Popular Culture

When Journalism Jumped the Shark

Richard Mackson / Sports Illustrated / Getty
Richard Mackson / Sports Illustrated / Getty

IN THE FIRST half of 2016, O.J. Simpson, who still resides in a Nevada prison for his bungled robbery of sports memorabilia, seemed to be everywhere. First, there was the FX series “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” a high-quality, behind-the-scenes dramatization of Simpson’s 1995 murder trial. Then came “O.J.: Made in America,” a seven-and-a-half hour epic ESPN documentary in which director Ezra Edelman finally gives the Simpson story its due as a landmark event in the history of U.S. attitudes toward race, celebrity, and domestic violence, and in the evolution of our mass media culture.

Among other things, the O.J. Simpson murder trial marked the end of an era in which professional journalists observed events, then summarized and framed them into a coherent narrative for public consumption. This legacy of the print age persisted well into the broadcast era. Until the late 20th century, live, real-time TV coverage was limited to things like sporting events, inaugurations, and moonshots, or national disasters. Otherwise, the world was presented to TV viewers in one neat, 30-minute daily package at 6 p.m.

Like everything else in American culture, this started to change as cable replaced over-the-air broadcasting and specialty channels proliferated. In 1979, C-SPAN started running gavel-to-gavel coverage of the generally somnolent proceedings of the U.S. Congress. But CNN came along the next year to make things such as a toddler falling down a well in Texas into a national melodrama. True, CNN also went wall-to-wall on things such as the Iran-Contra investigations and the first Iraq war, but in the months between legitimate big events it also whipped up essentially local stories, such as child disappearances or shark attacks, into manufactured national crises.

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Bread and Circus

Near the turn of the 2nd century A.D., the poet Juvenal published a collection of verses titled Satires.  Among other things, the text was intended to spark discussion about social norms at a time when the masses were increasingly withdrawn from civil engagement.   

In specifics, Juvenal wrote:  

…everything now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

According to Juvenal, the public of his day and age was growing less concerned about social responsibility due to personal pursuits of bread (comfort) and circus (entertainment). In addition, he believed political leaders used the distribution of comfort and entertainment as a way to sedate the population, distract them, and open opportunities for systemic manipulation. 

Juvenal believed far too many citizens were far too willing to cooperate in their own exploitation.

What I find incredibly intriguing — and disconcerting — about Juvenal’s observations is that, numerous generations later, it can be argued that much of what he considered to be problematic in his era can now be found in North America.

Top 10 Reasons Why Christians Like Top 10 Lists about Christians

Ten Commandments Mosaic. Image via Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock
Ten Commandments Mosaic. Image via Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock

No, this is not some new Charlie Kauffman movie that folds in on itself, creating a perpetual feedback loop. I’m serious; Christians love Top 10 Lists.

No wonder Moses did only 10 commandments.

I noticed this recently when all of the top three most popular articles on the Sojo.net at the time were lists of this kind. So I went back and did a search of my own personal blog archive. Every one of the most popular pieces started with “10 Reasons,” or “Seven Things” or the like.

Are Christians obsessed with lists? What’s the deal?

I talked to a publisher years ago who told me that the key to a successful theology book was to include something akin to “six easy steps” in the title. I never took them up on that advice, but he knew what he was talking about. So after expending a little grey matter on the issue, I came up with this list of reasons why I think Christians love these kinds of lists:

#1. We don’t want to have to think too hard: Now, before you fire up your keyboard and rattle off a protest email, this is a broader truism across our entire culture....

Culture War Cease-Fire

One day last fall, I was half to blame for a raging argument between two neo-pacifists about nonviolence in cinema, focused on whether or not Quantum of Solace qualifies as a proper James Bond film, because it features an actual, real-world political controversy (the selling by a shadowy multinational corporation of water rights back to the people of Bolivia). I said that the Bond film stood out from typical multiplex fare because it presented values that transcend might vs. right, violence conquers all, and “there are no consequences to your actions if you’re a superhero.”

 

Not having seven years to spare for a graduate film sociology program, to solve the debate I checked my local movie theater listings.

 

I was wrong. The listings included:

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Sojourners Magazine March 2010
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God:

"From the time of Moses' stone tablets, man [sic] has searched for a better way to store, study, and share God's work," preaches the press release for the newly released GoBible. Making the biggest technological leap since Gutenberg, for only $99.95 this "Bible iPod" lets you hear narrations of the King James and New King James Versions. The index of searchable themes ranges from "afflictions" to "temptation" (no mention of justice or poverty is found). The GoBibles' chief product officer, former Mattel media VP Andy Rifkin, also gave the world Talk With Me Barbie and Barbie Fashion Designer.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2007
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Real Product: Freedom Ale!

