Wednesday, September 11, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, September 11, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
No More Newspapers? Christians Face Today’s Changing Media Landscape
Impartiality, truthfulness, objectivity — those are the kinds of words that at least used to be tossed around when the conversation was about the media and the moral responsibility of journalists and the profession of journalism. This leads us to an article that appeared in yesterday's edition of The Wall Street Journal with the headline, “Impartiality is the Source of a Newspaper's Credibility.” This is an article by a newspaper publisher about newspapers published in a newspaper, in this case, one of the world's most influential newspapers, The Wall Street Journal.
The author of the article is nonetheless the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His name is Walter Hussman Jr. He begins his article by stating, "America has a vital interest in good journalism, but journalism confronts serious challenges." He explains at least some of those challenges when he writes, "The advertising-based business model that supported it for more than a century has been disrupted. More than 1,800 U.S. newspapers have closed in the past 15 years, mostly weeklies, but also 75 dailies. Many surviving mid-sized metropolitan newspapers are shadows of what they once were. They have significantly reduced their new staffs and pages."
Now, he's going to go on and talk about what he sees as an even bigger crisis for American journalism, but I want to stop and just look at what he's given us thus far. We are looking at a catastrophe in American journalism. The numbers are daunting. As he tells us, 1,800 U.S. newspapers have closed in the past 15 years. This is a radical disruption to be sure. It is also a major earthquake in the nation's media ecology. And what Christians need to keep in mind as we look to these issues is the fact that every society has a communications and media ecology. Understanding that ecology is extremely important.
In the ancient world, there were severe limitations upon the dissemination of information. For one thing, there was speed. That kind of speed is indicated even in, for example, the Old Testament. Remember the runners who had to run to David or to Saul to tell them whether or not the armies of Israel had been victorious.
And then you can think about the fact that if not at the speed of a human being, the only available faster speed throughout most of human history was the speed of a horse. Thus you had the development of The Pony Express in the United States. Interestingly there was the news story in the 1860 presidential election and the famous development of how people on the West Coast within a matter of hours, heard the results of the election of 1860, even as the reports came from the East Coast in Washington DC. That seems incredibly quaint now where communication can take place globally in a matter of milliseconds. But that has not only disrupted the entire media ecology, it has raised a whole new set of issues.
But Christians also need to understand that control of that ecology is one of the major questions about any society. If you can control what is communicated, then you have a great deal of control over the society writ large. Now, when you're looking at this number, that 1,800 of American newspapers that have closed in the past 15 years, you have to understand that the vast majority of those newspapers represented something of a glue that held communities together. Many of them were small town newspapers. Those small town newspapers were often the only means of communication, and of course they gave primary attention, not so much to the coverage of world issues, but to what was going on in the county, in the state, in that local community. One of the things we need to note is that the loss of those local newspapers has not in general been replaced by some other form of local information that leads to the same kind of community identity and cohesiveness. Largely, it has meant just the virtual disappearance of an entire community of information that had existed and upon which communities define themselves in generations past.
Even in this first paragraph, Mr. Hussman has also referred to the fact that when you're looking at many of the papers that had been defined as leading newspapers across the United States, they are indeed shadows of their former selves. Indeed, many of them are simply skeletons of their former selves. When you're looking at newspapers such as just here in Louisville, The Louisville Courier Journal, you were looking just a generation ago, at a newspaper that had foreign reporters, that had a bureau in Washington D.C., that had multiple additions. When I came to Southern Seminary as a student, there were two newspapers, both owned by the same family, the Bingham family, The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, a morning paper and an afternoon paper.
But now the Louisville paper, reduced to a daily edition, is also vastly reduced in its original reporting and even in its editorializing. The fact is there's a lot less world in the Louisville Courier-Journal and there's a lot less Louisville in the Louisville Courier-Journal. At one point, this Louisville newspaper was one of the most influential in the nation. It was often held up as an example for other daily newspapers in the United States, but the energy has shifted elsewhere and so has the flow of information. So when Walter Hussman Jr. writes about the fact that journalism confronts serious challenges, these are serious challenges indeed.
