Media Ignorance: Dog Bites Man

Political journalists are asking clumsy, ignorant, and intolerant questions. Film at 11.

Andrew Exum, no fan of Michele Bachamann and Rick Perry,  is annoyed of the trashing of their religious beliefs by ignorant media folk.

I am getting a little tired of political journalists and their thumb-nail deep understanding of trends within and strands of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian thought in America. Even as good an article as Ryan Lizza’s profile of Michelle Bachmann — which I enjoyed — left something to be desired in its treatment of Francis Schaeffer and evangelical theology. Most treatments of the religious beliefs of Bachmann and also Rick Perry that I have been reading over the past few weeks are clumsy at the least and intolerant and ignorant at the worst. Watching Bachmann on Meet the Press on Sunday, for example, I was shaking my head in disbelief as the candidate advanced her “understanding” of “economics,” but once David Gregory started grilling her on her theological beliefs, I started considering the whole exchange unfair, uninformed and inappropriate.*

If political journalists are going to start writing about the theological beliefs of people like Bachmann and Perry, they should first take the time to study evangelicalism and fundamentalisms within American Christianity in a serious way.

He goes on to suggest a short bibliography to be used as primers.

While I agree that many of us who opine on the religious views of candidates could use more background on the subject, I’m nonetheless amused by the notion that this is a particular blind spot. When Ex  broached the subject yesterday on Twitter, I quipped, “Thankfully, political journalists are otherwise well rounded, with religion the only thing about which they talk out their ass.”

This prompted James Gerrond to bring up the “Gell-Mann Amnesia effect,” a coinage of the late Michael Crichton.
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward — reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story — and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Now, I don’t think most reporters at major outlets are intentionally exaggerating or lying. Rather, the preparation and career pattern of journalists make it almost impossible for them to report accurately on an increasingly complex world.

Most of them do a remarkably good job of acclimating themselves to the environment they’ve parachuted into, talking to as many people as they can, applying a skeptical eye, and reporting the facts as honestly as they can. But, for example, few of the people reporting on the ongoing mess in Libya had any familiarity with the  language, culture, and politics of the country six months ago. Nor do they have any real training in international diplomacy or military strategy. Or the domestic politics of the dozen or so partners in the operation.

Some are doing a fantastic job.  For example, C.J. Chivers is doing extraordinary reporting for the New York Times. But it would be ridiculous to expect every war correspondent to be a Cornell graduate who spent seven years in the Marine Corps, went to Ranger School, and served in multiple war zones before attending the best journalism school on the planet and earning a Pulitzer Prize for reportage in yet another war zone. And he’d be the first to tell you that, even with that impressive background, he’s still struggling like hell to learn as he goes.

Political reporting is easier than covering foreign wars, in that nobody’s shooting at you and everyone involved is speaking your native tongue. But even those of us with extensive training and life experience have major gaps in our understanding. I’ve lived in more states than most but can’t claim familiarity with local issues in even all those places, much less the entire country.

Until recently, I’ve really only been vaguely aware of Michele Bachmann and only slightly more familiar with Rick Perry. Ditto Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee at this point in the last cycle. They’d come onto my radar screen a few times but weren’t truly national figures until gaining traction in the presidential cycle.

Similarly, while I spent most of my formative years and early adulthood in the Deep South and know quite a bit about mainstream Methodists, Southern Baptists, and even Pentecostals , I’m only vaguely familiar with Francis Schaeffer, Tim LaHaye, and some of the more politically forward strains of evangelicalism. [See Schaeffer admirer Joe Carter for a defense of his hero’s teachings.]

While it would presumably behoove political journalists to educate ourselves on these issues once they come into prominence–as many did with Jeremiah Wright and black liberation theology last cycle–it’s not unreasonable to expect people vying for the presidency of the United States to help them. If Bachmann goes around saying things that appear to people not schooled in her religious tradition as crazy or antiquated, it’s perfectly reasonable for interviewers to ask her to explain–just as they asked Obama to account for Wright’s rants.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    I had reasonable tolerance for reporters who were parachuted into areas about which they knew little or nothing. They could, given time and experience, learn.

    I had far less tolerance for those who, in similar circumstances, had already written their stories before they left the plane. Time and experience only complicated–when not contradicting–what they already ‘knew’. Most were quite unwilling to change their stories when confronted by new facts or alternative explanations.

    There are far more of the latter than the former and they exist in every realm of reporting.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I think religion can be a particular blind spot, because unlike issues of government, history and economics, a vast majority of people will not have studied religion in school at all, and if they have, its most likely from a singular perspective of their own background. Religion is also one of the topics people tend to avoid in public gatherings.

    The result is most candidates are not good at discussing their religious views, their interlocutors are not good at asking questions about it, and the voters are unlikely to be able to judge the discussion.

