Thursday, August 26, 2004

Published on Sunday, August 22, 2004 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Bush Weds Religion, Politics to Form World View
by David Domke

American presidents beginning with George Washington have included religious language in their public addresses. Claims of the United States as a divinely chosen nation and requests for God to bless U.S. decisions and actions have been commonplace. Scholars have labeled such discourse "civil religion," in which political leaders emphasize religious symbols and transcendent principles to engender a sense of unity and shared national identity.

George W. Bush is doing something altogether different.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, the president and his administration have converged a religious fundamentalist worldview with a political agenda -- a distinctly partisan one, wrapped in the mantle of national interest but crafted by and for only those who share their outlook. It is a modern form of political fundamentalism -- that is, the adaptation of a self-proclaimed conservative Christian rectitude, by way of strategic language choices and communication approaches designed for a mass-media culture, into political policy.

Motivated by this ideology, the Bush administration has sought to control public discourse and to engender a climate of nationalism in which the public views presidential support as a patriotic duty and Congress (and the United Nations) is compelled to rubber-stamp administration policies.

The goal is a national mood of spiritual superiority under the guise of a just sovereignty. The ultimate irony is that in combating the Islamic extremists responsible for Sept. 11, the administration has crafted, pursued and engendered its own brand of political fundamentalism -- one that, while clearly tailored to a modern democracy, nonetheless functions ideologically in a manner similar to the version offered by the terrorists.

All of this has a facade of merely politics as usual. It is not. Unfortunately, as too often occurs with matters of religion, the mainstream news media have missed the story almost entirely, and thus so has much of the U.S. public.

Bush is the most publicly religious president since at least Woodrow Wilson. Ronald Reagan had great appeal to religious conservatives, but he was far less outspoken about religion -- a point noted in a June eulogy of the late president by Ron Reagan, who said his father did not "(wear) his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage," a comment many interpreted as a critique of the current president. Indeed, Bush speaks often about his "born-again" faith and regularly references a divine power in public statements, a practice that religion scholar Martin E. Marty has termed "God talk."

That the president -- any president -- is a person of religious faith is generally viewed by the U.S. public in favorable terms, the better to be grounded when facing momentous decisions. I share this view because I know how central the Christian faith is to my life and to many others I know and respect. Invocations of a higher power, when emphasizing inclusive and transcendent principles, seem to me to be legitimate and adroit rhetoric for a leader of 290 million people, the overwhelming majority of whom believe in God in some form. What is deeply troubling about Bush's religiosity, however, is that he consistently evinces a certainty that he knows God's will -- and he then acts upon this certainty in ways that affect billions of humans.

For example, in his address before Congress and a national television audience nine days after the terrorist attacks, Bush declared: "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." Similarly, in the 2003 State of the Union address, with the conflict in Iraq imminent, he declared: "Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity." These are not requests for divine favor; they are declarations of divine wishes.

From this position, only short theological and rhetorical steps are required to justify U.S. actions. For instance, at a December 2003 news conference, Bush said: "I believe, firmly believe -- and you've heard me say this a lot, and I say it a lot because I truly believe it -- that freedom is the Almighty God's gift to every person, every man and woman who lives in this world. That's what I believe. And the arrest of Saddam Hussein changed the equation in Iraq. Justice was being delivered to a man who defied that gift from the Almighty to the people of Iraq."

Further, this view of divinely ordained policy infuses the public discourse of several administration leaders, irrespective of their particular religious outlook. I systematically examined hundreds of administration public communications -- by the president, John Ashcroft, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld -- about the "war on terrorism" in the 20 months between Sept. 11, 2001, and the end of "major combat" in Iraq in spring 2003. This research showed that the administration's public communications contained four characteristics simultaneously rooted in religious fundamentalism while offering political capital:

Simplistic, black-and-white conceptions of the political landscape, most notably good vs. evil and security vs. peril.

Calls for immediate action on administration policies as a necessary part of the nation's "calling" and "mission" against terrorism.

Declarations about the will of God for America and for the spread of U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty.

Claims that dissent from the administration is unpatriotic and a threat to the nation and globe.

In combination, these characteristics have transformed Bush's "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" policy to "Either you are with us, or you are against God." To the great misfortune of American democracy and the global public, such a view looks, sounds and feels remarkably similar to that of the terrorists it is fighting.

Indeed, one is hard-pressed to see how the perspective of Osama bin Laden, that he and his followers are delivering God's wishes for the United States (and others who share Western customs and policies), is much different from the perspective of George W. Bush, that the United States is delivering God's wishes to the Taliban or Iraq. Clearly, flying airplanes into buildings in order to kill innocent people is an indefensible, immoral activity. So, too, some traditional allies told the Bush administration, is an unprovoked pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign nation. In both instances, the aggression manifested in a form that was available to the leaders. Fundamentalism in the White House is a difference in degree, not kind, from fundamentalism exercised in dark, damp caves. Democracy is always the loser.

