January 23, 2005

Culture War Territories

by PG

Another blow to the smug belief that my side is more tolerant than that of conservatives: Rolling Stone magazine has created controversy by refusing to run an advertisement that they claim violates a policy against religious messages:

The offending advertisement was a high-concept number from Zondervan, the Christian publishing behemoth in Grand Rapids, Mich., that has a new translation of the Bible coming out next month called Today's New International Version, or the TNIV. It's a 21st-century tuneup of its 1978 New International Version, which is the best-selling English translation of the Bible in the world.
Like any good English major, I regard most bibles other than the King James Version (uninspired and erroneous though it may be theologically) to be illiterate pretenders. But a magazine that's put Clay Aiken, whom the Sun-Times's Cathleen Falsani calls a "crooning neo-Opie," on the cover clearly has no policy against illiterate pretenders.

Events like this make me worry that not only is the right shutting itself away from different ideas, but that the left is doing the same, and eventually we'll all be trying to pretend that no one unlike ourselves exists. While all the private sector and individual decisions to boycott The Other Side certainly are protected as a matter of law, they diminish the impact of the First Amendment. The shrinking public square is giving way to a multiplicity of private sector outlets for fact and opinion, from Focus on the Family newsletters to the Rolling Stone.

Cass Sunstein ("thump" goes PG's heart) covered this ground in Republic.com, but I'm not sure that he sufficiently covered how traditional media -- like the Stone, published since 1968 -- can be just as narrowing as the Internet, and how this narrowing is chosen by the people bringing us the message, not just by consumers. After all, the average Rolling Stone reader probably considers himself to be a pretty open-minded person, though I don't share Falsani's conviction that there's much overlap between the market for the Stone and that for a new Bible translation. Still, if Zondervan wants to pay to advertise, and the ad is neither grossly dishonest nor likely to be outright offensive to readers, there's no reason for a profit-making magazine not to take the money and run.

In particular, if the ideas expressed by the advertisement are ones unlikely to show up in the Stone's own content, permitting access to the magazine through ads is particularly important. The Christian publishing behemoths of the world can't get their view of the world into liberal outlets' reporting and editorials, but they still can squeeze into the ad pages -- and in many magazines, advertisement pages outnumber real content anyway. Sunstein might criticize this as "market theology," but in the current situation, it's the best chance for competing messages to be heard.

January 23, 2005 10:45 PM | TrackBack

Do the "Christian publishing behemoths of the world" permit ads (from the left?) that might offend their readers? Perhaps your post will test these behemoths. Here's looking to the left submitting ads to these "behemoths". In the meantime, I appreciate the Rolling Stones' stones.

Query: Are you using "behemoth" in the Biblical sense? If so, I appreciate the humor.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at January 24, 2005 6:53 AM

Another blow to the smug belief that my side is more tolerant than that of conservatives: Rolling Stone magazine has created controversy by refusing to run an advertisement that they claim violates a policy against religious messages...

Have you considered the possibility that this is nothing more than another manufactured controversy...manufactured by various conservatives to try to lambast liberal or left-wing media? Former lefty, turned right-wing ideologue, David Horowitz, of FrontPageMag.com is a master of this kind of crap.

Didn't think you did. Consider the possibility, that is.

Posted by: raj at January 24, 2005 8:36 AM

Shag, the point I intended was that I expect better from my side, which supposedly champions free speech and open-mindedness. At least conservative dinosaurs are consistent in saying that they cannot bear anything that offends them, but we are supposed to be a little tougher. Wailing about Spongebob is par for the conservative course -- not the liberal one. So I'm disappointed.

raj, I'm quite familiar with Horowitz's tactics; I was writing for a college paper at the time of his reparations ad ploy. However, the facts of this situation seem to be that the Christian publisher bought ad space from RS, sent them the ad and had it rejected because the message was considered overly religious and not fitting in with the other ads.
Please note the piece linked by "grossly dishonest nor likely to be outright offensive to readers," to get some idea of the discussion going on within the media (even at the level of undergraduate news) about how to deal with potentially problematic adverts. What bewilders me about RS's refusal is that it's not supported by a challenge to -- and thus an engagement with -- the ad's content. They don't suggest that there's something overtly offensive or dishonest (as there was in Horowitz's suggestion, for example, that welfare is a compensation to African Americans for slavery) about the Bible ad. So it suggests some sort of late-arriving bias against a Christian publisher qua Christian publisher.

Posted by: PG at January 24, 2005 10:46 AM

Also, note that Rolling Stone does not avoid all ads of a religious nature, but apparently only pro-religious, or at least pro-Christian ones. I admit that I haven't looked in awhile, but I seem to recall that they regularly had an ad for a pamphlet "proving" that Jesus Christ never existed. They also carried the ad by the Universal Life Church, or some such name, to be a registered minister for $3.

Posted by: just me at January 24, 2005 12:17 PM
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