One other note, by the way, just in his opening paragraph, he mentions the decline of the advertising-based business model that supported journalism for a number of decades, indeed he says for a century. Well, consider that for a moment. Advertisers bought advertising space in newspapers, but they did not, at least in most cases, believe nor even imagined to believe that their advertising dollars had an editorial impact. When the grocery store advertised itis groceries or when Sears and Roebuck advertised its wares, it did so understanding that there was advertising, there was journalism and the two are quite separate. The advertisers paid for the space and thus they paid for the journalism, but nowadays, we're looking at the fact that advertising and journalism are hardly separate. There was a clarity in the older model that has been sadly confused in the newer models.
But from a worldview perspective, the more interesting material comes when Hussman writes, "Yet journalism faces another serious challenge, a loss of public trust." As he tells us, a recent Gallup poll showed that of fifteen American institutions, newspapers and television news are both near the bottom in the public's confidence. "While news organizations claim they are fair and objective and many try hard to be, Americans perceive widespread bias in news reporting." Now, why would Americans think that? Well, because in many cases it is simply profoundly, inarguably so.
As Hussman writes, "Two years ago, I heard a prominent journalist say she doesn't believe in the ‘false equivalency,’” that put in scare quotes, “’False’ equivalency of presenting both sides and that she sees her job as determining the truth then sharing it with her audience. That's not,” he says, “what I learned in journalism school in the 1960s." Well, that experience in journalism school in the 1960s is virtually back to the Pony Express, as we're thinking about the rapid pace of change. Journalism has been virtually redefined.
Now you have open arguments amongst some of the most elite news sources indicating that they make no claim upon objectivity. They don't intend to tell both sides of the story, they intend to make their own determination about what is true and then tell the audience what they, the journalists, or at least those who call themselves journalists, believe is true. Furthermore, just to take an issue like climate change. Again, an open debate about whether or not arguments should even be presented instead, there is a new journalistic imperative common amongst those who have a more progressivist bent that the journalists actually owe it to the cause to tell only one side of the story.
Mr. Hussman tells us that for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and its sister newspapers in the corporation, he drafted a statement of core values, which is published on page two of all ten of the newspapers. Before turning to that statement of core values, he goes back to the 19th century when he rightly says that few news organizations existed other than newspapers and generally “they were highly partisan.” That's absolutely true. If you look at a city like New York City, there were multiple newspapers and they vied for the most sensationalistic headlines and they represented particular political constituencies. That's not only true then of New York, it's also true even now of a city like London where you have papers of the right papers, close to the monarchy, papers of the left, socialist newspapers and there is still that kind of media ecology in London, but London is the exception.
New York City is more than norm where there is one major daily influential newspaper. There is also the tabloid, The New York Post, and there are other ancillary journalistic outlets, but the reality is that there is one major newspaper now associated with New York City, and that is The New York Times. As I've stated often, arguably, the most influential newspaper in the world, but hardly an unbiased newspaper. Mr. Hussman writes rather wistfully of bygone days when journalists in a newly declared profession were committed to the kind of professionalism demonstrated in words, again, like truthfulness and objectivity and credibility.
It's also really important in worldview analysis to understand that Mr. Hussman realizes much of the source of the problem. He points to television, especially cable news for example, pointing out the fact that if you're looking at Fox News or CNN or MSNBC, there is no hard line that is identified between opinion and commentary on the one hand, and news reporting on the other. As Hussman writes, "While cable news networks have all done good journalism, they also feature highly opinionated commentators and shows. The problem, he says, is that there isn't a sharp delineation between news and opinion creating the perception that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News each have their own agenda."
Then he raises a very interesting issue. I hadn't thought of it in these terms before. He asked the question, if we will be down to three newspapers as we are to basically three cable news outlets, will they similarly fail to delineate between news and opinion? What you need to keep in mind here is that in a real sense, nationally, we are already down to three national newspapers. Those would be The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. Very different to be sure. Each one of them plays a different part in the media ecology, but right now as you're looking to the three most influential print news sources in the United States, just about anyone familiar with newspapers can tell you the three, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today. They may be the three final survivors, but then again the word “may” there plays in more than one direction.
You have other influential newspapers such as The Washington Post, and on the other coast, The Los Angeles Times, but the difference is that the big three, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, are still available in almost every major airport every day in print. We will not be a healthier nation by the reduction of these voices and the checks and balances that come in a competition for our news and information attention.
