We have two important journalism subjects -- both linked to religious issues -- that are currently generating lots of heat in the "America after 11/8 cultural meltdown" among America's chattering classes.
No. 1: What is "fake news" and how can it be stopped before it generates more help for Donald Trump?
No. 2: What, precisely, does the term "alt-right" mean and how can the enlightened powers that be in digital technology and mass media (think the gods at Twitter and Facebook) crack down on it to prevent dangerous people from continuing to pump their views into the body politic.
Of course, for some experts, "fake news" (they aren't talking about Rolling Stone) and the alt-right overlap quite a bit. There are times that truly nasty stuff in the alt-right filter up into the mainstream through websites that may not be alt-right themselves, but they run lots and lots of paranoid fake news.
Now, before we get to the religion angles of all of this fake news stuff -- the subject of this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tun that in) -- let's face another blunt reality: How people define the terms "alt-right" and "fake news" often tell you as much about their beliefs and convictions as it does the folks who genuinely deserve to be covered with those nasty labels.
So what does "alt-right" mean? Let's ask the online version of an Oxford dictionary:
(in the US) an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content:
‘some are seeing this as a victory against the vitriolic online presence of the alt-right’
‘he disputed the notion that there is a racial element to the alt-right's brand of nationalism’
What, precisely, is "deliberately controversial content"? You could use those words, of course, to describe lots of valid news and commentary online, in mainstream publications and otherwise.
So "deliberately controversial content" about what? What subjects are built into the DNA of the alt right world?
Most of the time people talk about the unholy trinity of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. However, it is very common for people to include homophobia and Islamophobia, at which point the wider net -- depending on who is doing the casting -- starts pulling in some much more mainstream fish, including some religious groups that swim against the stream of mainstream culture.
Let me say, at this point, that I have spent 25 years trying to encourage more young people to attempt to develop the skills needed to enter the mainstream news media, as opposed to the world of alternative niche publications defined by narrow religious perspectives. Now I must stress that 99.9 percent of mainstream religious publications could never be called "fake news," let alone "alt-right."
That's not my point. I'm saying that I think it is absolutely crucial for the public to support mainstream journalism and to hold mainstream journalists accountable for their coverage of all kinds of subjects including, of course, the role of religion in public life. The mainstream news media are, like it or not, at the heart of American public discourse, as in half of the First Amendment (and, yes, religion is the other half).
Also, I have been terrified by many horror stories -- from traditional conservatives and liberals alike -- linked to abuses of digital media by nasty thugs on the alt-right. If you have not read this National Review piece by David French -- "The Price I’ve Paid for Opposing Donald Trump" -- then do so. There are monsters out there in cyberspace and everyone knows it.
Still, I start getting scared when people start talking about writing software (the latest from The Washington Post, right here) that tells news consumers what is real and what is fake, what is truly prophetic and what is alt-right. People tend to write their own values into the software. Right, Facebook czars and czarinas?
The bottom line: At some point, when it comes to prophetic words on sexuality, people are going to start calling St. Mother Teresa, the Rev. Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Russell Moore and the Dalai Lama alt-right bigots.
Let me point readers toward an interesting timeline over at the homepage of the National Religious Broadcasters, a feature linked to the group's "John Milton Project" on the defense of free speech. Click here to see that. What we have here are religious conservatives expressing their concern about the decline what used to be called First Amendment liberalism.
Now, they know that powerhouse companies such as Apple, Google, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are not part of the government. Thus, it is not clear that we are talking about censorship, as traditionally defined. But how do advocacy groups take part in American life if they are locked out of the digital information sources at the heart of most public debates?
Yet fake news is a serious problem, on the left and right. The alt-right, and you know the alt-left exists too, contains monsters who want to destroy people rather than debate them.
So what should mainstream news consumers do, those in pews and not in pews?