A moral survey of today’s journalism looks like a doomsday scenario. Content-free screeds, partisan punditry, and dubious but shrill alarmism are at an all-time high. Informed and fact-based reporting is at an all time low and groundless moral outrage is booming.
Yeah, except just kidding, I made that all up. I don’t know very much about the history of journalism, and I don’t know if Richard and Linda Eyre, who are responsible for the claptrap linked above, are the worst thing ever to happen to journalism, if they’re typical of journalism at this moment in western-America, American, or Western history, or how journalistic trends in Utah in the present compare to those in other periods and other places. I certainly don’t know enough to make claims that anything is an “all-time” anything. I mean, seriously, all-time? How much would I have to know about the world to make a non-hyperbolic statement with the phrase “all-time” in it? Probably a lot more than Richard and Linda Eyre do.
But let’s try! Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time, A Tale of Two Cities is the best selling novel of all time, and the eruption of Krakatoa was the loudest sound of all time. Of course if you take a look at the footnotes, you’ll see some caveats alongside the citations, and furthermore, I’m happy to agree if you feel that I might want to check the sources on information coming from Wikipedia. These are empirical claims, on a narrow topic, based on quantified data, and yet they’re still not straightforward or incontestable. The Eyres, who are not sociologists, and have not consulted any sociologists, should probably back off from statements like “Divorce, fatherless kids, cohabitation, chosen singleness and family separation and break-up are at an all-time high.” Another tip: Maybe just don’t use the word “statistically” in an article where you’ve neglected to offer a single statistic.
Of course, there aren’t any footnotes in the Eyres’ article, because there aren’t any citations, because who needs data that might just add nuance and confusion to your enormous, bold, hair-raising claims about the scary, evil, secular world? Just as not everything that is true is useful, not everything that is useful is true, and the Eyres definitely have some use for these non-truths. I’m sure they honestly don’t know that the U.S. divorce rate has been falling since 1981, or that teen pregnancies in the U.S. have been reduced by a third since 1991. I’m also sure they wouldn’t really care, because all the data in the world can’t change their central thesis, which I’d loosely paraphrase as: Look how much better we are than other people.
I’ve got plenty of criticisms for the Eyres. Stylistically, for example, I could do with a couple fewer claims posing as questions. (Twenty-five sentences in this piece, and seven of them are rhetorical questions. Do the authors on some level recognize that they come off as pompous asshats and are trying to mitigate that element of their tone without actually examining the content that makes them sound that way?) Obviously they have no grasp of the difference between subjective and objective truth (I suspect that when they refer to “an inevitable and irrefutable link between an orientation to family and a belief in God,” they just means that that there is absolutely no way for anyone to refute this correlation so that they’ll believe it.) As a childless, single person, I’m not sure if I should be insulted or relieved to be lumped in with all the selfish, secular, divorce-touting, family-nuking, great-’n-abominable churching types. I think they way they’ve characterized me is rude and stupid, but I’m also okay not being invited to their side of the line in the sand that they’re insistently, and somewhat arbitrarily, drawing here. That line in the sand, that desire to separate good from evil along the lines of like-us and not-like-us, to make difference as distant and threatening as possible, is where I move from criticizing this kind of thinking to being disgusted by it.
These people certainly didn’t invent the idea that the world now is the worst it’s ever been (a trope so old its laughable), and they’re obviously giving voice to a last-days last-outpost-of-God mentality that pervades Mormon culture, but I’m intrigued/grossed out by the Eyres’ article in particular because of how baldly they display what it is exactly that makes these ideas so appealing. It’s an invitation to be smug. The wickedness of the world is actually to our benefit, because it makes us look so much better. That’s the real silver lining — our virtue shines so much brighter against the dark background of a vice-filthy world. There are two churches, the church of evil secularism and the church of selfless religiosity, and we sure as Shiblon are card-carrying members of that second one, the good, unselfish family-friendly people who have transcendent spiritual experiences and pray about our inadequacies. As long as there are only those two churches, only those two groups, those two categories, those two types, we know exactly who we are. We never need to ask hard questions about morality in the world, evaluate complicated ethical issues or situations, or engage anything we find different and difficult with a willingness to find good in it. The answers are easy, and we’re always right.
Anything that’s set up to be us-versus-them is bound to be more about us than it is about them. The Eyres paint the world outside their sphere with a broad, harsh, mindless brush, because that justifies that self-satisfaction with which they want to paint, equally broadly,within their sphere. It isn’t just an ill-informed or unresearched way of thinking and writing about the world; it’s a way of dismissing and despising people who disagree with you, make different choices than the ones you make, or believe differently than how you believe, without ever having to look closely enough to see if there might be something virtuous or praiseworthy among those people in spite of their difference. This stuff isn’t just inaccurate, stupid, and poorly written; it’s thoroughly immoral. I’m no rock star of moral goodness myself, but I do know enough to stay away when people start picking up stones and looking all eager to be the ones to start the throwing.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films#Highest-grossing_films_adjusted_for_inflation; this refers only to theatrical revenue, and of course if we adjust for inflation, Gone With the Wind still outstrips Avatar by around thirteen million dollars.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books; I’m going with novels as a category rather than books because something like the Bible probably far outstrips Dickens in terms of both printing and distribution, but it’s virtually impossible to do more than estimate the number of copies produced or sold over the centuries of its existence.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krakatoa; actually, even if it is the loudest sound heard in recorded history, there’s absolutely no way to know if a louder sound has been heard elsewhere (and more to the point, elsewhen).
 As long as I’m citing things, I think I stole this line from Eve.
see for example, Besty Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Winter 2007; http://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.21.2.27
Centers for Disease Control, “Vital Signs: Teen Pregnancy — United States, 1991–2009,” http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6013a5.htm?s_cid=mm6013a5_w. Interestingly, the CDC is still concerned about teen pregnancy rates because other developed countries have them so much lower. They also show evidence that teen sexual activity has gone down.
- 21 July 2013