Friday, Nov. 30, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, November 30, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why celebrity influence is not easily transferred to political candidates
This is not only the Friday of this week, it is also the last Friday of November 2018, and I'm going to take the opportunity to turn to some new stories that had deserved our attention but had been pressed to the side by other seemingly more urgent developments.
For example, a new story looking back just recently from USA Today, at the 2018 midterm elections ask an interesting question. To what extent do celebrities have an impact on American Electoral politics? That's a good question and today we're going to look at several issues at the intersection of worldview, popular culture and the reality of how the culture thinks and how those in this culture process issues including decisions for elections?
When you look at this news story from USA Today by Maria Puente, Dave Paulson and Adam Tamburin, they raised the issue that the midterm elections were a mixed bag for Washington politicians, but at the same time they were also a mixed bag for Hollywood and other American entertainers. Popular culture figures, celebrities who had sought in one way or another to intervene in the elections. As the team of reporters pointed out, Oprah Winfrey had publicly supported and then campaigned for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, Beyonce had endorsed Beto O'Rourke as a senatorial candidate in Texas, Taylor Swift back to Phil Bredesen, also a Democratic nominee for the Senate this case in Tennessee, but then the reporter said close, so close but no cigars for their chosen candidates. That's to say the candidate backed by Oprah Winfrey, by Beyonce, and by Taylor Swift, all three of them lost.
Now, no one's making the argument that these three candidates lost because of the celebrity endorsements, but rather that the celebrities didn't take them over the winning finish line in order to win the elections. Then the question comes why? We do know that celebrities have an enormous influence in American culture, they have an out-sized and undeserved influence. For one thing, we have noted over the years how Hollywood and other media celebrities often gain attention for moral positions in which they have no expertise whatsoever.
We have seen not doctors sometimes testifying before Congress, but actors who play doctors, how's that for a biting already? We have also had major actors and actresses who have appeared in movies with certain messages showing up again before Congress and official hearings to speak to those issues without seeming recognition that these are actors talking about issues, not those who have any particular expertise. What they do have is capital. They have the capital of influence, and the idea behind so much advertising, the idea behind Hollywood and television and the entertainment industry, the idea behind some political consultants is that you can harness that personal capital, that celebrity capital for political purposes.
But this USA Today article makes clear not only that most of the candidates backed by big celebrities in 2018 lost, but that there is a distinction in America that can be measured between the influence of celebrities when voters vote on candidates, and the influence of celebrities when voters are dealing with issues. It turns out there actually is a measurable difference. Mark Harvey, who was the director of the graduate program at the University of St. Mary in Kansas, he's also author of the book Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy, he says that research suggests that, "Celebrity influence is more persuasive and advocating for specific issues rather than for candidates." He went on to say in a direct quote, "My hypothesis is that in a lot of these midterm races, you're looking at the South where there's an ingrained culture that at this moment in political history is very skeptical of coastal elites. One question I have,” he says, "is to what extent are people in this very conservative, anti-elitist culture rejecting Hollywood or entertainment people at face value?"
Now, that's a really interesting question. He's already made one interesting observation and that is that Hollywood celebrities, celebrities in general, have more influence in elections on issues than on particular politicians. That's to say their personal capital is better leveraged on issues than on individuals. Perhaps there's a lesson for us to learn here. Perhaps individuals as political candidates eventually have to stand on their own two feet so to speak, not on celebrities. But issues aren't individuals, they're not person, so on specific issue it turns out celebrities can move the meter more on the issues facing the electorate rather than on the individuals.
But then there's another insight that comes from this article, when you have two people have very different worldviews facing off against each other in an election, that was certainly true in the 2018 governor election in Georgia, then maybe a celebrity can't move the meter very far. But on the other hand if you shift the context to something like a nomination race in one political party where the candidates are far closer in politics, but they do differ as individuals, it turns out that in some of those cases, again a celebrity can make a huge difference.
Now, when did a Hollywood celebrity make the biggest difference in such a race? The answer to that is actually very easy. The answer it takes us to the year 2008 and the Democratic presidential nomination race between at the end, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In many different ways it can be documented that the public support of Oprah Winfrey by herself for Barack Obama in 2008 had a significant impact upon the Democratic nomination race that year.
