Archbishop Chaput Warns of Media Bias and '4th Estate'
'It's vital for Catholics to understand how the media work, and especially how they work on us.'
Archbishop Charles Chaput.
The archbishop of Denver said this last week in an address he gave to Legatus, an organization that ministers to Catholic business leaders.
His talk was titled "Catholics and the 'Fourth Estate,'" making reference to a term coined in revolutionary times. At that time in France, the three main pillars of society -- the clergy, the nobles and the common people -- were referred to as the three "estates" of French society.
In was in that context that the press was referred to as the "fourth estate," acknowledging the power and influence of the written word.
"America's news media have enormous opinion-shaping power," Archbishop Chaput affirmed. "Therefore it's vital for Catholics to understand how the media work, and especially how they work on us."
"Most of what we know about the world comes from people we'll never meet and don't really understand," he explained. "We don't even think of them as individuals. Instead we usually talk about them in the collective -- as 'the media' or 'the press.'
"Yet behind every Los Angeles Times editorial or Fox News broadcast are human beings with personal opinions and prejudices. These people select and frame the news. And when we read their newspaper articles or tune in their TV shows, we engage them in a kind of intellectual intimacy in the same way you're listening to me right now."
Although he admits "this isn't necessarily a bad practice," one must be aware of who is behind the news.
"We usually know very little about the person who writes an unsigned editorial or the people who create the nightly news," the archbishop said. "And that's worth talking about. Here's why. In an information society, the people who shape our information control the public conversation."
Calling the media and the techniques they employ a "kind of 'soft imperialism,'" the prelate noted that "like it or not, most of us define the 'news' by what receives the most attention from a handful of major media."
"The media's power to shape public thought is why it's so vital for the rest of us to understand their human element," Archbishop Chaput stated. "When we don't recognize the personal chemistry of the men and women who bring us our news -- their cultural and political views, their economic pressures, their social ambitions -- then we fail the media by holding them to too low a standard. We also -- and much more importantly -- fail ourselves by neglecting to think and act as intelligent citizens."
Archbishop Chaput spoke about the how Internet and 24-hour cable news networks have fundamentally changed not only the news cycle, which used to be marked by morning and evening editions of a newspaper, but also the way society consumes news.
"For the past 50 years our culture has been shifting away from the printed word to visual communications, which are much more inclined to sensation and passive consumption," he said. "This has consequences. When a print culture dies, the ideas, institutions and even habits of public behavior built on that culture begin to weaken.
"Visual and electronic media, today's dominant media, need a certain kind of content. They thrive on brevity, speed, change, urgency, variety and feelings. But thinking requires the opposite. Thinking takes time. It needs silence and the methodical skills of logic."
While acknowledging the benefits of having access to more information, Archbishop Chaput lamented the technology has "undermined the intellectual discipline that we once had when our main tools of communication were books or print publications. This is not a good development. In fact, it's a very dangerous thing in a democracy, which is a form of government that demands intellectual and moral maturity from its citizens to survive."
While not urging people to throw away computers, cell phones and other devices associated with new technology, the archbishop called to mind that "material progress is never an unmixed blessing."
"It gives, and it takes away," he explained. "And it always has unintended consequences, which means we need to be more -- not less -- vigilant about the way our news media form us, and how their influence shapes the content of our public life."
Getting it right
A second concern Archbishop Chaput put forth is that the media have lost their way in covering stories with "a right spirit."
He explained by recalling that the press has an important role in America's public order: "The press is the only field besides religion explicitly singled out for protection by the First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson, writing during his presidency, put the importance of a free press this way: 'No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press.'"
The archbishop called Jefferson's words "striking, because their defense of a free press emphasizes that freedom is a means and not an end in itself. Notice what he defines as the purpose of press freedom: the reason and truth needed for self-government.
"But in our own time, the news establishment -- even when discussing serious issues -- often seems less interested in reason and truth than in what Christopher Lasch called 'ideological gestures;' in other words, sound bites and tribal slogans designed to shape our thought rather than encourage it."
"The news media, despite their claims of impartiality, and despite the good work they often do accomplish, are just as prone to prejudice, ignorance, bad craftsmanship and tribalism as any other profession," he said. "But unlike other professions, the press has constitutional protections. It also has real power in shaping how we think, what we think about and what we like, dislike and ignore.
"America's media, including its news media, are the greatest catechetical syndicate in history. And if that kind of power doesn't make us uneasy, it should at least make us alert."
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