Warning: This post is going to be rather depressing, especially for (a) old-school journalists, (b) religious believers seeking racial reconciliation and (c) consistent, even radical, defenders of the First Amendment.
I really struggled as host Todd Wilken and I recorded this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) and I think you'll be able to hear that in my voice. From my perspective, the media coverage of the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., descended into chaos and shouting and the public ended up with more heat that light, in terms of basic information.
The key question, of course, is what did these demonstrations/riots have to do with religion?
That's where this post will end up, so hang in there with me.
But let's start connecting some dots, starting with a shocking headline from the op-ed page of The New York Times, America's most powerful news operation. Did you see this one?
The A.C.L.U. Needs to Rethink Free Speech
As a First Amendment liberal, that made me shudder. The whole idea is that the ACLU is struggling to defend its historic commitment to free speech -- even on the far right. In the context of Charlottesville, that leads to this (in the Times op-ed):
The American Civil Liberties Union has a long history of defending the First Amendment rights of groups on both the far left and the far right. This commitment led the organization to successfully sue the city of Charlottesville, Va., last week on behalf of a white supremacist rally organizer. The rally ended with a Nazi sympathizer plowing his car into a crowd, killing a counterprotester and injuring many.
After the A.C.L.U. was excoriated for its stance, it responded that “preventing the government from controlling speech is absolutely necessary to the promotion of equality.” Of course that’s true. The hope is that by successfully defending hate groups, its legal victories will fortify free-speech rights across the board: A rising tide lifts all boats, as it goes.
While admirable in theory, this approach implies that the country is on a level playing field, that at some point it overcame its history of racial discrimination to achieve a real democracy, the cornerstone of which is freedom of expression.
The key, of course, is that the rally descended into violence.
So, does that mean that the alt-right parade permit should have been rejected because of the potential for violence?
Of course, there are now people -- we cannot call them "liberals" -- who insist that some words and thoughts are "violent" and should not be allowed into public life.
This also brings us, for the first time, to questions about what actually happened in Charlottesville. The consensus, that I have seen (click here, here and here for some eye-witness reports), is that Antifa leftists who rolled into town (not to be confused with clergy and local counter-protesters) blocked the alt-right marchers from reaching the destination of their legally approved march.
Violence broke out and both sides were armed. Police either lost control or failed to act.
Who initiated the violence? That is the crucial fact that reporters and public officials have to investigate, if they can in the midst of the hurricane unleashed by President Donald Trump (and the media firestorm following his remarks).
Will reporters be able to seek answers to these kinds of questions? I am worried. Check out the reactions to this tweet from a Times reporter at the scene:
Back to the ACLU, where the debates could be pivotal in terms of the history of First Amendment rights in this country. Now, consider this headline from a news report at The Los Angeles Times:
Tensions grow inside ACLU over defending free-speech rights for the far right
This long, but essential:
In response to the deadly violence at a rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, the ACLU’s three California affiliates released a statement Wednesday declaring that “white supremacist violence is not free speech.”
The national organization said ... that it would not represent white supremacist groups that want to demonstrate with guns. That stance is a new interpretation of the ACLU’s official position that reasonable gun regulation does not violate the 2nd Amendment.
Officials in Charlottesville had initially denied organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally a permit to hold the event at the site of a Robert E. Lee statue. But the ACLU filed a lawsuit defending protesters’ rights to gather there. The rally ended with one woman killed and dozens of people injured as neo-Nazis and other far-right groups that had come armed with shields, helmets and even guns clashed violently with counter-protesters.
... some emerging factions of the left do not share the ACLU’s values on free speech and assembly. Surveys have shown that young people are more likely than older Americans to support a government ban on hate speech, which is constitutionally protected.
You can clearly see where that is going. There are people -- we cannot call them "liberals" -- who are now ready to undercut both halves of the First Amendment. Yes, I'm talking about religious liberty, as well.
The problem, of course, is who gets to define the line between illegal violence and what some insist is intellectual violence. The cutting edge in that debate is this question: What is a "hate group"?
That leads us to CNN, which in its Charlottesville coverage ran -- as an information graphic -- the same Southern Poverty Law Center hate-group map that was cited by the LGBTQ activist who attempted to slaughter the staff of the Family Research Council back in 2012. The Daily Caller noted:
“It was uh, Southern Poverty Law lists anti-gay groups,” Floyd Corkins told the FBI when questioned on how he chose to attack the FRC. Corkins was subdued just after shooting a security guard in the arm. The same security guard helped stop Corkins before he was able to attack anyone else in the building.
That map includeed a number of doctrinally conservative religious groups -- evangelical Protestants and others -- who defend centuries of religious doctrines on sex and marriage, including legal/academic groups with impressive histories arguing First Amendment cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, do mainstream reporters need to cover both sides of the debates over what is and what is not "hate," and, thus, intellectual violence? As you can tell, I am trying to avoid Trump, who lit a match under these ongoing debates about the need for any form of "objectivity" in American journalism.