So if the question is, do celebrities, can celebrities influence the outcome of an election? The answer tends to be no, not when the issues are really clear distinguishing two candidates, celebrities seem to have not that much impact. But when it comes to voting on issues, say in a referendum or when a clear issue is being presented to the electorate, it turns out that since there are not individuals who are identified with the different sides of those issues, when a celebrity becomes that kind of symbolic individual, it can make a difference. And then we also learn that in a tight election when people are basically on the same side of the worldview divide, yes. In another case, a celebrity like Oprah Winfrey can make a big difference.
So do celebrities have influence? Yes, massive influence, but it can't always be translated into political capital. That's good for us to know. It's good for us to know when it does and when it doesn't.
The death of shared stories: Exploring the dangerous effects of individualistic media consumption
But next, as we're thinking about popular culture and entertainment which is so much a part of that culture, a recent headline story in USA Today tells us that younger viewers are bailing on television even faster than had been predicted. Now think about this for a moment, on the one hand it tells us the how. How are younger Americans consuming entertainment products, especially video? It turns out the answer in most cases for younger Americans is not television. Now that's a massive shift in American culture, but it's a bigger shift than Christians might at first recognize, because we might think that this is basically about changes in the economy, it's about innovations and technology. It's about an explosion of options. It's about a generation, as this article makes clear, that was born learning to swipe rather than to change channels. Yes, that's that generation.
We're talking about a generation of younger Americans who simply cannot even have a memory of what it was like to be a captive audience to just three major broadcast networks and to a television broadcast schedule. But furthermore, you're talking about a generation that doesn't have any more memory really of being captive to what seemed at one time to be the almost unlimited world of cable television. They've not been limited to DVDs or VCRs or cable or broadcast television, they haven't been liberated from that world, they never knew that world. But what is being demonstrated here is that this is going to have vast impact especially on the economics of television. Man, this article in USA Today is something of an announcement, especially telling us, as Gary Levin reports, "Younger viewers are fleeing TV at an accelerated pace."
But it's also interesting to look at the numbers. The numbers tell us that young people ages 18 to 34 using television plunged 15 percent just looking at about a four week period this fall. We're told that the drop off among teens was fully 18 percent in just the last year and 48 percent since 2014. As one specialist said, it looks like a big daunting number. We are also told by Peter Katsingris, who is the vice president of audience insights at Nielsen, "Younger generations are growing up with more choices at their fingertips, they don't know you had to watch at 3 o'clock on a Wednesday if you wanted to see a show, for them dependency on a network schedule is like looking at a typewriter."
But the article also has another couple of very interesting insights. For one thing, we are told that we may now have already passed what's being called peak TV. Now, what does that mean? It means that for the last several years you have had just about everybody tried to get into the television business and by this we mean not only the television screen but the small screen as well. They've been trying to get into the video entertainment business, the video entertainment industry.
The problem is as this article makes clear that there has now been so much video content produced that no single human being can see even today anything but a fraction of what has yet been produced. So sometimes as the adage reminds us more turns out to be less. We're actually now to see less of all the possible video entertainment products rather than more. And that is now leading to the fact that the expense of producing these programs, which is continually going up both when you're talking about personnel costs and technology, the costs are eventually not going to be sustained by any living viewership, so peak TV might actually not be in our future but in our past.
But Christians also need to think about something else. Just thinking about our country and thinking about this proliferation of entertainment. If you look at human existence and previous cultures, one thing we need to note is this. Most previous cultures have operated on a limited number of narratives, they've operated on a finite number of stories. Even when you look at what might be called the golden age of television the reality is that most Americans could at least be conversant in some of the same entertainment narratives. Whether it was the Andy Griffith show or Dick Van Dyke, whether it was the talk shows like Phil Donahue or for that matter, Mike Douglas, whether it was the dramas and the crime shows or it was the entertainment and the comedy programs that appeared on television, they provided something of a common if expanding narrative for the American people.
It was also interesting to note that in that previous age and in almost every previous culture, the same products, the same stories, the same narratives had been observed and been found entertaining by people in the culture of all ages at once. Now you have the radical market segmentation, down not just to generations, not just down to certain groups, not just down to pluralities at all, but down now to the single individual consumer with a smart phone ready to swipe. The Christians here understanding that human beings are made narrative creatures by the creator, we also understand that lacking the ability to speak about common narratives is a huge problem.