  3. bACHMANN pERRY oVERDRIVE (formerly Hey Norm) says:

    Two points:
    1). If Journalists were doing what Journalists are supposed to do we would not have had the attack and occupation of Iraq. We would not have had a give-away to Big Pharma disguised as an expansion of Medicare entitlements. We would not have had Death Panels. We would not have a Tea Party. And we would not have had the recent Debt Ceiling kerfuffle. Why? Because none of these things makes one bit of sense when subjected to even the slightest ray of journalistic focus. Yet here we are.
    2). Given #1 we are supposed to be shocked – shocked I say – that Journalists don’t understand anything beyond the basics of religion? Science says that we all evolved from hominids. Religion says that Man was made in the image of God and that we all come from Adam and Eve. One position is verifiable, and one is not. Do you really expect David Gregory to make sense of that dichotomy? And get his hair perfect?

    Look…the Media is un-interested in substance. Scratch the surface you get more surface. The Media is interested in access to power. Period.

  4. bACHMANN pERRY oVERDRIVE (formerly Hey Norm) says:

    Oh – and Tax Cuts create growth and reduce deficits. How many times are So-Called Conservative guests on the Sunday News Shows allowed to spout that nonsense totally uncontested? If Journalists were doing their jobs the Republican Party as it exists today would not exist because their bedrock philosophic core would be rendered laughable.

  5. Russell says:

    I agree that journalists should be more than just conversant with the area they report on. Hence political journalists should be held to high expectations regarding political and religion reports to high expectations regarding religion(s), but not vice versa. This line seems to me a typical attempt to shield religion (and those who are extremely religious) from scrutiny about religious beliefs and, in the case of public figures, how those beliefs might influence policy. Ms Bachmann, Mr Perry, and others have been very upfront about their reliance on religious belief. They brought it into the conversation and we as voters deserve to have the issue explored.

  6. Courtside says:

    Seems to me the best coping mechanism for the Gell-Mann amnesia effect is to be a critical reader of all journalism – learn to recognize explicit and implicit theses in an article, always pay attention to the sourcing, and all those other things.

    That gets exhausting, though. Counterintuitively, perhaps, this is why I like pithy speed-oriented news like Politico, email alerts, and news blogs. They’re short enough that there’s little room for analysis or the forming of theories by the reporter, so I mainly just get loosely-factual updates and it’s easy to read critically. Then, when I have the time and energy to deal with more extended grappling with the news, I can go and find longer articles with more room for assumptions, wet streets making it rain, and the like.

    This is of course a method in progress. The amnesia is seductively easy.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    @Russell: The problem here with Ryan Lizza’s piece and a few others I’ve seen recently on the controversy over dominionism is that Lizza does not know what he’s talking about (LINK) and is miseducating the public about conservative Christian theology in order to create an issue to be used for political purposes.

    I agree that Perry and Bachman are using religion for self-promotional political purposes; mainly for the purpose of identifying themselves as Christians so that the voter will think well of them. They are not AFAIK making any significant theological statement; it would be crazy to do so because Christians didn’t agree on a lot of stuff.

    Lizza is also using religion, but he is going to leave the readers with bad information long after the campaign is over.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    If Bachmann goes around saying things that appear to people not schooled in her religious tradition as crazy or antiquated, it’s perfectly reasonable for interviewers to ask her to explain–

    And when her explanations sound antiquated and crazy, and they will, will it be OK for us to say that she follows an antiquated and crazy religion, and as such, she is completely whacko?

  9. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I’ve largely done so already, so I shan’t attempt to dissuade you. Bachmann seems to be a bright, competent woman with many good qualities. But, yes, she apparently literally believes in (as opposed to being culturally reared on but treating as allegorical) things that strike me as loopy and potentially dangerous.

  10. Russell says:

    @PD Shaw: Thanks for the link. I agree that it makes sense for a reporter to have some background for a line of questioning, if for no other reason than to ask good follow-up questions, but not that a line of questioning should be closed to a reporter without expertise in the area. 

    I am not sufficiently familiar with dominionism to tell if Mr Lizza or Mr Carter has the more accurate reading of Mr Schaeffer’s work, but I will note that both the place of publication and some of his language suggests that Mr Carter has a point of view to push as well. 

    While Mr Perry and Ms Bachmann are not making, strictly speaking, theological arguments, they are clearly basing their worldview, as well as their policy objectives, on their understanding of their religious tenants. As such this is a valid line of inquiry, no different than any other viewpoint that might inform future policy. Religion cannot be assigned a privileged, unquestionable position in the debate when the magnitude of its influence is as large as it apparently is for these politicians. Religion can’t be used only “so that the voter will think well of them” but not also be the legitimate subject of criticism

  11. PD Shaw says:

    @ James: I’m not sure what she believes. I do not believe she belongs to a fundamentalist Church, or a millennialist church, or one that insists on a solely literal interpretation of the Bible. I found this passage about the religious right from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s website to be interesting:

    There are distinctively moral positions for which we would applaud the Moral Majority. It is pro-life, profamily, and pro-moral according to Falwell. Strong statements in opposition to pornography, for example, would make us hope this is truly the conviction of a majority.

    Several fundamentalist positions, such as the support for prayer in public schools and a millennially based pro-Israel stance, will be less attractive–even if the organization is political.

