers know that Americans are far more interested in being entertained than being informed.

For sometime now study after study has demonstrated what virtually every intelligent person has known, and that is that the media leans significantly to the left – that is, as a professional class – and for that reason you can look back even to the 1960s and 1970s with a huge brand names of the network nightly news programs and understand that they did lean rather left. But they were also held, not only in principle but generally in practice, to a set of journalistic expectations in a culture of journalistic ethics that is far removed from the reality, not only of the nightly news programs on the networks these days but from the cable news networks and virtually everything that is packaged as news in terms, especially, in the television medium.

And the reason for that is, well once again, television is a battle for the eyes and the battle for the eyes has to do with the battle for commercials and advertisers; and those advertisers are going to put their money where the eyes go. And it tells us something of a very deep worldview importance about Americans, that the vast majority of Americans have eyes that are more likely to go to entertainment than to news – and even more chillingly, have increasingly failed to understand the radical distinction between the two.

As to what comes next for Brian Williams and NBC Nightly News, that is unclear. But, as almost everyone in terms of an honest analysis has made abundantly evident, it probably has more to do with what the commercial decisions made by NBC seem to be mandated by the time. And that’s why someone like Mark Feldstein, a broadcast journalism professor at University of Maryland, told the Times,

“I don’t know how he can ever read the news with a straight face, or how the public will respond if he does. Maybe they’re hoping that with a six-month cooling-off period, he’s got a loyal fan base.”

But let me just point out something, that very statement coming from a professor of journalism points to the problem. If he has a fan base, the very use of those two words means it’s really not so much about the news as it is about entertainment.

And something that hasn’t been noted so often, at least yet in terms of the coverage and analysis of this sad even, is the fact that starting back in the 1960s – in particular – in starting with someone like Walter Cronkite, there was the practice that grew increasingly expected that journalists would put themselves into the story. And so even during the 1960s and in the early 1970s, one of the big issues was the CBS anchor Walter Cronkite reporting from places such as Vietnam, where he became himself involved in the story. Cronkite successor on the CBS news, Dan Rather, became even more famous for doing the very same thing, for inserting himself over and over again into the story. So when Brian Williams of NBC did the same back in 2003, in the early years of the Iraq war, he was basically following a precedent that had been set before. And furthermore, he was following an expectation that the news media had begun to feed.

Now on the one hand, the story of Brian Williams reminds us of the basic Christian biblical worldview understanding of the importance and priority of truth, of not telling that which is untrue and presenting it as if it is true. Brian Williams, in this sense, has become a parable of what happens when one tells a story that turns out not to have been true. And what is really chilling about this particular incident is that there were those who made the claim, almost immediately after Brian Williams made those reports back in 2003, that he wasn’t rightly describing what had happened in terms of the historical incident.

But as I said, in the last 48 hours we’ve seen the convergence of two stories and the second story has nothing to do directly with Brian Williams, but rather with Jon Stewart. As Dave Itzkoff reported for the New York Times, John Stuart, the comedian who turned Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” into a sharp edged nightly commentary on the news, the people behind it and the media reporting and sometimes misreporting it, said on Tuesday that he would step down from the program after more than 16 years as its anchor.

What makes this really important is where I mentioned at the beginning of the program that there has been an intentional blurring of the lines between entertainment and the news. And if there are two stellar examples of that kind of intentional blurring of the lines, those examples would be the “Stephen Colbert Report” and its parent Comedy Central program, “The Daily Show,” which has been hosted for the last several years by Jon Stewart; he became host in the year 1999.

Not even if the words “fan base” in the report on Brian Williams points to one problem, the other problem is indicated by the fact we’re talking about news programs that appear on something that is at least honest enough to name itself Comedy Central. And in terms of John Stuart, the reality is, he was a standup comic before he became the host of what was presented as a news program. Now to give Comedy Central at least some credit, at the inception of these programs they were apparently rather clear that they were not intended to be understood to be actual news programs – but rather Comedy programs that were made to look like news programs.

But in one of the most telling developments in recent American history, large numbers of Americans – numbered by the millions, especially younger Americans – not only did consider these comedy programs as news, but poll after poll and recent research have indicated that a large number of college students and young adults actually got most of their so-called news input from these Comedy Central programs –either The Colbert Report or The Daily News.

An alarming headline that affirms this was found in the analysis of John Stewart’s announcement. This was found in article by Jason Zinoman that appeared in the critics notebook column of the New York Times; the headline itself points to the problem, A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor. Well let’s just note for one thing the impossibility of seamlessly mixing analysis, politics, and humor. You may indeed succeed in mixing these things, but the net result is not going to be seamless – especially if you consider truth to be important. As Zinoman writes,

“’The Daily Show’ didn’t just offer insightful, cutting analysis, clever parody and often hard-hitting interviews with major newsmakers. For an entire generation, it became the news, except this report could withstand the disruption of the Internet far better than the old media. If anything, the web only made “The Daily Show,” with its short segments, more essential. Every time a political scandal exploded or a candidate made headlines or a cable fight went viral, the first thought for many viewers was: I can’t wait to see what Jon Stewart will say about this.”

