Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Reading" the Newspaper


It’s at a minimum interesting -- and usually instructive -- to “read” a newspaper, i.e. to be attentive to the kinds of stories that the editors present, and what that tells us both about them and about us.

When it comes to the cultural analysis that I call being a movie “critic”, one of the forms that I find particularly fascinating is to “read” the newspaper.

The quotation marks there are important, of course… I’m not talking about just reading the stories found in a newspaper, but about stepping back and being attentive to the nature and number of stories the paper contains.

In this post I’ll explain what I mean by this, give some examples about how to “read” a newspaper, and then explain why it’s important to “read” a newspaper.

To state the obvious, newspaper-publishing -- like most journalism in general -- requires some form of sales. That’s in no way to disparage journalists; I believe that most of them, especially print journalists, believe in the important role that a free press plays in a democratic society. But it goes without saying that a newspaper’s writers and editors will find themselves unemployed if their paper sells too few copies.

This means that an editor has to balance the content of a paper between the sorts of stories that he thinks people need to know about with the sorts of stories that he thinks they’ll want to know about. So one interesting way of reading a paper is to take each story and attempt to discern if it’s a story published for the public interest (what they need to know about) or one published for the public’s interest (what they want to know about), or -- as sometimes happens, of course -- both. And we can then take the next step of discerning why an editor might think a story is important and/or interesting.

Here’s an example: I recently visited my in-laws and was reading their local paper, itself a subsidiary of Gannett, which publishes USAToday and owns local papers all over the country. One day’s issue had three front page stories: one -- which dominated the vast majority of the page -- about a state politician’s entrance into the presidential race, another about the sentencing of a 21 year old whose reckless driving resulted in death and major injuries, and a third announcing a fall performance by 80's singer Bret Michaels at a local bar & grill.

Now, why did the paper’s editors decide these three stories were worthy of making the front page instead of any of the other dozen-plus news items in the rest of the paper? Front page space in a newspaper is hugely important, of course, so the editors need to be very deliberate in deciding what makes the front page and what doesn’t. Again, one interesting form of analysis is to consider why the editors have included any story in the day’s paper, but particularly why they’ve chosen to highlight a story by placing it on the front page.

Another way to “read” a newspaper is to be attentive to whether a given story is local, state or national in nature, and an easy way to determine this -- besides paying attention to the topic, of course -- is to pay attention to the byline: is the writer a staffer for the local paper, for the state office (in my in-laws’ example, Gannett’s state bureau), or for the national office (USAToday in this case, or the Associated Press). This is probably the first way I read a paper, for the simple reason that I can get national and even state stories from multiple sources, but when it comes to local news my options are much more limited, and hence I’m usually attentive first to the locally-written stories.

There are other approaches to “reading” a newspaper in this way but these are two that come to mind (and two that can be combined, of course). I’d like now to turn to the question of why “reading” a paper might be important, particularly for Christians seeking to engage the culture.

As I mentioned in the lead paragraph, “reading” a newspaper at a minimum reveals what the editors think is important themselves and what they think the public at large finds important. And because many editors at the national level are successful at the latter -- based on the fact that they are able to sell sufficient numbers of their papers to maintain a national newspaper -- “reading” a newspaper likewise tells us something about what we as a society find to be important as well.

Let’s look back at the example of my in-laws’ local paper and its stories on a state politician’s entrance into the presidential race, on the judicial outcome of a tragic automobile accident and a coming performance by rocker Bret Michaels. All three stories, I’d argue, were included by the editors because they thought their real and prospective readers would find them interesting: watching politics is a national pastime for many Americans, particularly when a state official is involved; we have a (generally) unfortunate obsession with deadly accidents (cf. rubber-necking at an accident come upon); and we have a likewise generally-unfortunate obsession with celebrities, even those whose prime is long past (yes, I’m anticipating possible pushback from the 80’s-hair bands crowd ;-).

So what is it about each of these types of stories that we find compelling? Why are we interested in accidents and celebrities? Our abiding interest in politics is easier to make sense of -- we are talking about our civic leaders, after all. But as has been well-commented on, our presidential campaigns have been becoming increasingly lengthy, and that seems to be happening with our cooperation, if not endorsement and prompting.

What do you think? Why do Americans in general find these sorts of stories so interesting that editors put them on the front cover? And more generally, what have been your findings in “reading” the newspaper?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New Comments Spam Blocker

Just a quick note: I've started to get quite a bit of comment spam, so I've installed a spam blocker... whenever you comment, you'll just have to check the box indicating that you are not a robot.