If you look at the history of Western civilization, just consider for example the rise of fairytales. We come to understand a psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim said very long ago, that these stories had an essential purpose. They were so deeply embedded in European civilizations that they became a necessary part, a helpful part of what it meant to raise children. And so when a fairytale warned of going alone as children into the dark forest, there was a very real danger, there was a moral lesson. And so learning the story of Hansel and Gretel was not just a part of accumulating cultural knowledge, it was a part of the essential moral knowledge of a people. And every civilization but thinking here in particular about Western civilization has had the narratives necessary for its own self definition. We would have stories about courage and stories about bravery, stories about perseverance and stories about honor, stories about telling the truth, just to offer the name Pinocchio. Those stories are not only a part of the common heritage, they are also a part of the moral vocabulary.
But what happens when a culture becomes so atomized, so individualistic, so driven by a constant individual attention to entertainment that even people living in the same house or for that matter, even in the same marriage don't even consume the same stories and are not shaped by those stories together.
The real story behind the dearth of conservative late night TV hosts
But then another very interesting insight in an article in the New York Times, the headline, “Late night TV hosts dial up the politics with the needle pointing left.” The reporters are Elizabeth A. Harris and Giovanni Russonello, and they tell us that when you look at late night television, you are watching all the old rules simply be cast aside.
Whereas even late night entertainers just a generation ago. For that matter, just 10 years ago, sought to reach a mainstream American audience sometimes offering political humor, but never with a hard line partisan or ideological edge. All that has changed and late night television is now about all politics all the time, often a very cynical politics and as headline in the New York Times indicates the needle on the political dial is indeed pointing left. Indeed, there seems to be an embarrassment among late night television hosts, those late nights celebrities about being found less left than the alternative on television. The big criticism made of some hosts is that they are not sufficiently woke in order to offer the kind of entertainment that is supposed to be comedic in this very highly partisan age.
But then there's something else reflected in this article and that is the fact that oftentimes comedy is really no longer the point. This is really not about making Americans laughed late at night, it's about engendering an adequate level of outrage over the late night hours on television. But I found one comment in this article to be really instructive. It hasn't gained much attention, but it certainly got mine. Bill Carter, a former TV correspondent for the New York Times and the author of two books on late night television spoke of the difference between Liberals and conservatives in late night television and wrote this. "People have asked why there isn't a conservative form of late night comedy." He went on to say, "I think Fox tried it briefly, but there aren't enough writers to support it." Now that points to something else of worldview significance that American Christians need to think about for just a moment.
The products that you see in entertainment are by and large written. They are also often not written by the person who is reading the script. So when you look at many celebrities, you look at many people on television, you look at many comedians, you're looking at people who are using someone else's material. These shows and programs and entertainment companies have armies of writers and not just for comedy, but also for drama, and here's something that people inside Hollywood and the entertainment industry understand. You might remember that just a few weeks ago on the briefing, I discussed a major report indicating that on America's college and university campuses, the administrators who are often not even on the radar of parents and students, they're often far more liberal even than the faculty of those liberal institutions. Well, the same thing turns out to be true in the entertainment industry. Those who are doing the writing, they are often even far to the left of those who are actually reading the product they are the celebrities from whom you hear the lines written.
So when you're thinking about why Hollywood and the entertainment industry leans so far left, consider for one thing here you have a reference in the New York Times by a former New York Times editor who's written two books about late night television, about the fact that conservatives really don't make it in late night television even though at least some have tried because there simply aren't enough writers who can possibly write for a conservative audience.
How a TV show reveals human’s desire for a personal, intervening deity
But then also thinking about television I want to go to an article by Cathleen Falsani that ran in Religion News Service. The headline is this, “A TV God for the age of anxiety.” She writes about the ever-present golden age of television "with the number of scripted programs on network cable and streaming channels expected to top 500 this year." That's by the way, not 500 episodes, that's 500 different scripted programs when you look at network cable and streaming channels all put together.
But she writes about the fact that rare amongst them are programs that deal explicitly with anything that might be considered religious or spiritual. But she says there are some exceptions even on the contemporary landscape of American entertainment. She writes about the new CBS hour long Dramedy. That's the word for it, Dramedy entitled 'God friended me', which is having at least some immediate response from viewers in America. But what makes this article so interesting is that Falsani reports that very few of those programs on any kind of major media platform that deal overtly even if unorthodoxy, with that kind of spiritual content and turns out very few of them last for very long. Americans seem to have an immediate interest in some of these entertainment or dramatic products with this kind of spiritual dimension, but that dimension does not keep them interested for long. Most of these programs make it two years or less. That raises some very interesting questions why?