Now let’s again look carefully at that paragraph because even as the headline of the article is about seamlessly mixing analysis, politics, and humor, you’ll note the fact that Zinoman points to the reality that major newsmakers felt the need to appear on the program in what was presented at least largely as a serious appearance, with serious political arguments which came from a very serious man – that is Jon Stewart – in terms of having a very clear agenda. And that agenda, make no mistake, was coming from the political left, something that he never denied. As a matter fact, something he made absolutely explicit in terms of both his analysis and his comedy – if indeed, you could ever separate the two.

As Don Aucoin of the Boston Globe indicated, John Stuart,

“…shaped cultural attitudes of a generation,”

Pointing to this vast change in our society, and in the way many people think, especially younger Americans, Aucoin wrote,

“Whenever Stewart departs the show he has hosted since 1999, it will leave a major vacuum. What Walter Cronkite was to an earlier generation — an utterly trusted voice — Stewart has been to millennials.”

But then Aucoin gets right to the point when he follows that sentence with this:

“The key difference, of course, was that Stewart was schooled not in journalism but in comedy, and he was a purveyor, as he often reminded us, of ‘fake news.’”

One of the major developments of the so-called postmodern age was the fact that many people denied that truth actually existed, that there is any objectivity to truth – rather, everything is mere subjectivity. One of the developments that happened during the 1990s in the rise of postmodernism was the package of trying to undermine all serious truth claims – suggesting that all news must be in, the end, fake news and that honest would be found in simply packaging something as entertainment and understanding that nothing else is actually possible. But of course, human life in any rational sense, in any sense that is true to the Christian worldview, believes that reality is knowable and furthermore, that the truth does matter and that facts are something that exists not merely because of our subjective awareness, but because they exist outside of our own knowledge of them.

Even back during the 1990s there were those who were saying we were already living in a post-truth era – that’s scary enough. But the developments of the last 48 hours point to the fact that for millions of Americans there’s no longer even a sense of loss in a post-truth era, but there is also at least a bit of encouragement in these new stories and it comes down to this: even some writing about Jon Stewart have to admit that what he was presenting was fake news; that’s an achievement of a sort in these days, that open admission. And furthermore, the fact that NBC at least was shamed into removing Brian Williams for at least six months without pay says, that at least NBC News was in the position where they had to make a value judgment as to whether the truth mattered and with the kind of public pressure mounting as it was, they had to say truth matters, and they had to at least take some action that indicated that they actually believed it.

But to wrap this up, whoever follows Jon Stewart, and whatever happens in terms of Brian Williams in the future of the NBC Nightly News, this much is clear: we are not serving the cause of truth if we fail to understand that what is packaged as news in so many cases is actually entertainment. And we also do not serve the cause of truth if we are satisfied with entertainment rather than with understanding the truth. There is a place for entertainment and there’s a place for news, but the world is increasingly dangerous the more we can’t distinguish between the two.

2) Rising depressing, secularism of college freshmen reveals social cost of increasing isolation

Next, every year a major study is done on the freshmen arriving on America’s college and university campuses. The study is known as the American Freshman; it’s undertaken by a research group at UCLA and it was released on February 5. As Rachel Rosenbaum reports for USA Today,

“This year’s college freshmen are less concerned with their religious identity and more concerned about their future job prospects.

The survey suggested that college freshmen are increasingly distancing themselves from religion. Nearly 28% of those surveyed did not identify with a religion, a number that has increased by 12% since 1971.”

Similarly, Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal reports,

“Young adults who entered college for the first time last fall as full-time students are distancing themselves from the church—and the mosque, synagogue and meeting house, for that matter. Almost 28% of respondents said they had no religious preference,”

Now I reported that already but consider the next line in her report,

“…compared with 24.6% last year and 17.5% a decade earlier.”

What’s really interesting in that is that in one year, just 12 months, there was an increase from 24.6% to 28% of those college freshmen who said they had no religious identity what so ever. We’ve been watching the velocity of the secularization trend taking place in the larger American society and we’ve noted that is disproportionate – it’s not happening in all places and in all ages at the same time, it’s not happening in the same way, at the same pace. American’s more distant from the college or university campuses do not show the same rates of this kind of secularizing worldview. But the closer you get to a college or university campus, and the younger you get in the population, the more urban or metropolitan the environment, the more secular the trend very quickly becomes evident.

There is some other really interesting insights on this report of college and University freshman in America. As Alan Schwarz for the New York Times reports, the survey of more than 150,000 students found that 9.5% of respondents had frequently felt depressed – to use the very words of the survey –during the past year. That’s a very significant rise over just 6.1% who reported this five years ago. As he said, those who felt overwhelmed by school work and other commitments rose to 34.6% from 27.1%.

And there is another aspect of the report that came from the Chronicle of Higher Education, I quote,

“Whether they had helicopter parents or got accustomed to interacting with their peers on smartphones, today’s college freshmen report changing social habits. A few decades ago, they socialized a lot, with 38 percent spending 16 hours or more a week as high-school seniors hanging out with friends. This year only 18 percent said the same.”