    You may agree that America should increase defense spending, decentralize government, and back anti-communist allies like Taiwan. But when the fundamentalist assumption that the United States is God’s unique instrument to implement God’s will on earth surfaces, the distinction between nationalism and Christianity has been blurred. That is, at least, an incipient confusion of the roles of church and state and a conservative parallel to the social gospel or “liberation theology.” Jerry Falwell’s attempt to distinguish what is religious from what is political and his right to be both Baptist preacher and American citizen are appreciated. But the perception of the “majority” that the Moral Majority is fundamentalist religion with political muscle will persist, not entirely without reason.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    @Russell: I’ve got no problem with asking political candiates about their religious views, but my impression is that David Gregory’s attempt to do so was a failure.

    I do take exception to Lizza’s attempt to paint Bachmann with the same guilt by association, overreading and misreading of religious tenants, made famous at places like Jihadwatch.

    Whether or not there is something called dominionism is the first question; its a concept made up by left-wing activist to describe her observations of elements of the Religious Right. You can confront the issue head on by asking Bachmann whether she believes only Christians should hold elected or appointed office. The problem is that the definition is being modified by political activists to theorize that a true dominionist will not answer the question truthfully; they operate on the basis of secret language and codes barked by dogs and are in the midst of conspiratorial takeover of the U.S. government . . . that we can apparently only protect ourselves from by voting straight-line Democrat.

  13. mattb says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I do not believe she belongs to a fundamentalist Church, or a millennialist church, or one that insists on a solely literal interpretation of the Bible.

    To be fair to Bachmann, she left the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Church she had attended shortly before announcing her election.

    As far as what it means to be a “fundamentalist” — especially in a Lutheran Context — is a difficult thing to define. Like most Protestant sects (which it turn laid the foundation for Evangelicals) they share the belief that everything that is to be understood about the faith/Christianity comes from biblical hermeneutics — but that also involves deep logical contemplation of the texts. Admittedly that leads to positions whose nuance doesn’t particularly lend itself to sound bites.

    Of course, its also important to note that the level of fundamentalism is more something that varies from church to church within a Synod (or any Religous organization).

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: James, I knew you felt that way. To be honest, when it comes to other peoples religious beliefs, I try to keep my elbows tucked in (not so easy for a hard core atheist like me) Simple reason, quickest way to get people to ignore you is to insult their most basic beliefs.

    It is a fine line to tread, and I fail far more often than I succeed, but I try.

  15. A voice from another precinct says:

    @mattb: If she has “left” WELS, what is she now?

    @PDShaw: Just for the point of it, there are groups within the evangelical community that identify themselves using definitions that Lizza would call “dominionist,” but I am not sure that term is used any more (I believe the more common label is “Christian Identity Movement” but am not sure). In general, my experience is that these groups exist at the fringes of denominations that are more plain vanilla, and such groups are found in most of evangelical Christianity–particularly among the baptists that identify themselves as “non-denominational.”

    On to my main point, I generally agree with you about what you are saying, but I will note that the trend within the Evangelical community is for teaching that is “a centimeter deep and a kilometer wide.” A case in point, to my reading of it, Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life” is a good book and he makes a good point–that mainline denominations have been teaching in their various catechisa for maybe a thousand or so years. His “breakthrough” discovery–that transformed his life as a trained theologian and long-time pastor– is what we teach to 10 year olds in the Lutheran Church. Not a good sign. Add the extensive array of bumper sticker slogans that abound in the community–“Christ is the answer,” “God hates the sin and loves the sinner,” “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” and allow that a lot of the sloganeering also passes for serious teaching, and you get people like Michelle Bachmann–who believe fervently, but haven’t the vaguest notion about what they really believe.

    Back when I was young, the pastor of my church told me one day that I was the most dangerous person that he had ever met in his then 30 some years of the ministry. He came to this conclusion because (I will try to recapture the quote) “you believe that you can simply read the Bible and decide for yourself what it means.” At the time, I took that to mean that interpreting the Word without the constant assistance of people who “know more than I do” constitutes the acme of subversion, apostacy, and all else that is evil and abominable to God. I haven’t noticed any great changes within the community since I was a child–although most pastors are not as overt as my pastor was.

    Coming from such an environment, asking Michelle Bachmann to answer questions about her faith–specifically about how what she believes will affect her judgement as President, is engaging in a battle of wits against an unarmed person. She fumbles at the questions because she simply DOENS’T KNOW the answers–and isn’t expected to in among her own,

  16. Walter KL says:

    A religious tenant is a priest who rents a room over your garage. The principles and beliefs that make up a religion are its tenets. <end nitpickery

  17. mattb says:

    @A voice from another precinct: Like Obama, I don’t believe she has joined another congregation.

    At least part of the hubub was over the WLS’s position of the office of the papacy as the “anti-christ” (note — in fairness this isn’t about the OMEN/revelations, rather the idea that the papacy itself, as a position is the antithesis of Christ). On that subject, most of the Lutheran Church Synods hold pretty much the same view.

    Of course, how that gets translated in each congregation is an entirely different matter.