Acts of God, Acts of Media
by Norman Solomon
The new year has scarcely begun, but Americans watching television
have already heard a lot about God.
When Larry King interviewed George H.
W. Bush and Bill Clinton the other night, CNN presented ample
split-screen evidence that the Lord transcends political parties
and backgrounds. The former presidents -- blue-blooded Yankee
and hardscrabble Arkansan -- spoke eloquently about faith. By
now, perhaps no subject has achieved more agreement in the USA's
news media. Faith in God is a televised no-brainer.
"My faith is never shaken by a personal
tragedy," said ex-President Bush, "or even a tragedy
of this enormity." Clinton said: "It reminds us that
we're not in control, that our faith is constantly tested by circumstances,
but it should be deepened when we see the courageous response
people are having, and the determination to endure." Both
men praised the incumbent in the White House, presumptively a
But, writing in the London-based Guardian
four days into the new year, George Monbiot did the unholy math:
"The U.S. government has so far pledged $350 million to the
victims of the tsunami" and has spent $148 billion on the
war in Iraq. "The war has been running for 656 days. This
means that the money pledged for the tsunami disaster by the United
States is the equivalent of one and a half day's spending in Iraq."
(The British government's killing-to-helping ratio, while not
quite so extreme, is also overwhelmingly for death.)
In the media frame, it doesn't seem to
matter that almost all the notable Americans invited on the networks
to talk about their faith in God are supportive of bankrolling
the carnage in Iraq. This is nothing new. For a long time, high-profile
talk about belief in God has been a useful fog for agendas that
enrich weapons manufacturers while helping the wealthy get wealthier
and further impoverishing the already poor.
In autumn 1994, just weeks before the
mid-term election when the GOP won the upper hand on Capitol Hill,
the executive director of the conservative fundamentalist Christian
Coalition spoke at the National Press Club. "Faith in God
isn't what's wrong with America," Ralph Reed declared, "it's
what is right with America." A decade later, Reed is one
of the nation's top Republican operatives, and such rhetoric is
No doubt many Americans like the profuse
media talk about faith in God. If that's the case, they should
say so -- and, judging from the steady media cacophony, a large
number of them do. But what about the Americans who find that
talk to be cloying, simplistic and manipulative? Where's the media
space for them?
One of the great media taboos is to sincerely
question "faith in God" or to suggest that the superficial
renditions of faith popularized in mass media are apt to paralyze
more than empower.
With all the God talk, big media outlets
create ongoing pressure for conformity. That may seem to be an
affirmation of shared beliefs or, at worst, inconsequential. But
banishing doubt runs the very real risk of banishing -- or at
least ostracizing -- thought.
"I don't know if God exists and I
don't care," Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote a
few days ago, bucking the media tide. "God's will and design
for this temporal and spatial vastness, if any, is so patently,
deliberately impenetrable that I doubt any mortal has a grasp
on it. The very inexplicability of sad events like the tsunami,
like the AIDS crisis or even like the cancer death of the father
of one of my daughter's 2nd-grade classmates last week are, to
me, reminders to focus on our obligations to one another, not
to the infinite; to honor the creator, if any, by honoring creation
itself and hoping that's good enough."
But the media market is bullish on piety
-- and very fond of the facile reverence that far-flung TV correspondents
are now exuding from picturesque beaches struck by Acts of God.
We don't need to impugn the sincerity of any individual to note
that such reportage is good for the U.S. news business. And, in
the political economy of corporate media compassion, it would
be bad for the U.S. news business to devote anywhere near such
extensive coverage to the children being destroyed by Pentagon
firepower and wartime malnutrition in Iraq.
We're often told that God works in mysterious
ways. But Washington's priorities are appreciably more intelligible.
While the prospects for clearly deciphering life's unfathomable
riddles remain dim, we ought to figure out how to stop the wholesale
killers who've gained so much unholy power close to home.
Norman Solomon's next book, "War
Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,"
will be published in early summer by Wiley. His columns and other
writings can be found at <www.normansolomon.com>.