Even In the Quest for Journalistic Impartiality, Christians Understand that Humans Are Never Completely Unbiased
But then I want to turn to the core value statement that Mr. Hussman offers in the pages of The Wall Street Journal coming from his own newspaper in Arkansas. It begins by stating, "Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without opinion or bias. Credibility,” he says, “is the greatest asset of any news medium and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility."
Now in a Christian worldview analysis, what are we to make of that? First of all, it is very laudable aspirational language. You would think that a newspaper certainly should aspire to be impartial and to deliver the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without opinion or bias. But here's where the Christian worldview comes in to say that's actually not possible. It's not wrong to have that kind of aspirational language, it's not wrong to have that kind of ambition, but the reality is that no newspaper, no cable news outlet, no media or information source can ever be absolutely honest, absolutely fair, absolutely objective and absolutely without opinion or bias. Why? Because in the middle of the equation, unless the entire process is done by machine, is a human being who is not unbiased, and who is not always fair and who is hardly objective.
I would argue that a part of the background issue here with this change in the media world with the loss of credibility has to do with the fact that many news outlets were claiming to be objective when it was clear that they were not. They were claiming to be unbiased when any reader or viewer knew they were not. They were claiming a clear delineation between the opinion pages and the news reporting, but that was not plausible then, it's not plausible now.
But then in worldview analysis we turn to another complication here. When you look at the staffs of these newspapers, when you look at those in the main who represent the journalistic profession, they lean in ordinally left. An extraordinarily secular compared to the American people. One of the sad aspects of this is that many people actually think they are unbiased and they think they are more objective than they are, and that's because at least in part they're not really talking to anyone. They don't really know anyone who represents a contrary worldview. This puts convictional Christians at a significant disadvantage in our society because when you look at the people who are shaping the news and who are influencing the flow of information in the main coming from elite media sources, they have very little knowledge of us in general, they have very few conversations with us, and if the truth be known, they are probably not very interested in us, not until they have to be.
One final note on this story. This is hardly a new development. We're just watching the acceleration and expansion of a pattern that's been present for a long time. If you go back to the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected against the Democratic nominee, George McGovern. Nixon carried 49 states. He won by a popular margin of 18 million votes. That is still the largest electoral margin and the popular vote of any candidate for president of the United States. But speaking to the Modern Language Association, in 1972, just weeks after Nixon's re-election, Pauline Kael, who was the film critic of The New York Times said, "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are, I don't know. They're outside my kin, but sometimes when I'm in a theater, I can feel them."
Pauline Kael was at least honest to say that given her vast connections, she knew only one person who voted for Richard Nixon who had just carried 49 states. How honest she was when she said, "I live in a rather special world." But here's where we have to note, that that world is passing away, but that doesn't mean it's being replaced by something better.
A 74-Year-Old Gives Birth to Twins? Just Because We Can Do Something, Should We Do It? Can We Not Do It? Why Technology Never Stays Within the Promised Boundaries
But next, while we're thinking about a changing world, an issue with vast implications comes as a headline from The Washington Post, "This 74-Year-Old Woman Just Gave Birth To Twins." The report comes to us from India, from the state of Andhra Pradesh, where we are told by The Washington Post, "A 74-year-old woman has given birth to twin girls in the southern Indian state, reviving several controversies around geriatric pregnancies."
The big worldview issue for Christians to consider here isn't just the clear biomedical and ethical issues that are involved, it has to do with the bigger question that comes down to this: Just because we can do something, does that mean that we should do something? We're living in an age in which the technological imperative simply says, "Yes, if we can do it, we will do it. If we don't do it, someone else will do it. So we should do it before they do it." But as you're thinking about the vast transformation of reproductive technologies, just consider the fact that we are, and this is easy to say, the first generation in which human intervention can be explanatory of a 74-year-old woman who just gave birth to twins, or for that matter, just gave birth.
In any previous generation, this would have been explained only in supernatural terms. Think of Sarah in the book of Genesis, or Elizabeth and the gospel of Luke. As The Washington Post tells this, "The doctor who delivered the babies told The Washington Post on Friday that the mother provided a birth certificate showing she is 74 although some news outlets have reported that she is 73.” The doctor is an IVF specialist who delivered the twins via Caesarean section. He told The Washington Post that the mother and the babies are doing well. The father of the babies, and, yes, this does mean the genetic father, is 82 years old.
