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Jeff Sharlet has a long response to my unsolicited slap at him–a friendly, thoughtful response, which deserves the same. Here’s the money quote:

Those are my sour grapes, yes, but they grow along a fence dividing two very broad camps of journalists: bomb throwers and hall monitors. Both camps contain all kinds of good and bad, but it’s the second, the hall monitors, who drove the Wright story and who are now busy burying the evidence. They do so without an untoward thought in their happy heads; indeed, they believe, deeply, that the press is a great, self-correcting organism, always, if slowly, moving toward truth.

Jeff is squarely in the bomb thrower camp. For my part, I think there’s a place for both types–and the place is truth-telling. I don’t think that journalism always self-corrects, though I think that over time many media narratives improve greatly on the first-day stories. But as someone who has worked both the journalistic and the academic sides of the street, I have a pretty high regard for the difficulty of getting the story right, on either side. And religion is particularly not easy to get right. To take a tiny example, it’s a commonplace of media criticism that reporters don’t make the proper distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists. But I can’t tell you the number of different versions I’ve heard of that distinction from long-time academic students of both, not to mention the religious insiders themselves.
Elsewhere in the post, Jeff takes me to task for suggesting that “we” (what do you mean we, kemo sabe?) are all in this media thing together. I have to say that, as a participant-observer in daily journalism for 10 years I was always struck with how responsive we were to popular prejudices and attitudes. So that’s my prejudice–that the media and the vox pop share far more attitudes and postures than they don’t. Should professional journalists do a better job? Of course. Do they deserve to be smacked when they get it wrong? Absolutely. But, to come down to specifics, the media reacted to Wright the way the public reacted to Wright. And in the midst of a hot political campaign, it’s just very difficult to create a nuanced, contextualized, differentiated picture and to suggest that the real story lies somewhere else. But that’s not because of ignorant hall monitoring, in my view. It’s because the Grand Guignol of ideologues and yakkers and bloggers and the MSM and ordinary YouTubers that constitute what is now an electronic public square had their carnival, in which Wright himself donned cap and bells for a time.
One final thing. It could be argued that Jeff’s saying, “don’t look at that sideshow, look HERE, at the man behind the curtain,” he’s not throwing a bomb, but trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to monitor the hall, to get the kids to behave and attend to their lessons. That’s fine. It’s just that it’s hard to police a riot.

  • We don’t really have the data to say whether the public reacted to Wright as the media did. Here’s what we know: the story began as the youtube adventure of a group of conservatives, less interested in understanding the black church than in wounding a charismatic Democrat. At which point the press could have swept in and said, Ok, we’ll take these charges seriously, and investigate them. Instead, it said — Look at that Angry Black Man! Hey, everybody, look! It said this so insistantly that “the public” began to rebel. Certainly that part of “the public” familiar with the black church was not well-served by this narrative.
    As for the “hall monitor” designation, I didn’t define my terms clearly enough (not surprising, since I just made them up). A hall monitor is not one who says, I think you should learn this. A hall monitor is one who enforces the ideas of others. If there’s someone else out there whose ideas I’m enforcing — someone saying that there’s a powerful religious movement that belongs to neither the right wing nor the left wing but the empire wing — let me know so I can curtsy to this mastermind of my unwitting days.
    Speaking of definitions: We journalistic and scholarly insiders must stop patting ourselves on the back for knowing the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist. I’ve done it myself, but no longer. Why not? Because both terms have been fraught, contested labels for nearly a century. It’s certainly too simple to declare that fundamentalists are separatists — what, then, do we do with Ted Haggard, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who declared himself a fundamentalist? Or the late Richard Halverson, often cited as the first evangelical Senate chaplain despite the fact that he was a PCUSA pastor and thought of himself as a fundamentalist — and fit Marsden’s short definition of a fundamentalist, an evangelical who is angry about something, to a T? Halverson, an influential figure in the rise of the contemporary popular Christian Right, was angry about evolution, socialism, liberalism, uppity women, uppity nations, secularism, homosexuality, effeminate straight men, angry black men, tepid churches, biblical criticism, and separation of church and state, a myth he believed foisted on modern America by all of the above. What we do we call him? Mainline, evangelical, or fundamentalist? He preferred “Dick.”
    The point being that such labels are, in truth –and should be acknowledged as such — arguments made by the storyteller. Anyone who tells you there are fixed identities for these labels is asking you not to question them. That doesn’t mean you can throw the terms around loosely — you can’t call a Catholic a fundamentalist, for instance — but it does mean that you should devote some time to explaining your terms.
    In a daily newspaper, this is impossible. There you should stick to self-identification. But not in longer prose.