I am of two minds about The Commercial Appeal, Memphis' only daily newspaper. Part of me is filled with regret every time I pick up a copy. The Commercial Appeal is filled with incomplete reporting, sloppy writing and a strong pro-business, pro-religion conservative bias that shows up in its so-called "news" as well as in its editorials. (Some of you will insist that The Commercial Appeal stopped being conservative when it ended its separate coverage of negro issues and white issues, but that would be like calling Hitler liberal because he allowed newspaper reporters in the death camps.)
On the other hand, reading The Commercial Appeal always gives me lots of ideas for subjects to write about. I know that I'm not alone in this reaction. Back in the days of Free Radio Memphis, the station broadcast a show every Thursday evening called The News Abused, in which articles from The Commercial Appeal were wittily critiqued and otherwise commented upon.
The unfortunate reality is that shows like The News Abused are transient when compared to a corporate monopoly like The Commercial Appeal. This isn't just a local newspaper. A somewhat altered version of the same paper gets published by Scripps Howard in parts of 5 states. The DJ that hosted The News Abused has come and gone, but The Commercial Appeal will continue to be published day after day, probably for decades to come, giving many generations of disgruntled Memphians grist for the mill.
One example of the kind of heavily slanted writing I'm talking about is Faith Matters, a column published in The Commercial Appeal twice a week. Written by local hack David Waters, the unabashedly pro-religious column is a celebration of the concept of faith.
What's so wrong with a newspaper column that celebrates faith? The problem is that professional journalism and faith are mutually contradictory. Faith is about abandoning attempts at rational thought and surrendering to one's emotionally-driven desires and fantasies. Faith is about believing what one wants to be true whether any reason to believe exists or not.
Now, emotion and feelings are just fine in certain contexts. Personal relationships, for example, depend upon the open expression of emotions, and in some sense of the term a certain amount of good faith.
Professional journalism, however, is supposed to be based upon skeptical inquiry, not an unquestioning to devotion to whatever beliefs make readers feel most comfortable. The reliance upon blind faith is most dangerous when it takes place in the context of analysis of broad social issues that underlie contemporary political struggles. Yet, such a dependence upon guileless faith is exactly what The Commercial Appeal advocates through its Faith Matters column. The Commercial Appeal goes so far as to place the sectarian column on the front page of its Metro section, a location which is traditionally devoted to impartial, balanced reporting of local news.
One of the early Faith Matters columns provides a particularly clear illustration of the inherent irresponsibility of such an arrangement. In this column, written in the waning days of the 1990s, Preacher Waters starts off by speculating that the end of the world is near, that with the coming of the year 2000 an angry God will bring an apocalypse, a super-annihilation down upon human kind. Waters cites problems in society as if they amount to compelling evidence for a divine destruction of the cosmos. With a page-long succession of one-liners, he criticizes politicians with quick judgments based upon his own questionable interpretation of the Bible, a book thousands of years old which he believes as a matter of faith to be representative of the thoughts of the supreme ruler of the universe.
Of course there's no evidence that could withstand any kind of professional journalistic scrutiny that the Bible is anything but one of many old books, but that doesn't stop David Waters from using the religious text as a foundation for the partisan criticism of political leaders. What he takes as a matter of blind faith The Commercial Appeal expects its readers to regard as relevant political commentary. I could understand the inclusion of a column of this amateurish quality in a church newsletter that needs material to fill column space, but such unprofessional, intellectually sloppy work has no place in a daily newspaper.
The problem with the kind of pseudo-journalism exemplified by Faith Matters is that it encourages readers to rush to political judgments based upon their initial emotional reactions, ignoring the subtleties which are inevitably involved in any political issue. In the column described above, Mr. Waters goes so far as to predict a second-coming of Christ at the turn of the century. Now that the year 2000 has come and gone, it's clear that his predictions were based upon nothing but his own personal religious beliefs -- beliefs that turned out to be incorrect. As a result of his pandering to a sentimental religious following, journalist David Waters has joined a two thousand year-old tradition of false prophets who insist that the end of the world is just around the corner.
I am frightened that the only city-wide daily newspaper in Memphis chooses to publish such ridiculous bunk. Does it allow such loose standards for all of its reporting? The truth is that the greatest dangers to our society don't come from the sort of demons that superstitious believers like David Waters warn us about, but from the actions of those same believers as they undermine the large societal institutions upon which we all depend. While journalists with professional integrity attempt to provide information that is based upon solid research and rational logic, David Waters and the rest of his holy-rolling crew at The Commercial Appeal would prefer to lead a march of faithful lemmings straight into the muddy waters of the Mississippi River.
By publishing the Faith Matters column twice every week on the front page of its Metro section, The Commercial Appeal in effect declares itself to be a newspaper written for Christians only. Of course, in the first Faith Matters column ever, Mr. Waters argued that his column isn't just for Christians. He claimed that everyone needs religious faith, even if they don't follow his religious beliefs. The fact is, plenty of people live their lives without relying on faith. A good number of people try instead to live according to the principles of rational thought. These people believe that it isn't enough to just want something to be true, but that it's important to actually support claims with factual evidence. By this distinction alone, The Commercial Appeal with its Faith Matters column limits its readership to the deeply religious.
Even from there, The Commercial Appeal works hard to exclude certain kinds of religious people. Don't forget that not all religious people are Christians. Even in Memphis there are many Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Bah'ais, New Agers, Pagans and members of other religious groups. DoesFaith Matters speak to them? Of course not. David Waters' column always speaks from a Christian perspective, even when it includes references to other religions. Don't forget that the column is published on Sunday, the Christian holy day. Don't expect Mr. Waters to write about the religious lives of local Wiccans any time soon.
So, is The Commercial Appeal written for Christians? For some Christians, yes, but for others, no. Although generalizers like David Waters like to pretend that all Christians can be included in one big tent, important differences do exist. Not all Christians are conservatives like Mr. Waters and his bosses at The Commercial Appeal. Not all Christians believe that going to church is a good idea. Not all Christians support what folks like Mr. Waters dishonestly call "family values".
Faith Matters is a column written with conservative Christians in mind. It makes sense, because in its reporting, The Commercial Appeal is clearly a conservative Christian newspaper. Is there anything wrong with conservative Christians having their own column and their own newspaper? Not if there is any real choice of other news sources and not if there are any columns with opposing opinions. The sad fact is that in Memphis, there is no other daily newspaper. The Commercial Appeal is a monopoly with no columns written for liberal Christians or non-Christians.
So, if that's the way of it, at least The Commercial Appeal could be honest about it. Let the editors choose a new name for their paper that's accurately descriptive. How about renaming their paper The Conservative Christian Appeal, with a column entitled Jerry Falwell Matters? That way, Memphis readers would at least know what kind of ideas they're being asked to buy.
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Got irregular thoughts of your own?