Now here's where again, to have children, the use of that verb, “to have children,” is being redefined routinely right before our eyes. This mother's eggs were not used because she no longer has eggs on the other side of menopause. Her husband's sperm was used but it was combined with donor eggs in the process of in vitro fertilization or IVF, in order to create the embryos that were then transferred into the either 73 or 74-year-old mother.
The headline in The Washington Post is accurate when it states that the woman just gave birth to twins. She gave birth, but she is not the genetic mother. There had to be a technological innovation to make possible the fact that there would be embryos that could be transferred into this woman's womb in order that she could then, for the first time in her life it turns out, become pregnant and to use the language in the headline, give birth to twins.
The Washington Post cited Shannon Clark, a professor of maternal and fetal medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, who said that the woman's delivery is "Atypical but not surprising given the existing technology around assisted reproduction."
Here's where some serious Christian biblical and worldview thinking is called for. One of the issues of Christian thinking that's invoked here has to do with the fact that technology is often used in ways that were not originally intended or envisioned, or even against promises that were made when a technology was developed. Just consider, for example, the issue of contraception.
When the pill was developed, the advertisers and the scientists and others who were involved said that the sole purpose for the development of the oral contraceptive was to help married couples, meaning a man and a woman, to plan a family or to space children. It was explicitly directed towards married women and as a matter of fact, in the beginning, doctors could only legally prescribe the medication for married women. That was also considered to be the prevailing medical ethical judgment of the time. It didn't last long.
Almost immediately, there were calls for the pill to be made available regardless of marital status, and they were, and then you had two successive Supreme Court decisions that stated that there was a newly invented right to privacy that meant that first, married women must have access to the pill and then unmarried women, in a second decision, must have access to the pill. The thing to note here is that the sexual revolution was actually driven by this technology without which it couldn't have happened.
The separation of sex and reproduction, sex from parenthood, changed everything. Yes, it did offer married couples, husbands and wives, a new technological way to time and plan and space their children, but it also allowed the routinization of adultery and sex outside of marriage.
Christians thinking carefully have to understand that given a biblical worldview in a fallen world, technology will never stay within the boundaries that are promised. Just consider the international convulsions that show up in just about every day's media, about the effort to try to keep the global nuclear club of nations smaller rather than larger. Once the technology exists, it is going to jump outside of the promised boundaries. You can count on it.
The secular world appears to be surprised. It may even see something like a technological imperative at work, that meaning that technology demands to be used, but Christians understand there's something even more fundamental at work and that is sin, depravity.
The elderly couple in this case, is very happy and understandably so, but let's just raise the obvious moral issue. You're talking about a woman who is in actuarial terms, not to mention in energy terms, extremely unlikely to be able to raise the twins to which she just gave birth, not to mention her husband who was already 82 years old. He would be a 104 years old when the twins reached the age of 22.
The ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine adopted a statement in 2016 that at least discourages doctors from providing this kind of IVF technology to women over 55 years of age, "Even when they have no underlying medical problems." In order to justify its statement, the American committee cited concerns about both maternal and baby safety, longevity, and as the statement says, "The need for adequate psychosocial supports for raising a child to adulthood." That's a nicer way, a more bureaucratic way of saying, she's 73 or 74. He's 82.
Once again, a fundamental issue is the fact that when a technology exists, it will be used in just this way. You could see it on the horizon, even with the birth of the first IVF baby going back more than a generation ago. It is because once you have this kind of technology, the kind of suggestion or a guideline you saw by that American group isn't likely to last for long, and it certainly has no impact evidently in India.
But the Bible also tells us that there is a certain givenness to life. That something that would be too politically incorrect and perhaps even morally abstract for most people around the world, perhaps to even think about. Certainly when you're living in a hyper-technological society that assumes that any technology should be used under almost any circumstance and especially when it can bring about what the newspaper tells us is this couple’s happiness. But the Biblical worldview also reminds us that happiness has to have a broader and deeper context than this and also a far longer horizon of time.
Finally, today marks the 18th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 in which thousands of Americans died and American history was changed. Just one very quick reflection. Go back 18 years and understand how Americans who had been at least flirting with the idea of moral relativism, all of a sudden were awakened to the fact that there really is evil. There really is something that has to be called evil in the world, that distinction between good and evil. And just ask yourself 18 years later if that distinction is clearer or more confused in American society. The answer to that is actually quite sad, and upon further reflection, even dangerous.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find 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 tomorrow for The Briefing.