It shouldn't be a problem, but if you can't comment for some reason, let me know by emailing me at

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Why Not?

If we can’t explain our moral code, we’re building houses on sand for ourselves, our families and our local and national communities.

In this and some upcoming posts I’d like to take step back from Obergefell and its immediate fallout and look at some of the deeper issues which it raises about our society and culture. In this post I’d like to look at the rationale behind our morals, or more precisely, at the need to be able to articulate the rationale behind our morals.

Several weeks back I noted that one of my favorite questions is “Why?” As I stated in that post, it’s essential for us to inquire about why we believe what we believe as Christians.

Relatedly, and specifically with regard to morality, it’s likewise essential to ask why we think certain actions are right or good and other actions are wrong or evil. In other words, to put it as I do in the title of this post, it’s essential to ask “Why not”, i.e. “why shouldn’t I/we do action x, y or z?” And yet, it’s my experience that many Americans are unable to give an answer to that question, to explain why x is wrong. Instead, we tend to think, feel or say things like, “Well, just because!

The problem with this sort of morality by mere intuition -- “well, I/everyone just know(s) that y is wrong” -- is that actions once seen as clearly immoral become merely taboo, and as such become vulnerable to charges of bias, prejudice or bigotry. After all, if you can’t articulate why doing y is wrong, then maybe you are just being irrational -- bigoted -- towards those who do y.

Being able to articulate your morality, then, serves (at least) two functions: it acts as a bulwark against holding moral positions where are in fact merely taboos, and it allows you to explain and persuade others as to why doing z is wrong. After all, if we truly love others, then we desire that they avoid immoral actions, both for their own good and the good of others, and hence we ought to seek to convince them of the truth of our moral code, which requires that we be able to articulate that code.

One great way to articulate the rationale for your morality is to ask yourself why (or some similar question) repeatedly -- say, five or six times -- with regard to a particular moral action. And here’s the thing: “Because it just is (or isn’t)” isn’t a legal reply!

Here’s an example:

Stealing is wrong.


Because you shouldn’t take property that doesn’t belong to you.

Why not?

Because it belongs to them and not to you.


Well, justice means giving to another what is due to them; if you take someone’s property without their permission and/or without compensating them, you are committing an injustice.


Living justly is necessary for the good both of individuals and of society… if you can freely take someone else’s property, then someone else can freely take yours, which leads to “might makes right” as the law of society, which makes life miserable for the vast majority of the members of that society, almost certainly including you.

Warning: you might get stuck! It might take you some time to answer your “why (not)/so what?” question… that actually happened to me as I was working on the example I just gave, after just the second question! But again, it’s worth it… while my intuitive sense might very well be correct -- perhaps stealing isn’t just taboo, but is really wrong -- it’s important to verify that there are real reasons to hold that position.

In addition to asking such a series of questions yourself, it’s also worth asking “Why not?” etc. when talking with others about moral issues, whether they agree with you or not. But: the goal here should never been to merely stump someone else and/or show how much more thoughtful you are than them… the goal is to encourage everyone to think more deeply and clearly about your moral judgments.

Doing so can only be of benefit for ourselves and our communities.

What do you think? How easily do you provide the rationale for your own morality, whether it be to yourself or in conversation with others? Why do you think doing so is so rare in our society today?

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.

One of the central difficulties which the Church faces in responding to Obergefell is that what most Americans understand marriage to be today is at odds with the historic understanding of marriage, both within and outside Christianity, and hence a substantial renewal of the culture's understanding of marriage is required.

Here’s the thing: both sides in the (yes, ongoing) debate keep using the word marriage, but I don’t think that it means what they think it means…

I subscribe to the magazine Touchstone — “A Journal of Mere Christianity” — and several years ago I read one of the most penetrating, clarifying articles on the state of marriage in American society I’ve come across. Entitled “Phony Matrimony,” I’ve seen similar points made elsewhere, but the insight with which the author of the piece — Christopher Oleson — made his points struck me in a way other similar analysis have not.

Like many others Oleson notes that what passes for marriage in the minds of most Americans is something very different from the conception held just a few generations ago. Like others, Oleson notes that at the heart of the traditional conception of marriage is pro-creation: at a fundamental level, marriage is oriented and structured towards childbearing, even if pro-creation never in fact occurs. And it is because of this intrinsic purpose that marriage is utterly indissoluble. Again, this itself is nothing new: the Catholic Church, for instance, has long taught that the purpose of marital love is for the union of the spouses and the pro-creation of children, and it is from both that the indissolubility of marriage flows.

