December 15, 2004

The Presence of an Absence

Hugh Hewitt has issued one of his periodic challenges to the blogosphere, this time a call for comments on the topic " What does Newsweek's story on Christmas tell us about MSM?"

Looking at the Newsweek article as journalism, three characteristics appear most salient.

The first is the author's choice of topic. The place of Christmas in the culture is fascinating for many reasons. The author has chosen challenges to the veracity of the story that come from a rather narrow segment of society, a small coterie of unorthodox Biblical scholars and the shrinking ranks of "liberal" Christians.

There is no sense in which these challenges are news. There are no startling new discoveries or even hypotheses, no emerging movement either among intellectuals or the general public, that makes these particular views news.

Second, the author has taken on the NPR-news channel approach to the story, by choosing a group of "experts" to whose authority he defers. Whether it's lawyers handicapping the Peterson trial, or retired generals and professors explaining Middle East events, the appeal to authority (in this article, often not even identified) is a convenient substitute for investigation. The orthodox Christian complaint that the article selects as authorities too many people with a negative view of the story's veracity has some merit to it.

Nevertheless, the author has carefully structured his article using another common journalistic technique, defining a controversy in pro- and anti- terms, and appearing to balance the two sides, and coming to a comfortingly plausible resolution of the issue.

These are common journalistic techniques both in print and broadcast media. The appearance of objectivity emerges from the citation of authority and the apparent balance of pro and con.

A story using the same information entitled "Why the Christmas Story is Poppycock" would probably never be published in a mass medium, as opposed to a journal of skeptics or literati. Such an article would have the virtue of clarity as to the author's intent and conclusions, a journalistic "truth in labeling." But it would be an obvious op-ed piece, not a "news story." The blandness and supposed objectivity of the story make it more p.c. and more apparently "objective," than the pithy, virile skepticism of an Ingersoll or an H. L. Mencken, but they also disguise the true "Bah! Humbug!" message of the Newsweek piece.

The article is also revealing about what part of the audience is important to the author and editors. Social scientists have coined the phrase "reference group" to describe the coterie or class to which a particular individual looks for approval. The Newsweek piece, although published in a mass journal, "refers to" a relatively small group, urbanites in the word-using professions, with graduate educations and a suspicion of religion, or at least of religious claims to truth, as opposed to appropriate sentiments. My sense is that the author was not concerned with the approval of dittoheads or parishioners of evangelical or Catholic churches, but people he might meet at the right cocktail parties in Georgetown or Cambridge.

Such people have little in common with the average American, and don't understand him. This "reference group" looks to the "scholars" of the Jesus Seminar with far greater deference than do the folks in the pews. The mass of Americans rightly has no fear of a fancied supposed onslaught of believers against constitutional liberty. The "reference group" has many members who do, and will greet with a sigh of relief the article's polite, "objective" debunking of the nation's dominant faith tradition.

This is a free country where the unchurched such as I flourish, along with parishioners of an astonishing variety of religious belief and practice, most of it Christian at least in name. It is also a country with an overwhelmingly Christian majority of largely orthodox profession of faith, and clear Christian historical origins.

There is been a tendency to obscure this fact, a fact that threatens no one, and indeed goes far to explaining many of our country's admirable qualities.

Nowadays Frosty the Snowman may grace City Halls, but there can be no crêche and no angels. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" replaces "O Come All Ye Faithful." "Happy Holidays" crowds out "Merry Christmas," and "Happy Hanukah," for example. The bell-ringers of the Salvation Army are banished from Target because other solicitors are annoying. Even to one such as I, these changes seem a shame, both musically and culturally.

"Happy Holidays" however, has no life. It is the presence of an absence. Will the lost and broken turn with hope to the Jesus Seminar's footnotes and emendations? What kind of pageant will be left for children to dress up for? Whence "goodwill toward men"? Let freethinkers be freethinkers. Let skeptics be skeptics. And let America's Christians be Christians. They don't bite.

Further comments here.

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