The News is America's New Religion, and We're in a Religious War

When political narrative replaces faith, truth becomes heresy

We'll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell! We'll tell you Kojak always gets the killer, and nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker's house… We'll tell you any shit you want to hear! We deal in illusion, man! None of it's true! But you people… do whatever the tube tells you... This is mass madness, you maniacs!

— from Network, 1976

After a few days away from the news I watched Network, a movie about a mad prophet whose prophesies come true. Anchorman Howard Beale’s seminal speech described how America could commoditize anything, even the awful truth that its mass media had raised an illiterate populace that followed The Tube as the word of God. “Turn them off!” Beale screamed, just before collapsing in religious fervor, but one eye peeked out to see how his revelation was selling. True to form, even Network made a pile of money and won four Oscars.

Forty-five years later, the film’s predictions still look right, but too optimistic. Back then, a few networks dominated, and the trend was the One Big Lie: the Missile Gap, the Domino Theory, 4 out of 5 dentists recommend Trident. What could be worse? Ambrose Bierce once said there were only two things more horrible than a clarinet — two clarinets. The only thing darker than Network’s dystopian future with television as the national religion is the world we’ve got: two religions.

The last week has been typical of life in the news-as-doctrinal-squabble era. On Sunday, September 19, a freelance photographer named Paul Ratje based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, shot pictures of U.S. Border Patrol Agents chasing Haitian migrants trying to cross the border. In several photos, the agents appeared to be carrying lengths of leather cord. The next day, a former aide to onetime presidential candidate Julian Castro named Sawyer Hackett tweeted, “Border patrol is mounted on horseback rounding up Haitian refugees with whips,” and “This is unfathomable cruelty towards people fleeing disaster and political ruin.”

In reality, as poor Ratje would later point out to local news interviewers, there were no whips, just reins, and “I’ve never seen them whip anyone.” But by then, the story was a viral sensation that had gone all the way to the top of American society.

On that same Monday, September 20th that Sawyer Hackett tweeted about “rounding up refugees with whips,” a reporter asked White House spokesperson Jen Psaki if the administration viewed “border agents on horseback using what appeared to be whips on Haitian migrants” as an “appropriate tactic.” Psaki said no, it was “obviously horrific,” but this apparently wasn’t a good enough answer for the faithful. MSNBC/NBC contributor and proud Moral Majoritarian Yamiche Alcindor demanded to know if action would be taken on a double-conditional: “if this is true,” if anyone would be disciplined for “using what seems to be whips on migrants.” When Psaki finally suggested waiting to comment until she actually knew something about the incident, Alcindor pressed: “Why won’t you say fired?”

In a flash, the word “whip” was in headlines across media and social media, and the idea that Border Patrol agents had hit Haitian refugees with actual whips was ubiquitous. (To my embarrassment, even I screwed this one up, making a joke about it on the Useful Idiots podcast).

Look, this happens in media, and the only thing you can do is a) try to avoid it, and b) own up to it when it happens. However, that’s where this story got weird. Well after it became clear there were no whips in the story, a parade of politicians lined up to double down, with Kamala Harris saying the pictures evoked images of “slavery,” Representative Maxine Waters saying the pictures were “worse than what we witnessed in slavery,” and even President Biden himself promising his own agents would “pay” for “strapping” refugees. An investigation was ordered and some employees were removed to administrative duties.

Even the New York Times, five days after the photograph was taken, reported that Border Agents were “in some cases using reins to strike at running migrants.” They almost immediately issued a correction, saying they’d “overstated what is known” about the Agents’ behavior. Meanwhile, the Fox/OAN wing of the press put out a string of stories about the “whips” mistake, going after everyone from Brian Stelter to CNN’s Victor Blackwell to Axios (which deleted a tweet using the word “whipping’) to Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler to a host of others.

Larger questions, like what happened to the 15,000 migrants who were removed from an encampment — some were flown back to Haiti right away, others will likely be flown back later, with the Biden administration essentially continuing Trump-era policy — faded into the coverage background. Most people following the news emerged knowing a tiny bit about the relevant border-tightening policies like Trump’s Title 42, and a lot about a single, apparently misinterpreted image that became the latest moronic proxy for a culture war debate.