What struck me about Oleson’s analysis isn’t so much his view of the nature of authentic marriage — again, he largely echoes what others have said — but rather his diagnosis of the conception of marriage which is most commonly held today in our country. Oleson argues that what passes for marriage in this country is more aptly described as “contractually formalized couplehood”. He writes, “We have maintained the term ‘marriage’ as an esteemed and protected word, but what that word once signified has lost its public existence within our culture.” And he proceeds to systematically make his case, first laying out the nature of authentic marriage, then turning to this contractual couplehood which so many of us mistakenly understand as marriage. Noting that the latter is considerably different from the former, Oleson writes,
Whether you’re chatting with Bobos at the nearest Starbucks, listening to conservative talk-show hosts, or attending a wedding at a local Evangelical church, there is a discernable near-unanimity regarding marriage that underlies the public disputes over who can enter into it.

What are these core assumptions that are commonly embraced by mainstream American society, both conservative and liberal? The most commonly recognized ingredients of a marriage are a man and a woman who are in love with each other and want to be with each other for the rest of their lives. They seek a public recognition of that love and commitment. There need be no doubt that most of the time there is complete sincerity on both sides about wanting to make a life-long run of it “till death do us part.”

He then proceeds to point to two other cultural assumptions which place contemporary marriage radically at odds with the more authentic version thereof:
The first is that children are commonly thought to be an attractive but supplementary add-on to a marital relationship. In other words, the intention to have children is not seen as of the essence of what it means for two people to be getting married. Children are considered accidental and posterior to the union.

“Yes, of course we eventually want children. But we’ll decide about all that later.” Or “Having children at some time is attractive to us, but we haven’t made any final decisions about it.” Or simply, “We’re not sure whether or not we want children.” None of these sentiments raises so much as an eyebrow in our society because marriage and the intention to have children are taken to be quite distinct decisions in our cultural outlook.

He then turns to the second constitutive element of traditional marriage, and its status in contemporary conceptions of marriage:
The second cultural assumption has to do with the intentionality with which a couple enters the marital union. Assuredly, they want to be together for life, but if you press deeply enough, you will discover that almost everyone still allows for the (remote and undesired) possibility that, should things not work out, another marriage to a different spouse is still theoretically possible. In other words, there are certain conditions attached to the union. Should the unthinkable happen and one or both of the spouses become miserable with little prospect of amelioration, divorce and re-marriage would be acceptable.

Even if one does not envision this happening to himself, still it is generally taken as a given that others should be able to find a new spouse who, this time, will make them happy. In other words, American society does not regard marriage as an indissoluble relationship. It is a revocable contract and ultimately may be dissolved and then entered into with a new party.

It is true that in almost all circles of American society, there is still a strong sense of the propriety and desirability of lifelong marriage. But the actual belief and frequent practice of mainstream American culture, conservative and liberal alike, is that a “do over” is always possible. Pick a conservative Evangelical church at random out of the phone book. Go visit it, observe its practices, and you will see that it re-marries members of its flock, sometimes repeatedly, albeit recognizing the painful “failure” that resulted in the divorce of the previous and supposedly “Christian” marriage. I’m not saying that this is unfailingly the case. It is only overwhelmingly the case.

And so on, leading to the inexorable conclusion: “When a modern American couple, oblivious as they are to the procreative and indissoluble nature of the marital covenant, goes to the altar or courthouse and commits to living together for life, they are not actually getting married in the original sense of that word. They are entering into a contractually formalized ‘couplehood.'”

To be honest, I can understand the frustration of supporters of same sex marriage in today's debates -- and hence their joy at Obergefell -- and Oleson puts it almost perfectly: “What is the rational difference, after all, between a heterosexual couple who marry with no intention of having children, engage solely in non-procreative sexual activity, and regard their union as dissolvable, on the one hand, and a same-sex couple who marry with no intention of having children, engage solely in non-procreative sexual activity and regard their union as dissolvable?” There is none. If marriage consists of very strong feelings for another, together with some sort of non-procreative sexual relationship and a commitment to stay together, then there is no rational case to be made in opposition to same sex marriage. The obvious problem is that this is exactly what many Americans — most of whom are Christians — believe marriage is!

The renewal of traditional marriage in our country has a longer way to go than many of its supporters probably realize.

What about you? Which sense of marriage do you more commonly identify with, and why?