Despite the growing political divides in our country, our mid-western church has outspoken pro-Trump folks and fiscal conservatives who can’t stand Trump. We have families from different racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. We have union Democrats and social justice activists.
Now you my be thinking, as the pastor I try to avoid talking about politics in church.
Quite the opposite. I am a protest-sign-wielding progressive pastor.
Me at a protest at the airport after the Muslim ban was announced
I love discussing the weeks news in the church lobby with friends from a wide variety of political philosophies. And we have great discussions. I hear what conservatives are saying about the Black Lives Matter protest. And I tell them how the BLM protest I was just at wasn’t like that at all.
But during the 2016 election, I noticed that our friendly discussions started to break down. I would show up on Sunday ready to discuss the stories I had heard on NPR and Late Night. But my conservative friends hadn’t even heard the story.
“But what do you think of the Clinton Uranium story?” They would ask. I didn’t think anything of it. Because I literally had no idea what they were talking about. And sensing an ensuing argument we would drop the topic.
There were a few different conservative news sites that my friends were getting their news from, but Fox News seemed to be at the center of the conversation.
But I started missing our conversations. So in order to resurrect our dialogues…I did what I swore I would never do. I started listening to Fox News.
I made three rules for listening to Fox News
I was going to observe Fox News as if I was a studying a totally different culture. I knew I wasn’t going to agree with it, but I wanted to understand what Fox News was and why people liked it.
I would not assume that my conservative friends agreed with Fox News.
I would try to listen for 5 – 15 minutes a day and I would stop listening when I got angry. Me
I quickly learned I could listen waaay longer than I could watch. So I decided to stick to Fox Radio.
(Some people have told me that it was probably a little easier for me to listen to Fox as a white straight male – because Fox typically wasn’t personally attacking me. But they were attacking my ideas and a hell of a lot of people I love.)
I quickly realized Fox News show hosts (Hannity, Limbaugh, and Beck) were less like journalists and more like the Late Night Talk show hosts (Colbert, Kimmel, Meyers).
Fox (like Late Night) is dominated by white straight men who preferred to make fun of their political opponents rather than engaging with their ideas.
I recognized the trappings because I was used to watching this format on Late Night. Stephen Colbert doesn’t bother to bring on an expert to discuss immigration. He makes a joke about an overly simplistic version of Trump’s wall, then calls Trump an idiot and moves on.
Likewise, Hannity usually doesn’t find an expert on immigration. He just spouts off his simplistic views and criticizes “the left.”
You can say Colbert is a comedian and Hannity is a news man, but anyone who buys that line is willfully ignoring Colbert’s intelligence and influence.
Comparing Fox to Late Night helped me understand part of the breakdown in communication between my conservative and liberal friends. A big part of our media intake was simplistic programming designed to attack each other’s intelligence.
When I was laughing at them on Late Night, they were laughing at me on Fox News.
I realized that there were two very different tones on NPR and Fox News.
It is socially acceptable on Fox News for the host to shout at their guest in an angry passion. Whereas, an NPR host will rarely share their own opinions directly. This gives them the appearance of objectivity. Sure they stack the deck with liberal guests, but they do find real experts. And when they don’t like what a conservative politician is saying, they don’t shout at them. They just start talking in a really really condescending calm voice.
Now shouting and being condescending are both bad habits. But they are socially acceptable bad habits in their respective media cultures.
And I realized was that my conservative and liberal friends were parroting these behaviors. My conservative friends would raise their voice and I would respond with a condescending calm NPR voice.
So I decided that I was going to try my best not to be condescending. And when they started shouting, I was going to try to hear it as passion, and not mean spirited shouting.
I also realized that NPR stories may be difficult to follow without a formal education in liberal arts.
Fox News talks a lot about “common sense.”
“The Founding Fathers said…” “The Bible says…” “Everyone knows…” are phrases you will hear over and over again. And the response on the left is that this common sense is mostly based on a straight-forward, Euro-American, male, readings of history, religion, and the constitution.
But the more I listened to Fox News, the more I started to notice that the NPR stories might actually be pretty difficult to follow for some Fox News listeners.
NPR assumes you have been taught and accept that most ideas and documents should be read primarily in their historical and cultural context.
That it is important to you that you read the Founding Fathers not just as thinkers – but also as white, land, and slave owning men from 1776.
That you understand and celebrate the different sets of values operative in Muslim communities and Catholic communities.
But this can be a real challenge for some people. I had the opportunity to go college and study the humanities. I have traveled to other countries and experienced cultures with other forms of “common sense.” And I suspect the average NPR host has also had a similar background. But the target audience for Fox News may not have had, or wanted these opportunities.
Now before you accuse me of getting condescending, let me say this. I am not saying Fox News listeners are not intelligent.
I can’t change the oil in my car or calculate my taxes, but this doesn’t make me stupid. It means that I don’t have training, passion, and patience for the work.
Likewise, it seems to me that many Fox News listeners may not have the training, passion, and patience for the work of cross cultural understanding. But there are a lot of hard working and intelligent small business people and excellent car repairers that listen to Fox.
This brings me to my final discovery. Not all Conservatives agree with Fox News.
Listening to Fox did help my conversations with conservatives. I usually knew what stories they were talking about and had some time to think about my responses.
Sometimes we only talked about the 10 minutes of actual news news at the top of ever hour. Because these 10 minutes were pretty similar to the NPR rundown, although Fox tended to focus more on rural stories – and man hunts. Fox really loves covering people on the run.
I even found a few people who I thought had a lot of integrity on Fox. Shep Smith is doing some good work trying to do fact-based journalism on Fox TV.
AND AFTER A YEAR OF LISTENING…I EVEN CALLED INTO MY LOCAL FOX NEWS STATION!
I was on air for 8 minutes on Closing Arguments with Walter Hudson, a libertarian who I really disagree with but he’s honest and he hates Trump. He even hearts my post conversation tweets.
Discussions with my conservative friends at church also improved. When my conservative friends saw the time and energy I was putting into understanding Fox News…they started to take my progressive ideas more seriously. They listened to what I had to say because I was willing to engage the stories they thought were important.
And when they heard me openly acknowledge the biases in NPR and Colbert, they began to acknowledge the biases in Fox and the National Review. We talked about what we were hearing and how this shaped our understanding of the news cycle. We realized we both hated the huge influence of lobbyists and the endless gridlock.
We even started brainstorming solutions that might actually get bi-partisan support in our local and state government and…maybe…just maybe in Washington.
In short, we started having great conversations again.
Thank you to my conservative and progressive friends who reviewed this article before I posted it. Your help was very appreciated.