Freedom Ale! What better way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade than with William Wilberforce Freedom Ale, a fair trade beer from England's Westerham Brewery Co. British fair trade groups challenged brewers to cook up a fair trade ale and cajoled pub owners to carry it. The ale is made with local hops and fair trade Demerara cane sugar—grown by small cooperatives in Kasinthula, Malawi—which gives it a "fruitiness reminiscent of pear drops and sherbet lemons to the nose, dominated by biscuity malt and hop resins." Remember that moderation is the watchword with all things, but a portion of each sale goes to Stop the Traffik, an international coalition of anti-trafficking groups.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2007
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Power Punch

Finally, researchers have harnessed the fruit of the spirit into a new kind of energy drink! "The 1in3Trinity Energy Drink," according to the promotional material, "is made of a special blend handed down from the flourishing vines and trees of the Holy Land mixed with B-vitamins, Vitamin C, herbs, and antioxidants." Taking a cue from Galatians 5:22, the high-energy, low-cal power punch will jump-start Christians "to be bold in their faith and reflect the Fruit of the Spirit to the world with confidence." Now you can serve the poor, challenge the rich, or just stay awake through all-night prayer vigils. The hip Texas-based entrepreneurs at 1in3Trinity also sell "dual gender" clothing.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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Pop Culture Christianity

Since the box-office success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, there's been a lot of hoopla about the big, previously neglected "Christian audience" (and how to cash in on it). But the strange truth is that most Christians—including evangelicals—are already quite comfortable with mainstream popular culture. Despite frequently denouncing the values of Hollywood, religious people are indistinguishable from nonreligious people when it comes to watching movies and television shows, according to a recent study. It seems we have assimilated—behaviorally, at least. Yet what lens (if any can be considered fundamentally "Christian") should we use to critique what we see, hear, and create?

In Eyes Wide Open, revised and expanded since its 2001 publication, Calvin College professor William Romanowski presents one approach, after first examining three other frameworks Christians often use to critique popular culture—frameworks he calls moralist, ideological, and theological.

It's not revelatory to read that Christian voices often denounce films because of isolated incidents of what they consider immorality (Schindler's List), or because the implied political or theological messages clash with their beliefs (The Cider House Rules), but Romanowski defines and illustrates well the limitations of these three approaches. While dismissive of the theological approach because he believes it's often forcefully imposed (Austin Powers as a meditation on Pauline freedom and restraint, anyone?), Romanowski is more thorough in his deconstruction of the other two. Usually, he contends, moralist and ideological approaches are piecemeal rather than holistic, and they're not consistently applied.

The "Christian framework" he proposes is very different. He calls us to evaluate cultural works based on the extent to which they represent—realistically—what it is like to live in God's "good but fallen world."

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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Fashion Conscious

When stern-looking models wearing the colors of Africa sashayed down a New York runway in February, it was hard to imagine the well-heeled event had anything to do with alleviating human suffering. But 30 of the ensembles, created by upscale designers such as Donna Karan, were later auctioned on eBay to raise an expected $150,000 for the Save Darfur Coalition, an organization trying to aid victims of the crisis in western Sudan.

It's not surprising that an image-obsessed industry in a profit-driven culture would turn out such an event—nor is it that buyers purchased outfits worth thousands of dollars to "help" orphans in Sudan. As a society, we like to buy things, and we like to buy them with a clean conscience.

Companies have seized on our desire to do good while looking good. Today we can fight any number of social ills by buying products whose sales are directed toward helping others. For example, through the celebrity-infused (Product) Red campaign—a collection of companies including Gap and Armani—you can buy a T-shirt to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB and in the process help direct money toward buying and distributing anti-retroviral drugs in Africa. "As First World consumers, we have tremendous power," says the campaign's Web site. "What we collectively choose to buy, or not to buy, can change the course of life and history on this planet." Dramatic, but true—and consumers are increasingly realizing it.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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Real Product: Sweet Salvation

Struggling to explain God's ways to your Sunday school class? Nothing says "atonement" like sugar tinted with Red Dye No. 3. The Salvation Candy Tube, produced by the company Bible Candy, helps the scriptural medicine go down. Kids use squeeze bottles of colored sugars to fill the tubes, designing their own sweet salvation. "Each Salvation Color is a different yummy flavor," says the Web site. The "green growth" of Jesse's shoot has the flavor of little green apples. "Jesus' blood" is sweet as cherries. And "heaven" tastes exactly like it sounds—cool lemonade on a hot, hot day. Leftovers? How about sprinkles for sanctified cupcakes? (The tubes are available in English and Spanish to meet the spiritual needs of a varied demographic.)

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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