What am I talking about? Almost all of what follows is opinion and analysis, because who bothers to try to report straight news in postmodern, Trump-era America?
There was this headline at The Washington Post:
As Trump embraces both-siderism, media abandons it
In an opinion piece that I am tempted to call an anti-journalism screed, Eric Wemple aims at Trump (with good cause), but ends up blasting the American Model of the Press. He starts with the authoritative voice of The New York Times:
The New York Times was unequivocal: “Trump Gives White Supremacists an Unequivocal Boost,” read the headline of an article describing the president’s Tuesday afternoon remarks blaming “both sides” for the violence of neo-Nazis and KKK members in Charlottesville over the weekend.
On CNN shortly after President Trump’s combative “both sides” media event, CNN political director David Chalian remarked, “Well, my initial, candid response … was that this was a president who has lost touch with the country he represents. It’s that simple.” CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza wrote, “Donald Trump is who we thought he was.” ...
There were plenty of other straight-talking media reports coming out of Tuesday’s sepulchral events. It all marked a crossing of paths: While Trump clung to false equivalency and both-siderism, the media was repudiating it.
To make sure that readers got the point, the Post editors also ran this:
This week should put the nail in the coffin for ‘both sides’ journalism
So how did this affect the information reaching the public? Note this highly symbolic item in an Axios.com (a must-read site these days) news summary late in the week.
First there is this graphic:
Then, at the end of the item, there is this summary:
Why it matters: These findings reflect the fact that, because of the nation's partisan divide and fractured media, we no longer agree on basic facts. That makes civil debate impossible.
Fractured press? Yes. That's a fact. The American Model of the Press is under attack from Trump and many, not all, mainstream journalists enraged (often with good cause) by Trump.
But look carefully at that Axios graphic. Note that it equates the Antifa counter-protestors with the peaceful clergy and local protesters. There was no way for news consumers to say that they preferred protesters who stood up to the alt-right with hymns and tactics from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., over the protesters who were armed to the teeth and ready to rumble (including blocking the legal path of the march).
So there is no way, in that poll, to express an opinion about the actual facts on the bloody ground in Charlottesville. Why? Because factual reporting on the event was swamped in Trump-era editorial shouting.
This has First Amendment implications elsewhere, at the highest levels of communication in this digital era. Another First Amendment-related (yes, note the word "related") article at Axios starts like this:
Tech behemoths Google, Facebook and Amazon are feeling the heat from the far-left and the far-right, and even the center is starting to fold.
Why it matters: Criticism over the companies' size, culture and overall influence in society is getting louder as they infiltrate every part of our lives. Though it's mostly rhetoric rather than action at the moment, that could change quickly in the current political environment.
Where does this lead us? What can religion-beat journalists do? I explored some of that in a post early in the week. Right now, I think it's especially crucial to focus on stories linked to racial reconciliation in churches that are speaking out against white supremacy.
But let me ask readers a question: In terms of racial diversity in pews, can you name the most racially blended stream of faith in America? Where would one find, in a Google search, the most diverse flocks in America?
Listen to the podcast. A hint: Look in the "A" section in the Yellow Pages (if you still have that book in the newsroom).
So let me sum up my emotions and thoughts at this point. I am speaking for myself, primarily as a veteran journalism professor. I would say:
* There is no good that I can see in the alt-right and no good in the coalition that showed up in Charlottesville. As a traditional Christian (Eastern Orthodox), I'm in the school that uses the term "666" to describe white supremacy.
* I am haunted by this question: Would the young female protester be alive today if the main body of counter-protesters had been the clergy (yes, mostly from the religious left), who sang hymns and used MLK style tactics, as opposed to the armed Antifa outsiders?
I think that the violence would have been minimal and the police could have maintained their legal ground rules -- that alt-right leaders (like the Nazis in Skokie, Ill., in 1978) had agreed to follow. Would the clergy and locals have attacked the Neo-Nazis? I doubt it.
* There were real divisions on the left. There were peaceful liberals and violent "liberals." Look in the news reports.
* Let me stress, again, that I have zero sympathy for Trump and his rhetoric. I think he showed zero competency in terms of using language that could unite the nation. Read Peggy Noonan.
In conclusion, let me stress that -- as a journalist -- I am primarily worried about accurate coverage of this event. Have we reached the point where reporters can no longer, in an age of open advocacy in journalism, investigate and print basic, accurate, balanced facts about controversial stories of this kind?
Let me ask: During this past week, did you read/hear more "news" about Trump or the actual facts on the ground in Charlottesville? Did you know that there were clergy marching in opposition to the alt-right, as well as the armies of the Antifa?