Is there a ‘counter-cultural conspiracy’ to keep conservative Christian opinion out of the media?
Political activism is more about mobilizing existing attitudes than it is about cultivating new ones. As a result, one of the best ways to influence public opinion is to keep views you dislike from reaching a receptive audience. The first line of defense is to ignore them – to refuse to use the people who hold them as sources for news stories. The second line of defense is to ridicule the people who hold the opinion – to portray them as ignorant, self interested, or foolish. If these fail then the third line of defense is to attack the opinion as morally indefensible. The aim is to avoid a public debate with your opponents.
These techniques work because most of the public consume opinion rather than producing it. Academics, newspaper columnists, talk back radio hosts, politicians, political activists, and celebrities produce and distribute opinions while the audience chooses which ones they want to adopt as their own. In the same way that most consumers don’t design their own clothes, cars, or houses, most respondents to opinion polls do not create their own attitudes – they buy them ‘off the rack.’
Soft censorship is the practice of keeping attractive opinions from winning support by keeping them off the public agenda. Sometimes the process goes wrong. For years there was a pool of voters who were receptive to restrictions on Asian immigration and an end to Aboriginal welfare spending. The major parties knew that these were the policies some voters wanted but neither of them wanted then on the table. During the 1996 Federal campaign the Liberal Party dropped Pauline Hanson in an effort to keep her opinions out of the media. As it turned out, it was too late. Hanson got so much free media that she was able to create a new political party and win seats in both state and Federal campaigns. The more the media and Hanson’s opponents picked on her as an ignorant bigot the more some people identified with her.
Normally things don’t get out hand. Most of the public don’t spend a lot of time reading and thinking about political issues. They are more likely to be thinking about how to pay for their children’s orthodontics than they are to be thinking about the impact of the Free Trade Agreement. Whether they form an opinion or not will depend on whether they see or hear opinions presented in the media and whether anybody (like a pollster) asks them what their opinion is. This was Philip Converse‘s great contribution to political science – the idea that "large portions of the electorate do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time." Rather than pre-existing political opinions, what most people have are predispositions to form opinions.
Theorists as diverse as Pierre Bourdieu and John Zaller have written about the way elites are pick and choose which of the public’s predispositions to activate. In his essay ‘Public Opinion Does not Exist‘ Bourdieu argues that people have "a system of implicit values" which they have "internalized from childhood and from which they generate answers to very different types of questions." Similarly, in his book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, John Zaller defines ‘political predispositions as "individual level traits that regulate the acceptance or non-acceptance of the political communications that the person receives." Like Bourdieu, Zaller argues that values are the most important of these predispositions and that predispositions are largely out of the reach of elite influence.
The combination of relatively stable predispositions and limited attention to political issues is what creates the potential for elite advocacy and activism. Rather than thinking of elites’ the way paranoid right wing columnists do (as a kind of taxpayer subsidized new class conspiracy) it is more useful to think of them as anyone who has a disproportionate amount of access to other people’s attention. The leaders of major political parties, high rating talk-back radio hosts, and editors and commentators in the media. Together these elite groups can sometimes have strikingly different predispositions to those of the general public. And much of what passes for public debate is actually members of these groups fighting it out to decide where the limits of respectable opinion lie – where ridicule and moral condemnation end and serious debate begins.
A example of this is Angela Shanahan’s recent Canberra Times piece ‘Onward, Aussie Christian soldiers’ (B7 23/10/04). Shanahan believes that while many Australians are receptive to the views of groups like Family First a "counter-cultural conspiracy" keeps their ideas out of the media. "Christian soldiers are on the war path," Shanahan says, "because they are frustrated over being ignored."
The inability to take religion seriously is the real log in the eye of the commentators who were formed by the secular left. Stuck in a spiritually arid world of their own making, they have tried to marginalize and exclude religion by presenting it as the opiate of a few deluded conservative nutters.
Gerard Henderson took a similar line in the in the Sydney Morning Herald. Jones kicked off an interview with Family First’s chairman Peter Harris by asking “Do you see the hand of God in this election result?”. Henderson saw this as an attempt to ridicule Harris and discredit his opinions. According to Henderson Christians "have become the convenient targets of
scorn" for journalists like Jones.
Shanahan goes further by arguing that there is an “anti-Christian philosophical offensive” taking place in the media:
The offensive takes place in sophisticated realms – in the secular press and at scientific and ethical conferences where utilitarians such as Peter Singer prevail. It is loudly proclaimed by opinion page contributors such as in-vitro fertilisation researcher John McBain, who has compared the Catholic hierarchy with the Taliban. And it caricatures the interpreters of the Christian tradition as Trounson did in an interview for The Weekend Australian Magazine as "thin-lipped old men". Ultimately, it is about the competing voices that try to make themselves heard in a free society about what are loosely referred to as values.
Shanahan believes that progressive elites are trying to "pick and choose what the church is allowed to talk about." Christian leaders who cross the boundaries set for them are punished with ridicule and moral condemnation.
In the United States right wing Christian journalists like Bob Case claim that all Christians want is to be allowed access to the mainstream media. Talking about his campaign to push Christian perspectives into the mainstream Case says that "The homosexuals are our role model in this… "They had the same problems we do twenty, twenty-five years ago – a despised minority hiding in the closet, and all the stories in the media looked to point out their weaknesses."
But despite these claims it is hard to accept that this is all activists like Case are after. If there were more conservative Christians in universities, parliaments, and the media wouldn’t they use the same techniques to silence people who argued for gay marriage? Wouldn’t they ignore, mock, and demonize their opponents? Under the guise of protecting the family, isn’t what these activists really want is to deny legal recognition and respectability to homosexual relationships?
Is there a conspiracy to keep conservative Christian opinions out of the mainstream media? Or do journalists have a responsibility to discourage opinions which inflame prejudice?