One of the most interesting statements was made by Jeffrey Meehan, a professor of religion and communication at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, he's also the author of a book, Media, Religion, Culture: An Introduction. Now, Iliff is a very liberal theological school, you can expect the kinds of comments that will come from someone on that faculty, but as RNS reports in the face of societal anxiety, this professor believes that "TV shows that depict divine or supernatural intervention are a comfort." In his words directly, "The genre says God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, God is attentive, God is jerking people back from the front of the subway train, God has a partner for you." Now, as the story unfolds in this article, it becomes pretty clear that this professor doesn't admire that kind of spiritual storyline. That kind of interventionists deity who is in charge, but he does say evidently there's a market for it, especially in a time of anxiety.
Let's put a pause there for a moment about television and think theology. What does this tell us? Well, it tells us that human beings have an innate need for a knowledge of and a depiction of a God who is actually in charge of the universe, a God who indeed intervenes in human history. Now of course, the one true and living God revealed in scripture is of course a sovereign, omnipotent deity, that's what so important to the biblical worldview. We start with the understanding of the self existent all powerful God, and as scripture makes clear, God intervenes in human history. The entire storyline of the Bible is about God's intervention in human history, the very history that he created and over which he rules. And of course we understand that human beings need the knowledge of God not only in a time of stress and anxiety, but at all times.
But that raises an interesting question when are human being supposedly ever to have lived in a time without anxiety? One of the interesting things you gain by looking at the media and reading history over the centuries is that in almost every generation there has been a clear and present sense of anxiety. This professor, speaking of the theology he wants to see in mainstream media said, "What I'd like to see is progressive religiosity that thinks that faith matters, that having a ritualized or spiritual practice is sustaining in the midst of a life where God is not in control of everything and bad stuff happens. Whether there's any kind of market for a story like that is a whole other question."
Now, if you want to say liberal theology distilled down into a nutshell, I guess you can't do much better than that. Here you have a professor in a liberal theological seminary saying that what he wants to see is a progressive religiosity on television, one that doesn't feature a God who's in charge, but rather a God who's not in control of everything, not a world in which good stuff happens, but a world in which bad stuff happens. Now, he is at least honest enough to say whether there's any kind of market for a story like that is a whole other question, and that I would simply interject, explains the empty mainline Protestant church very close by.
But there's another interesting comment in this story Jonathan Bach, from the other side of the equation, founder and CEO of Grace Hill Media. And that's a company that "specializes in marketing, faith based content and film and television." He places part of the blame for the absence of artful, thoughtful, spiritual content on television, on the audience. Listen to this, "For the most part right now, American Christians like the world portrayed as it should be, not as it is. That's why you have a lot of 'Christiany' movies where a nice person, becomes nicer and it works because it's only 90 minutes, but on television, that's hard to sustain without sex, violence, and moral quandaries that make some Christians uncomfortable." “They don't want messy,” writes Falsani, “they don't want moral ambiguity.”
Now, once again, this is really interesting, is this man really chastising American Christians for not wanting sex, violence, and moral quandaries as entertainment? Maybe he is, maybe he isn't, but in any sense he's making an observation and the observation is that American Christians do not want storylines that include the things that Christians do not want included. He makes the interesting argument that if you are doing a movie, maybe you can make that work for 90 minutes, but not if you are trying to do a television series that is going to take weeks and months and has to have an unfolding story. But maybe another response to this is that Christians understanding the biblical mandate simply don't want to waste their time seeing the depiction of exactly what is wrong with the world. Maybe that's not entertaining to the rest of the society, but maybe that's not a wrong Christian instinct, but a rightful one.
As Christians, we are certainly not to retreat into unreality, but what we find entertainment is incredibly revealing about ourselves, our worldview and the disposition of our hearts. It's certainly not the worst thing in the world that Christians in the United States are here in noted for not wanting entertainment filled with sex and violence and moral quandaries. There's enough of that we need to note in the world, the real world all around us. The last thing we need is an entertainment industry, absolutely fanatically committed to creating a culture that will engorge itself on it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.