Along with freedom of religion, freedom of the press stands as one of the five fundamental freedoms in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. But what is the free press, as an institution, supposed to do? Theorists of democracy generally put forth the free press as a cornerstone of civil society. Media outlets inform readers on matters of public interest, sometimes exposing malfeasance and corruption in business or government. They also provide space for opinion commentary and disagreement, and the gatekeeping role played by the most influential outlets and networks is critical to setting the de facto limits of respectable discourse about social issues and policy prescriptions. Ideally, as a cornerstone of civil society, the press helps to keep anti-democratic, anti-pluralist, and post-truth forces in check by refusing to treat their representatives’ opinions and “alternative facts”—on climate change, for example, where more than 99.9% of studies agree—as worthy of serious consideration.
In practice, the press’s fulfillment of this critical civic function will always be imperfect, but analysis of the extent of the failures in the American media landscape was largely confined to academia and alternative media until Trump’s term in office forced many to see just how off-kilter things had gotten in terms of journalism enabling the authoritarian Right. Commentators began to take note of the ease with which bad actors can spread disinformation far and wide via social media, and much of the public began to take issue with the blasé bothsidesism of the mainstream press, whose representatives felt compelled to treat any views espoused by senior members of an increasingly radicalized, authoritarian Republican Party with journalistic neutrality. Thankfully, we’ve seen some improvement on this front, with more and more commentators and anchors willing to name authoritarianism as a problem and to call out untruths put forth by their sources and guests in no uncertain terms.
Nevertheless, there are still systemic biases and blind spots in the US media landscape, which means there’s real value in media criticism. These biases and blind spots tell us a lot about the values and priorities of the major gatekeepers of the public sphere. One productive approach to evaluating them is to pinpoint the prevailing lazy tropes that come up time and again on opinion pages, constituting the subgenres that launch a thousand think pieces. Taking note of these tropes will help us figure out what media gatekeepers value at any given time, what the dominant narratives shaping their thinking are, and whose voices matter—and whose are erased.
Let me give you some examples. Remember when millennials ostensibly ruined literally everything? Supposedly “lazy” and “entitled” from being “coddled” by childhoods full of participation trophies, millennials were blamed by journalists and pundits for killing phenomena ranging from marriage to McDonald’s; the napkin and wine industries; and even “class” (though how millennials were able to kill both class and not-exactly-classy chain restaurants like Applebee’s is anyone’s guess).
The trend of bashing millennials shifted into high gear in 2013, when Time magazine published “The Me, Me, Me Generation,” prompting frustrated millennial cartoonist Matt Bors to publish an editorial cartoon response in which he eviscerated lazy stereotypes about his generation and insisted the real story was the post-Great Recession economy. The “Millennials Have Killed X” trope attracted so much attention that it has its own entry on Know Your Meme, which states that the trend peaked in 2016.
Zoomers seem to have mostly escaped the same treatment so far, although the British tabloid press have accused Gen-Z of killing Brussels sprouts and traditional Christmas pudding. These might seem like somewhat silly examples, but it’s hardly a stretch to argue that what was at stake for the shapers of media narratives and public opinion in the “Millennials Have Killed X” genre was their vested interest in defending capitalism. Even silly trends are revealing.
And how about this one: throughout the Trump years, but especially early on, we were bombarded with lazy think piece after lazy think piece expressing bewilderment over white evangelical “values voters” supporting an impious, unfaithful, scandal-ridden, and generally immoral billionaire. The head-scratching seemed to be the point, belying a transparently naïve hope that simply exposing conservative Christian Trump supporters’ hypocrisy (often relative to the way they treated Bill Clinton during his presidency) would somehow get them to back down and act like “real Christians.”
As almost any exvangelical could have told the pundits, the hypocrisy was purely on the surface; what “values voters” really value is the power to implement their theocratic agenda, and Trump gave them more of that than any previous president, including George W. Bush. Of course they supported Trump; he did what they wanted. It really is that simple, but you have to be open to that truth in order to see it. The media gatekeepers apparently didn’t want to hear from “disgruntled” former evangelicals; taking us seriously instead of dismissing us as “bitter” people “with an axe to grind” could harm Christianity’s reputation, which they were clearly determined to protect—even if not always consciously. That’s the underlying value and intellectual assumption that drives the “How Can Evangelicals Support Trump?” subgenre. Christian cultural hegemony—which in the United States goes hand in hand with support for capitalism—is at stake.