The ascendancy of the administration's political fundamentalism after Sept. 11 was facilitated by mainstream U.S. news coverage, which substantially echoed the administration's views. That became apparent when I analyzed how 20 leading and geographically diverse newspapers and the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC covered each of Bush's national addresses (15 in 20 months, a remarkable pace) and the administration's push for key "war on terrorism" policies and goals in 2001 and 2002, including passage of the USA Patriot Act, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and congressional and U.N. resolutions regarding Iraq.

This analysis revealed that news media consistently amplified the words and ideas of the president and other administration leaders. They did that by echoing throughout their coverage similar claims made by multiple administration members, thereby having the administration's perspectives establish the terms of public discourse. For example, only two of more than 300 editorials that I analyzed in response to the president's national addresses criticized the administration's description of the campaign against terrorism as an epic struggle of good vs. evil. None questioned his explicit declarations of God's will. With so many around the globe expressing a different view during these 20 months, by echoing these fundamentalist messages within these editorials, the press failed its readers.

To be clear, the U.S. news media did not emphasize the administration's messages to the same extent as the White House did during this time. Such an equation would imply that the commercial, independent news media merely served as mouthpieces, and that is not the case. Disagreement with the administration sometimes appeared in news stories--either as a presentation of different factual information or of divergent observations by other sources -- and in newspaper editorials. Coverage also included occasional strong criticisms of government policy, in particular in regard to the administration's diplomatic difficulties in early 2003.

The chief failure of members of the mainstream media, though, is that they did not adequately cover the deeply religious motivations to the administration's actions and, as a result, too rarely questioned the administration's religious-cum-political discourses. Once these fundamentalist discourses became consistently amplified -- but not analyzed -- in leading media outlets, the administration gained the rhetorical high ground, and that went far in determining policy decisions.

While Christian conservatives and hard-line neo-conservatives may see the developments after Sept. 11 in a positive light (after all, one might say that God and the United States have been given a larger piece of the planet with which to work), all Americans should be leery of any government that merges religiosity into political ends. Noble ideals such as freedom and liberty are clearly worth pursuing, but the administration promoted those concepts with its left hand while using its right hand to treat others -- including many U.S. citizens -- in an authoritarian, dismissive manner. Unfortunately, the Bush administration appears to be the latest entry in a historical record that shows that beliefs and claims about divine leading are no guarantee that one will exercise power in a consistently liberating, egalitarian manner.

David Domke, a former journalist, is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on the relationships among political leaders, news coverage and public opinion in the United States. He is the author of "God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the 'War on Terror,' and the Echoing Press" (Pluto Press, 2004). The book is available in the United States through the University of Michigan Press.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Wal-Mart Tries to Shine Its Image by Supporting Public Broadcasting
August 16, 2004
By CONSTANCE L. HAYS , New York Times

Wal-Mart, stung by criticism of its labor practices,
expansion plans and other business tactics, is turning to
public radio, public television and even journalists in
training to try to improve its image.

So far this year, the company has become a sponsor on
National Public Radio, where recorded messages promote its
stores. It has underwritten a popular talk show, "Tavis
Smiley," accompanied by similar promotional messages, on a
public television station in California.

And earlier this month, Wal-Mart announced plans to award
$500,000 in scholarships to minority students at journalism
programs around the country, including Howard University,
University of Southern California and Columbia University.

Wal-Mart has not supported any of those organizations in
the past. But as the company outgrows its rural roots and
moves into suburbs and cities, it is encountering more
resistance from people whose traditions and values may be
different from those of Wal-Mart's historic customers.

The company has been faulted for its selective approach
toward the publications that it sells, which has included
banning three men's magazines and ordering plastic covers
to conceal what it considered "uncomfortable" headlines on
several women's titles, including Glamour and Redbook. It
has refused to sell music albums with what it deems
offensive lyrics, and manufacturers acknowledge producing
sanitized versions of popular CD's in order to maintain a
presence in the giant retailer's stores.

Mona Williams, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the
journalism scholarships were "a first of their kind" for
the retailer, and came about because of the recent
publicity around its business practices.

"We've really been in the spotlight and I think that's made
us especially sensitive to the need for balanced coverage,"
Ms. Williams said. "It doesn't matter if the subject is
Wal-Mart or something else. You just aren't going to have
that unless different perspectives are represented."
Without diversity, she added, "the result can be narrower
thinking as news events are presented to the public."

Influencing that presentation may be at the heart of the
effort, although Ms. Williams said there was "no hidden
agenda here" and added that it probably would have been
done even if Wal-Mart had not come under scrutiny.

John Siegenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at
Vanderbilt University, said, "Wal-Mart is doing what most
corporations do: when they feel pain, they try to salve the
wound." He predicted that "they may get less out of it than
they expect to," but he added that "if it helps minority
journalism, I hope they salve it with more than half a
million dollars."

As for public radio, Ms. Williams said the company sought
the demographic that National Public Radio listeners
represent. The goal is to "reach community leaders and help
them understand the value that we bring to their areas."

"We want those folks to know that having a Wal-Mart in
their town is a good thing," she said.

A spokeswoman for NPR, Jenny Lawhorn, said its audience
consisted of "intelligent and well-educated people" who
"tend to be business leaders and tend to be engaged in the
civic process." According to a recent survey, about 56
percent of them are Wal-Mart shoppers, she said, compared
with 66 percent of the general population.