A more significant media screwup was exposed via the release of a book called “The Bidens” by Politico correspondent Ben Schreckinger. Schreckinger showed the New York Post’s Hunter Biden expose was not, as widely reported last year, Russian disinformation, with many of the more controversial emails involving the president’s son now proved authentic. This too was also roundly ignored by a press corps more worried about a big picture message, i.e. that Biden is less awful than Trump. Even NPR kept mum about Schreckinger’s new information, despite having insisted cheekily at the time that it non-covered the story because it didn’t want to “waste its time” on things that are “not really stories.”

News in America used to be fun to talk about, fun to joke about, interesting to think about. Now it’s an interminable bummer, because the press business has taken on characteristics of that other institution where talking, joking, and thinking aren’t allowed: church. We have two denominations, both as fact-averse as real churches, as is shown in polls about, say, pandemic attitudes, where Americans across the board consistently show they know less than they think.

Surveys found a third of Republicans think the asymptomatic don’t transmit Covid-19, or that the disease kills fewer people than the flu or car crashes. But Democrats also test out atrociously, with 41% thinking Covid-19 patients end up hospitalized over half the time — the real number is 1%-5% — while also wildly overestimating dangers to children, the percentage of Covid deaths under the age of 65, the efficacy of masks, and other issues.

This is the result of narrative-driven coverage that focuses huge amounts of resources on the wrongness of the rival faith. Blue audiences love stories about the deathbed recantations of red-state Covid deniers, some of which are real, some more dubious. A typical Fox story, meanwhile, might involve a woman who passed out and crashed into a telephone pole while wearing a mask alone in her car. Tales of each other’s stupidity are the new national religion, and especially among erstwhile liberals, we take them more seriously than any religion has been taken in the smart set in a long, long time.

In the eighties we made celebrities out of televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, but none were believable as religious authorities. They were too interesting: they dressed like Vegas club acts, humped everything that moved, and had the enormous balls to stare at cameras and ask for money so the minister and his wife could be driving the right fully-loaded Caddy when Christ returned. By the Reagan years no one believed in miracles or divine retribution anyway, not even Catholics, whose priests had all read Nietzsche and would quietly concede the church’s whole act was a well-meaning metaphor, if cornered by an adult. (Their rap to kids was obviously different; insert your own joke here).

By the time Trump arrived, there was only one route left for media companies, who’d lost ad revenue to Internet platforms, to make money: putting content behind a paywall. Essentially, news companies passed a hat and asked for donations, just like churches. Also like churches, they began to sell belief instead of fact. They turned viewers and readers into congregationalists, people who’d be less interested in news than calls to spiritual battle. Fox had already proven this revenue model could work. In the Trump years, led by the New York Times — which lost other forms of income but went from 1.2 million digital subscribers in 2016 to 7.5 million in 2020 — the rest of the commercial media followed suit.

This is how news people sounded before that switch:

For decades, TV news readers gave off that Ron Burgundy-esque vibe of, “This copy was literally just handed to me. I barely know what this shit says, and certainly don’t care enough to lie about it.”

By the Trump years, though, news readers started to sound like preachers. They used every traveling-revivalist trick in the book to pull in the faithful, from predicting the End was Nigh (or at least, the “Beginning of the End” was Nigh) to conferring Sainthood (Robert Mueller was depicted as Jesus, Batman and Superman in media profiles) to public deliverance of the gospel (remember when Annette Bening, John Lithgow, and Kevin Kline held solemn public readings of the Mueller report?) to dramatic altar calls to give “testimony” (e.g. Michael Avenatti coming on set to deliver an unvetted new rape accusation against Brett Kavanaugh live on the Rachel Maddow show), and even witchcraft (how about a former CIA chief predicting indictments of Trump on the “Ides of March” on MSNBC?).

America is a now a nation of warring media faiths, with Fox/OAN/Newsmax preaching a heretic Savanarola-style gospel of corrupt elites lying about everything from election results to vaccine efficacy, while the rival Church of the Mainstream, which describes itself as the (literally) true faith and exclusive arbiter of such things as “fact” and “science,” preaches a coming fascist apocalypse. Its pundits openly rejoice in Covid-19 as an instrument of vengeance against “denialism” and those who don’t “believe science,” and it’s not an accident that people who watch them too much do things like wear masks alone in cars.

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