Miss California and the Lions

For a long time, evangelicals have seen big media as a key to cultural influence. Such icon-creating events as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, the nomination of Sarah Palin for vice-president, and the current fracas over Miss California’s views on gay marriage have enticed evangelicals into believing that media attention is a significant opportunity.

Such attention is an opportunity — to get eaten alive. In all three of these instances, the principals have become part of the tabloid culture.

The old culture of journalism, back when journalists were collectively known as “the press,” had a liberal arts sanctity about it. Objectivity was the gold standard, and certain subjects were beneath notice. The New York Times was in every sense the gray lady: All the news that’s fit to print.

The news that wasn’t fit to print got picked up by the National Enquirer.

Over the last 25 years, old-school journalism has been eroded by the tabloid aesthetic. Low-brow shows like Entertainment Tonight gave rise to a new style of reporting perfected by, among others, Bill O’Reilly on Inside Edition, a tabloid show that would report in sensationalistic style on anything. The news departments of the major networks held their collective noses, but they also catered more and more to tabloid aesthetic in their magazine shows, adding music to their reports and using edgy graphics.

A large part of the hostility between the old networks and Fox News has to do with Fox’s wholehearted embrace of tabloid culture. The red graphics, the blonds, and of course the tabloid reporters themselves: Bill and Geraldo.

We now have a fully assimilated tabloid culture in mainstream journalism, with bloggers, entertainers, and “personalities” operating as authority figures. Old-school journalism is hopelessly compromised.

In this new media culture, political figures have to treat the tabloid appetites carefully. They can use the entertainment reporters, the bloggers, and the “personalities” to soften their images. (Think of Barack Obama’s deft use of Oprah.) But if they step too far into the tabloid zone, they become embarrassing.

Sarah Palin aspires to lead Republicans. But she failed the critical test of old journalism, the one-on-one interview with a heavy. Charles Gibson annihilated her. She thought to rescue herself by performing well on Saturday Night Live, deliberately stepping into the entertainment world, the tabloid aesthetic’s all-you-can-eat buffet. She succeeded there.

Today, she and her family are owned by tabloid culture. It’s Bristol and her ex-fiancé from now on.

(Rule: if you have gravitas, you can do an SNL turn. If you don’t, run away.)

Mel Gibson wanted to a make a deeply Catholic art film. But he filled it with his signature stomach-turning violence. Tabloid culture continued to own him, and he ended up with a DUI ornamented by anti-Semitic ramblings.

Over to you, Miss California.

Was Carrie Prejean asked an unfair question? Maybe. Was the blogger who asked it cruel and crude? Yeah. Has the leaking of old photos been cruel and crude? Certainly.

But this was a beauty contest, people! There is no pageantry more suited to tabloid culture than a beauty contest, a wrestling match of vanity. And in tabloid culture there is no such thing as a fair fight, or a low blow, or a civilized discussion. There is only one way to end a tabloid event: the walk of shame.

If you’re going to take a stand on conviction, you can’t do it in the mud.

When are evangelicals going to get it through their heads? Media grandstanding is nothing more than trotting into the Colosseum, smiling, inviting the lions out, and praying the Lord will use the spectacle for his glory.

It’s not martyrdom. It’s folly.

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