Compared to my hometown newspaper in the 1960’s, the major networks, newsweeklies, and big newspapers were straight-up-the-middle neutral journalists. My radical self even considered them conservative, as they reported on business or the military without immediately condemning them. I can look back now and see how they shaded (or worse) against conservatives, while publishing mostly liberal columnists and commentators. Yet that knowledge did not come to me for years, and only in a roundabout way. In the moment, Newsweek, NBC, and the NYT were simply “news” to me.
In the late 70’s I was a dissenting member of the new evangelical culture. I defended the more mainstream denominations, I thought the danger to the church was from adopting the ideas of the secular culture, both liberal and conservative, both capitalist and socialist. I fully understood CS Lewis’s lesson that only individuals are eternal – nations and empires are temporary, ephemeral. I didn’t follow politics much. I was aware of culture war however. While your local paper and radio station would report kindly on the retirement of one rabbi and the installation of a new one, or a groundbreaking for a new Methodist church, this was just a variation of reporting on Girl Scout or Rotary activities. People belonged to lots of groups (see Bowling Alone) and the inner sections of the paper were like community bulletin boards.
Evangelical culture was very big on noticing how unfairly Christians were portrayed in “the media.” At news outlets, it would have to be slightly so, as only bad news tends to become news there. If Time magazine had anything about a religious group, it was going to be because of some controversy, crisis, or scandal. There would be occasional positive human-interest stories, but “Presbyterians 2% Growth – Again!” isn’t national news. Still, there did seem to be some quiet delight in bringing bad news about religious groups, and painting them as crazy and dangerous. Even if unintentional, the overall effect was negative. I no longer believe it was unintentional, by the way. Not a conspiracy or attack, just a continuous prejudice toward their own views, which were less religious.
Movies, novels, and TV were another matter. There was criticism of churches and religion dating way back. Elmer Gantry might have some sympathetic religious characters, but the whole aim was pretty clearly meant to make fun of them and condemn them as hypocrites. As in “Little Big Man,” religious characters were similarly ridiculous or insincere. It was not universal, and religiously-sympathetic movies were still made, but the tide had turned. Yet how could one easily show another side in a sitcom, really, without offending someone. “Happy Days” takes place in an era when everyone was associated with a church, but no churches figure in the plots. If you brought in anything, the audience would be puzzled, nervous, wondering what was going to happen next. They weren't trying to kick churches, but for their purposes, churches were unnecessary, and over time, convinced you that churches were never necessary anyway. See also "Downton Abbey."
Still, it was clearly there, and increased through the 1980’s, even if evangelicals exaggerated it. You can see a lot just by looking, as Yogi Berra said. TV and cartoon Dads went from being wise to being risible (I eventually banned The Berenstain Bears from the house), authorities of all sorts were mocked, and a particular cultural narrative locked in. There was something foolish or sinister about people who owned guns, or went to church, or worked at dirty jobs. I started with similar views myself, even about the Christians, because I knew foolish ones and could well believe the dangerous ones were right over the horizon.
Through the 80’s I learned that those folks weren’t like that at all. I worked with them, lived near them, and went to church with them. The people I had come to expect were cartoons.
When I became interested in politics in the late 80’s again, I saw the anticonservative bias as soon as I was willing to look for it. I was primed for it by my experience of other biases, but the fault was my own. I had refused to look, and had hung on to some shreds of liberalism. I could certainly see faults on the conservative side and good-faith efforts on the liberal side. But the thing was manifest.
Most of my audience will believe me, as they have seen similar things themselves. Yet I kinow there are some who will think I paint this too vividly, and that prejudices run the other way, and just as influentially. I will have a go at a little reference piece before I leave on vacation.