Even now, after a right-wing Christian insurrection, exvangelical voices still just barely register in the press. “Faith groups,” however, which major media outlets mostly reduce to a vague Christianity, still regularly get good press in ways that are every bit as nonsensical as bashing millennials for “killing” industries that are succumbing to macroeconomic changes driven by greed at the top.
Did you know, for example, that “Faith Groups Increasingly Join the Fight Against Climate Change”? At least that’s the claim made in an article published earlier this month that provides no data to support the notion that faith groups are more involved in fighting climate change now than they’ve been in the past. Toward the end, this article also admits, “Not all the faithful believe in renewable energy or even accept the science behind global warming,” citing white evangelicals in particular as “suspicious” of the expert consensus. This caveat renders the article’s framing essentially meaningless. If some faith groups are working against the mitigation of climate change, how much sense does it make to frame the article in terms of “Faith Groups Do X”? And yet this framing is so widespread it barely even registers, and the message it sends is that religious people, categorically, are doing good.
Take this Orlando Sentinel headline from October: “Orlando-area Faith Leaders Grapple With Far-Right Views After Capitol Riot Puts Spotlight on Christian Nationalism.” If faith leaders are “grappling” with the far-right in their midst, then they can’t be complicit, right? And surely there aren’t faith leaders who are fomenting Christian nationalism? (To be clear, yes, yes there are.) To be sure, the framing here tacitly admits that there are extremist churchgoers, but by the same token it absolves the leaders of any guilt. Those assumptions, at least, are the direction in which the headline points us—to say nothing of its downgrade of the January 6 insurrection to a mere “riot.”
Or take this Associated Press headline from September: “Faith Groups Aid Haitian Migrants, Denounce Mistreatment.” The framing implies that faith groups in general are pro-immigrant, which is simply not true. And the problem isn’t only with the headline. Note how the following two sentences from the article pit “faith-based groups” against “critics,” who are implicitly located outside of “faith-based groups,” despite most of these critics being right-wing Christians: “At times, faith-based groups have injected themselves into a polarizing national debate over immigration policies. Although many praise their work to help migrants, some critics say it encourages more people to come to the U.S.”
To be sure, faith-based groups do a disproportionate amount of work in areas like disaster relief and refugee resettlement in the United States, but that’s not the whole story. While not as numerous, humanist, atheist, and secular groups also tend to engage in humanitarian activities. But when the press takes note of secular humanitarianism at all, it tends to focus on individual groups—that is, it doesn’t provide secular groups with the same positive framing it gives religious groups via the “Faith Groups Do X” trope. This unfairly bolsters the reputation of religious Americans at the expense of secular Americans.
In addition, it’s a salient point that some of the most vicious xenophobia is found on the Christian Right. When Trump put forth his Muslim ban, for example, PRRI found that 76% of white evangelicals supported it, compared to 50% of mainline Protestants and 36% of all Catholics. Nevertheless, headlines like “Faith Groups Support Ban on Immigrants from Muslim Countries” were nowhere to be found. We need to ask ourselves what it means that we’re accustomed to reading stories that portray “faith groups” in a positive light, while we simply do not see such generalized headlines on the opposite side of the ledger.
The data and details matter, and lazy “Faith Groups Do X” articles tend to obscure them in favor of representing religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in a positive light. To call attention to this is not to attack religion or Christianity. It is, rather, to engage in warranted criticism of the American media’s strong implicit bias in favor of faith groups and, above all, of Christianity. My hope is that such good-faith (no pun intended) criticism may lead at least some journalists and editors to think twice about employing this lazy trope.
It is not the job of the media to bolster Christianity’s reputation, although far too many religion journalists seem to think that’s a part of their job description. But the media’s job is—in theory at least—to bolster civil society, by providing the public with good information, represented fairly, and by giving readers access to a variety of opinions on issues related to the public interest. Ideally, the press promotes democracy and pluralism. And many journalists do, to give credit where it’s due. Most journalists are not elite pundits, and working in the media is often neither easy nor lucrative. Even so, when the press promotes certain groups and voices on the basis of their religious identity, while erasing the contributions of secular Americans and former members of hardline religious groups, it is failing to fulfill its ideal democratic role.