Many people are pointing to the fact that there is a decrease in socialization and an increase in depression and there is almost assuredly at least some tie between those two factors. The migration of social interaction among younger Americans from face-to-face interpersonal interaction to interaction on social media has come at a significant discount to the quality of those relationships; as indicated by these very same freshmen arriving just this past fall on America’s college and university campuses.

Those who care about young people should certainly care about those developments. It tells us that we as human beings made in the image of God are made for relationships, not merely in the digital world but in real life face-to-face. We are made for communion, first of all with our creator and we are also made for community with one another – with our fellow human beings. And that’s why the breakdown of the family, the breakdown of marriage and the breakdown even of social interaction among young people, comes with an enormous personal and social cost; and it also affects worldview.

Many of the researchers looking at this mountain of data indicate that it’s hard to believe that these trends aren’t closely related – one to the other – and that what we don’t have is a building sense of generational momentum that is at least in part being fueled by the fact that they have less social interaction, they have higher rates of depression, they are more commonly now to feel overwhelmed by their schoolwork, and they have more anxiety than previous generations – at least and how they describe themselves.

But those operating from a Christian worldview also have to go back to that basic secularization, that factor that also tells us that at least correlated with the higher rates of depression and the lower rates of social engagement are also lower rates of religious identification. Now for the vast majority of these students given the composition of American culture, this means a far less likely response of their involvement – in some way – in a Christian church with some Christian identity.

And so Christians operating out of a biblical worldview know that this too cannot be separated from that; even when you have young people who are raised in Christian homes or in the context of a Christian congregation, even when they have not yet made their own profession of faith, they demonstrate – even as measured by secular psychologist and sociologist – a higher level of many such things as self-esteem and the socialization skills that come by that kind of church involvement. Now, clearly as Christian parents and Christian leaders we’re not satisfied with that, but it is an indication of what is lost when the Christian worldview is lost. And it’s more a lost than anywhere else on the American college and University campus.

But finally one of the most incredible testimonials to this came not from some middle-age researcher but rather from one of those students on a college campus. In this case it’s columnist Scott Greenberg, who is a student at Yale writing for the Yale Daily News. In a very insightful way he writes,

“Some of the most interesting survey data had to do with incoming freshmen’s religious identities.”

He cites the data and then he says,

“The secularization of college students in America has seemed a foregone conclusion for some time, yet it represents a momentous shift for our university and society at large that we have not yet come to grips with. I submit that even the best of our secular institutions have not yet been able to replicate what religion used to provide to its followers.”

Mr. Greenberg writes the what’s missing in terms of the college experience and in terms of the worldview on most of those campuses is any kind of binding moral commitment that as he said, in a very interesting and largely accurate historical review, used to come from a religious worldview. And of course in the West that meant overwhelmingly a Christian worldview. The absence of that worldview, says this college student, has led to a moral vacuum on campus. He writes,

“This is not simply a criticism of Yale; the problem of how to encourage moral self-improvement after the decline of religion is a problem that our entire society will have to grapple with. There is obviously such a thing as morality without religion, yet secular society lacks the structure, the rituals and the authorities to push members to be their best selves. Violence, lying, cheating and greed remain rampant in our society, and few institutions have stepped up to help people to be better.”

A lot of wisdom in this article, but the one thing missing is this: the understanding that there is no binding authority to a religion that has lost any claim to truth.

Mr. Greenberg has seen what many others far older have not seen, but what we all need to see is the fact that there is no possible binding authority to religion if the truth claims of that religion are denied, subverted, undermined, and marginalized. And in terms of historical review, that happen on the college campus before the other trends that Mr. Greenberg so accurately describes. But if nothing else, sadly enough, this data comes along to tell us that what we thought was happening really is on the American college campus and among the young. Here we have it in matters of absolutely straightforward reporting. And to those who operate out of a biblical worldview, to say the very least, there is nothing remotely entertaining or comedic about this.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to


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Podcast Transcript

1) Brian Williams and Jon Stewart stories reveal danger of blurred line between entertainment and news

 Brian Williams Suspended From NBC for 6 Months Without Pay, New York Times (Emily Steel and Ravi Somaiya)

Jon Stewart Will Leave ‘The Daily Show’ on a Career High Note, New York Times (Dave Itzkoff)

A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor, New York Times (Jason Zinoman)

Jon Stewart shaped cultural attitudes of a generation, Boston Globe (Dan Aucoin)

2) Rising depressing, secularism of college freshmen reveals social cost of increasing isolation

Annual survey makes big statements about freshman students, USA Today (Rachel Rosenbaum)

College Freshmen Are Leaning Away From Religion, Wall Street Journal (Melissa Korn)

More College Freshmen Report Having Felt Depressed, New York Times (Alan Schwarz)

College Freshmen Seek Financial Security Amid Emotional Insecurity, Chronicle of Higher Education (Dan Berrett and Eric Hoover)

Filling religion’s void, Yale Daily News (Scott Greenberg)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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