Wooing community leaders fits well into Wal-Mart's plans.
The company has stumbled in recent months against
opposition to its stores. In April, its effort to win voter
support for a store in the Inglewood, Calif., suburb of Los
Angeles was defeated after the company took the unusual
step of putting the issue on the ballot. An attempt to
build a store in Chicago was rejected, although a second
store was approved, while plans to open a store in downtown
New Orleans have been slowed by opposition as well.

The company has also been criticized by labor unions, which
say Wal-Mart fights their organizing efforts. In
California, unionized supermarket workers staged a lengthy
strike earlier this year seeking benefits that stores said
they could not afford because they needed to compete with

Neither Wal-Mart nor NPR would reveal what it pays as an
NPR sponsor. The contract began Feb. 16 and extends until
January. Total corporate financing is expected to reach $30
million this year, Ms. Lawhorn said. As part of its NPR
arrangement, Wal-Mart is described several ways when it is
mentioned as an underwriter on the air. The descriptions
include the following: "Wal-Mart. Providing jobs and
opportunities for millions of Americans of all ages and all
walks of life." Another says the company is "bringing
communities job opportunities, goods and services and
support for neighborhood programs."

NPR has received letters and e-mail messages from listeners
since the Wal-Mart underwriting information began to be
broadcast. One listener wrote: "What a disappointment!
Maybe next it will be Halliburton." The role of Wal-Mart
was taken up by NPR's ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, who wrote
in his online column, "Wal-Mart symbolizes values
that some listeners believe to be antithetical to the
values of public radio" and suggested that "one way that
NPR could prove that underwriting has no effect on its
integrity is for NPR to produce more hard-hitting
interviews, more investigative reporting and yes, even more
scandalizing satires."

The company also underwrites "Tavis Smiley," a talk show on
KCET, the public television station in Los Angeles. The
program began in January and Wal-Mart was on board
immediately, a spokesman for the show, Joel Brokaw, said.
In late March, Mr. Smiley interviewed Wal-Mart's chief
executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., who is seldom made available
to reporters. After disclosing twice that Wal-Mart
sponsored the show, Mr. Smiley went on to ask his guest
about Wal-Mart's image problems. Mr. Brokaw said he did not
know how much Wal-Mart paid to be a sponsor.

The journalism plan evolved separately, Ms. Williams said.
Ten journalism schools will receive $50,000 each, which
will be distributed as $2,500 scholarships to four students
at each school. The scholarships will be awarded in each
student's junior year and can be renewed for the senior
year as well.

The recipients chosen include Arizona State University and
Syracuse University. Administrators at the universities
said the selections came as a complete surprise. In most
cases, corporate donations for scholarships are unheard of,
the administrators said, unless the corporation is involved
in the news business or another communications medium like

"It's kind of a reach to expect companies that don't see
themselves as part of the media world to support journalism
education," said Steve Doig, the interim director of the
Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at
Arizona State, where some scholarships have been provided
by newspaper companies like Gannett.

Mr. Doig, a former reporter for the Miami Herald, said that
he was aware of Wal-Mart's practices with magazines but
that did not prevent him from accepting the scholarship

"It's not the American Nazi Party," he said. "I don't see
Wal-Mart as problematic enough to miss the opportunity they
are offering to several of our students."

He added: "Both the banning of certain magazines and the
decision to give money to journalism schools are calculated
behaviors and not necessarily contrary. I don't support
banning newspapers or any particular publication, but a
company has the right to decide what it wants to sell."

Wal-Mart also plans to include the scholarship students at
next year's annual shareholder meeting, Ms. Williams said.

"They will be guests in the audience, and we think that
would be a great educational experience for them," she
said. They may also have tours of the company's offices in
Bentonville, Ark., as well as a warehouse nearby.

Tom Bowers, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass
Communication at the University of North Carolina in Chapel
Hill, said the move was "saying to the public, look at the
good thing we're doing." North Carolina was not one of the
journalism schools designated by Wal-Mart for scholarships,
but the university awards about $100,000, some from media
companies, to students every year, Mr. Bowers said.

"The people who win our scholarships typically don't go to
any national meetings and aren't put on display by these
corporate donors," he said. "We certainly make sure there
is no quid pro quo on these. The only obligation is to
write them a letter and thank them for the scholarship. The
student isn't expected to do anything for the company."

Of the programs chosen, only the University of Southern
California's Annenberg School has received corporate
funding from nonmedia companies in the past. A spokesman,
Geoffrey Baum, said the school had gotten money from Nissan
and General Motors, as well as from Raytheon and Home Depot
for public-relations programs. Some journalism programs are
in states where Wal-Mart has opened a large number of
stores. The University of Florida and the University of
Texas made the list; those states have nearly 600 of
Wal-Mart's 3,596 stores, according to Wal-Mart.

Jannette L. Dates, dean of Howard University's John H.
Johnson School of Communications, hopes that Wal-Mart's
scholarship will encourage other nonmedia companies to

"I'm going to go after some of those others and say 'See,
Wal-Mart did this, why don't you?' " she said.