American broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow, was an astute observer of the media realm in which he worked. Murrow shared, “We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”
The book, Mockingjay, recently made into a trilogy of movies under the title, Hunger Games, tells the tale of a world (and people) so thoroughly shaped by media, that society is governed (and experiences revolution) through the manipulation of message and image. Within the scenario, the wealthy government controls media, and success of the people’s revolution includes strategies of gaining control of the communication assets as well as control over the messaging. When the rebellion’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, realizes that rebel leader simply intends to maintain an oppressive status quo while hiding behind Katniss’ heroic image, Katniss assassinates the rebel leader.
In an interview with the novel’s author, Suzanne Collins, it was noted that the series “tackles issues like severe poverty, starvation, oppression, and the effects of war.” Collins replied that the inspiration for these themes was from her father. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Collin’s father made sure that his children understood the consequences and effects of war.
All too often, the ideals that inspire military service are challenged by a reality that falls far short of those ideals, and soldiers become casualties of moral harm and the effects of emotional ambiguity, as well as physical injury. And yet, those who have served and returned home can, perhaps, best appreciate Murrow’s insight, “Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.”
Throughout Collin’s novel (and subsequent movie trilogy) a central question of “Real or not real?” is asked repeated by the character Peeta, who has suffered the effects of torture and post-traumatic stress. Within the context of a war, loyalties are unclear within a reality that destroys illusions even as it destroys a populace and the lives of those who fought in the war. Media communication has a long history of being used as the tail that wags the dog, and those who can best afford to manipulate the resources of communication can insulate the populace from truth by providing a more appealing alternative in its place. Rome burns, but Nero plays his fiddle.
Recent changes in the news programming of a local television station in Seattle have concerned me a greatly. Since February of this year, I have observed significant changes in the production and messaging of what is categorized as “news.” Women evening newscasters have gone from previously wearing business attire to wearing a shared uniform of figure-fitting dresses and high heals. Accompanying the visual of professional to vapid, appears to be a correlative change from investigative journalism to sharing opinions about large cookies and small dogs. Meanwhile, priceless works of art are at risk of flooding in Paris and nearly 600,000 people are besieged in 19 different areas in Syria, with two-thirds trapped by government forces, the rest by armed opposition groups and Islamic State militants.
Admittedly, topics of Climate Change and global war are challenging to cover, analyze and present to the public. They are also hard sells to sponsors who want to sell gas-fueled cars and network owners with ties to corporate global interests. However, it’s really not possible to single out producers of news media as the source of our social ills. Rather than stepping on their heads, I’m aware that I actually feel a great deal of empathy for journalists and broadcasters. The public consumer is an important partner in shaping what they prefer to consume – in both subtle and not so subtle ways.
I have a similar challenge when preparing sermons. I consider impact as well as content, because even if I believe that what I’m saying contains important truth, the reality is that the financial bottom line of our congregation can be impacted by who may be unhappy with what I’m saying. That doesn’t necessarily keep me from speaking, but I am aware that I engage in the phenomenon of “choosing my battles,” a self-inflicted censorship which at times serves to preserve some other good – my parish budget, my relationships with parishioners, or my own mental health.
Now, with all of this said, there is one word – one name – that I will share here and which will not be spoken by me within any sermon, and that name is, “Trump.”
I believe that the phenomenon of Donald Trump in our current presidential race is a direct result of a collective failure to speak the truth, and thereby break bullies and stop a social/political process of the objectification and persecution of the marginalized “other.” There is, by this point, no minority or underprivileged group that Donald Trump has not held in contempt or denigrated in thought, word or action.
This past week, our nation and our church recognized Memorial Day – an occasion in the United States to honor and remember the people who have died while serving in our country’s armed forces. This Memorial Day, I could not help but remember another quote by Edward R. Murrow, “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.” As citizens, whenever we fail to defend any instance and every insult inflicted on the diverse peoples who call this country home, we fail those whose lives were given to defend what they gave their lives to preserve – the opportunity to be a better world for all people.
As people of faith, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to call out every bully, whether that bully be in a house of government or in a house of God. We must renew a quality and practice of moral courage that the world and our country have engaged before in our history under the persecution of Senator McCarthy. In Murrow’s words, “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our own history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular…. There is no way for a citizen of the Republic to abdicate his responsibility.”
“No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices,” said Murrow then, and we must not be accomplices now.
What Donald Trump lacks in social empathy, moral character and global awareness is precisely what our country and others must uphold today if we – all of us – are going to create together a world in which future generations will thrive. Through mutual understanding, collaboration and commitment to shared principles of governance, that all people – being equal before God – “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
About the nature of the American politician, Murrow has said, “The politician in my country seeks votes, affection and respect, in that order. With few notable exceptions, they are simply men who want to be loved.” The ego of Donald Trump is such that he is bottomless pit of narcissistic need which we – as citizens of this country – are under no obligation to meet. We will love him best by being tough with our love, by holding him accountable to the basic principles upon which this country was founded; by holding him accountable to those we have sent to war in every age and who have not returned; by holding him accountable for the utter lack of compassion which he inflicts on every other person but desires most especially for himself.
By holding him accountable, we do our most basic duty as citizens – whether we are journalists and reporters or whether we are teachers and preachers. Donald Trump is only aided by our silence. Therefore, let us not be silent.
If this were a sermon, I would conclude here with the words, “In Christ’s name – Amen.” If this was a homage to Edward R. Murrow, I could end with, “Good night and good luck.” However, my friends, I feel strongly that this time in our life as a country requires great things from all of us, and there is no easy blessing to give for the work we must do.
Let us courageously create the world that we would have come upon the earth, the world that has not yet come but which is relying fully upon us alive now to make possible. Love and hope must dare today and every day to compete with hate and despair in the market place and in the political forum. Let us speak again and always of the value and imperative of truth, and let us absolutely insist upon it from those who would lead this nation.