October 1, 1997
by Jeff Hackman
Jeff Hackman teaches “Media and Faith Issues” at Western Mennonite School, Salem, Oregon, and is a PJC member .
The phrase “the media” conjures up varied responses among Christians. Some believe it is largely responsible for the demise of traditional family values because it is dominated by “the liberals.” Others see it as an increasingly concentrated oligarchy force-feeding us a conservative status quo. People on both extremes want to banish the media from our lives. Anabaptists, among others, can offer a “third way”: media literacy.
“The media” is one of the “principalities and powers” Paul speaks of in Ephesians 6:12. This perspective reminds us that our enemies are not Michael Eisner, Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch or Rush Limbaugh. The enemies are the spirits of greed, intolerance, militarism and pride that media outlets proffer. It is up to us to test the spirits (I John 4:1) that come from media—in other words, sort the wheat and tares.
Before we begin to formulate responses to these spirits, we need to know who controls the media. Of course, it is not the celebrities that control media; it is the wealthy owners and their multinational corporations. We all need to know who decides what’s on the cable system, who underwrites PBS, who produces movies, music and TV programming. Our cable system in Salem, Oregon, is owned by TCI—the largest cable company. It has a monopoly on cable in our city. As I looked through the 50 or so channels and found out who owns what, it turned out that only seven companies controlled them.
When the Southern Baptists decided to boycott Disney, they began to realize how omnipresent Disney is in our mediated lives. Disney owns the ABC television and radio networks; ESPN, A&E and Lifetime cable channels; the two Anaheim professional sports franchises; no less than five movie production studios; two music labels; several newspapers, magazines and book publishers.
Once we know who produces the media, we often can determine corporate motives behind what is and is NOT seen. For instance, with two major networks owned by the nuclear power industry (GE owns NBC, Westinghouse owns CBS), is it any wonder we don’t see documentaries critical of nuclear power produced by them?
Space is not sufficient to delve deeply into the principles of media literacy in this article, but here are a few key concepts. First, we must “balance our media diet.” We need to vary our sources of news and entertainment. A recent study showed 60% of Americans get all their news from TV. We need to read newspapers (real ones, not just USA Today) and church-based news sources. Compare an NBC clip from Jerusalem with Christian Peacemaker Teams’ perspective.
A second principle is to view critically. Ask questions like: Why did they decide to show this image? What aren’t we seeing? A local TV news story told of state authorities bulldozing a homeless camp. We never saw or heard from a homeless person in the piece. Indeed, we saw no destruction at all—only equipment gently grading the soil after the “clearing” was over.
Thirdly, we need to identify the values of the characters in media. We should watch TV with our children and ask: can you think of a better way the hero could have solved the problem? Our faith values must be so strong that we can withstand the media’s definitions of success, worth and beauty. And, there are times to take a break from the struggle and tune out the media for a while.
As Anabaptist Christians, we need to be sure of our values: discipleship, nonviolence and community. All media must be held up to this standard—even “Christian media.” Too often we let our guard down when the source is labeled Christian. My experience of the Christian media is that while some of it is very good, there are a lot of tares as well. At times it is laced with civil religion and Zionism. Some commentators, authors and preachers definitely do not hold a Christ-centered perspective on Scripture.
One final point from media literacy experts concerning the debate over TV’s role in shaping behavior: while some people do imitate TV, this is relatively rare. There are much more pervasive effects on us. Studies show that TV violence desensitizes us to real violence and makes us more fearful of the world. Obviously, too much influence from the media will produce a world view very different from the values of Jesus Christ.
Let us hasten to remember the positive impact media can have. Images are powerful, and they are being used for Kingdom work. Many church agencies are producing high quality media. Make use of these in your church and community.
There are many sources of information for those who want to gain control over media in their lives. Start with the Mennonite Church Statement on Violence, available from the Peace and Justice Committee. The statement has an excellent section on “violence in leisure.” While it is a secular source, I’ve found the Center for Media Literacy an excellent clearinghouse for resources. Their address is: 4727 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 403, Los Angeles, CA 90010. Their website address is www.medialit.org.