I was captivated when, in October of 2004, Jon Stewart took his media criticism behind enemy lines, telling Paul Begala and be-bowtied Tucker Carlson to “Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America,” to their faces, on their own show. Those on the left, and many who just value intelligent commentary instead of inane partisan bickering, were cheering. There was even more victorious jubilation when it soon became clear that CNN would actually listen to Stewart’s pleas to cut back on the political hackery and theater. In a recent column, Ross Douthat summarizes CNN’s response to Stewart, and the surprising results:
At it turned out, CNN was paying attention. Within two months, “Crossfire” was canceled, and the network’s president, Jon Klein, cited Stewart’s tirade as a tipping point. “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise,” Klein said. Henceforward, he announced, CNN would move away from “head-butting debate shows.” Let FOX and MSNBC have their “live guests” and “spirited debate.” CNN was going to report, not editorialize.
Six years later, CNN is still the network Americans turn to when an earthquake strikes Haiti or a crucial health care vote takes place. But most days are slow news days, opinionated journalism is more interesting than the elusive quest for perfect objectivity and CNN is getting absolutely murdered in the ratings.
Whether or not one finds it surprising, or whether one is happy or sad about it, I think we can agree that from CNN’s perspective, it’s a disaster. Reflecting on Douthat’s column, I thought about what unintended consequences might flow from a hypothetical situation in which our fellow ward members, Seminary and Gospel Doctrine teachers, Bishops, Stake Presidents, Relief Society Presidents, BYU administrators, BYU religion teachers, church Public Affairs staff, church architects, missionaries, Mission Presidents and General Authorities suddenly decided that all the advice the bloggernacle dishes out day after day is solid, and started following it.
To me this hypothetical recalls an experience I had as an early-morning seminary student. Once we had a special guest speaker visit us. All four classes that met in our building met together (I can only remember this happening a tiny handful of times), and we heard from a member of the stake who advocated for Creationism. Using a mixture of out-of-context, dubiously interpreted scripture verses, phony photographic evidence, general authority quotes and imagination, he taught us that the Earth is 6,000 years old, evolution is of Satan and Charles Darwin is a Biblically prophesied official Anti-Christ. Though I rolled my eyes at the whole thing, I wasn’t too perturbed—I was used to selectively listening to teachings at church that veered into politics and weird pet topics. But I mentioned it to my dad, who was appalled. He spoke to the Stake President, who I gather tended to agree with my dad that it was inappropriate, because the day after that my Seminary teacher issued something of an apology and retraction. Later that day, I was discussing the whole fiasco with my mom. One thing that, in retrospect, I appreciate about my mom is that she never let pass an opportunity for challenging me to find additional nuance in a situation. With furrowed brow she expressed concern about our “victory.” “We silenced them, but what if it turns out they’re right?”
Although we were of like mind in thinking the chances of that were slim to nil, her willingness, her insistence, in questioning her own certainty and her own assumptions has stuck with me. I’m certainly not advocating pathological self-doubt, or even the kind of self-doubt that lures us into passivity. I think the way it played out in my Seminary case was about right: do not fear to take appropriate action you believe is right, but inwardly maintain a stance of humbleness and uncertainty that creates teachability.
The interesting thing about the CNN case to me, is that I still believe Stewart was right, that his criticism was correct and important. It just backfired in an unexpected way. That happens sometimes. JNS’ recent post “Exit, Voice and Change” analyzes how some church policies and cultural norms may have surprising side-effects. I’m sure there are many, many such surprising entanglements between desirable and undesirable aspects of our earthly incarnation of the Kingdom of God. I hope this gives us perhaps not hesitation, but at least patience, in our approach to identifying and addressing perceived imperfections in our church, its people and culture.