Doug Underwood. From Yahweh to Yahoo! The Religious Roots of the Secular Press. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. xv + 346 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-02706-2.
Reviewed by Dane S. Claussen (Point Park University)
Published on Jhistory (April, 2004)
Doug Underwood sets out in this book to make a "case ... that journalists are solidly connected to the nation's moral and religious heritage and operate, in certain important ways, as personifications of the old religious virtues"--particularly as manifested through the "Progressive and Populist movements, and the muckraker and Social Gospel campaigns." Along the way, he hopes to explain why U.S. journalists cover religion generally poorly, how much better much U.S. journalism would be if "journalists better understood the role religion plays as a motivating force in so many areas of society," and how journalists have an "unrecognized role as the covert promoters of a religious perspective."
Underwood, an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington-Seattle, tells the reader up front that he "speak[s] of religion in its broadest meaning throughout the book." This candor is commendable, but this strategy becomes annoyingly obvious and eventually counterproductive as he finds evidence of religious influence anywhere and everywhere he can to make his points. (By the end of the book, one half expects that Underwood will argue that an editor yelling "holy s---!" about a piece of news is evidence of religiosity.) That an infinite number of relationships might exist between religion and the U.S. media is underscored as Underwood reminds us that in 1989, the United States was the second most religious Western country, after Ireland. But his immediate comparison of the United States and Denmark (Americans are three times as religious as Danes), combined with his attempt throughout the book to convince the reader that religious belief is necessary to deal with "catastrophe, danger and troubles" (p. 1), "languishment and grief" (p. 54), and so on; that journalists reflect religious values; and that journalism's history and roles depend in part on developing in a religious country, eventually prompts questions that Underwood doesn't ask or answer. For instance, is Danish journalism therefore of lower quality, less ethical and/or less useful than American journalism? If it isn't, does that mean that Danish journalism has some secret ingredient other than religious faith to make it functional (if not successful), or are Danish journalists as religious as U.S. journalists even though other Danes are not, or does the history of U.S. journalism have less to do with religion than Underwood believes and would like us to think? Even though the United States has appallingly high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and crime (to name just a few problems), is Denmark a fragile or decaying society (it isn't), and if so, would it be because Denmark isn't religious? And so on.
Underwood gets no argument from this reviewer on several major points: much religion reporting in the United States is easily faulted for one or more reasons, U.S. news media underestimate the role that religion plays in American life, and at least the best U.S. journalism reflects Progressive-era values. But much of Underwood's book is essentially based on two assumptions: that anything that looks like a Christian value came from the Judeo-Christian heritage, as if Christianity has, or even had, some monopoly on morals, and more generally, that correlation means causation. This reviewer should not need to point out, for example, that the number of churches and bars in a community are correlated, but only because larger communities have more of both than do smaller communities. But much of Underwood's opinions seem to be based on evidence no better than would be the claim that religious faith surely must cause crime because the United States ranks first or second in the world in incarceration per capita and third in religiosity.
Thus, this reviewer could nitpick at length about specific points about the media-religion connection at which Underwood's evidence to support what he is writing is minimal or non-existent; the book is a history, largely written in essay and anecdotal formats, as it contains no original content analysis or textual analysis and a survey reported in chapter 9 is more interesting than convincing. Suffice it to say again that Underwood has read religious faith into every phrase, trend, or event connected with journalism that can be remotely connected, even only circumstantially, with Christianity. I also will not point out the many points at which Underwood has presented a one-sided case for religious faith of journalists and religion's influence on journalism without considering any resulting limitations or negative effects on individuals, journalism as a form, or entire cultures. Instead, I'll note that what are particularly perplexing in Underwood's book are some of his statements about journalists as journalists. For instance, on page 74, he writes, "Journalists' passion for reform extends largely to improving established institutions, and journalists are strong believers in social stability, the capitalist order, and the preservation of social mores and important customs." But we know from the Weaver and Wilhoit studies that most journalists are not particularly passionate about reform, and one also must wonder how a society can simultaneously undertake reform but also preserve social stability, since all reform involves winners and resistant losers. On page 90, Underwood writes--again contrary to Weaver and Wilhoit and other sociology of news research--that today's "cocksure" quasi-muckraking journalists display "proud skepticism" and "disdain for religious tradition." Although the book ostensibly is realistic and even practical, Underwood on page 111 speculates on how journalists would react to, and benefit from, reading William James, without noting that probably few journalists have read William James and even fewer are likely to pick up his The Varieties of Religious Experience as bedtime reading, let alone as continuing education for professional development. On page 188, Underwood notes in passing that "many journalists" have been influenced by Freud; surely Underwood knows that few journalists have formally studied psychology and that even most psychologists don't put much stock in Freud any more besides the obvious (i.e., humans are sexual from birth to death; homosexuals can be perfectly well-adjusted were it not for discrimination against them; etc.). In other words, U.S. journalists are potentially influenced, at best, by vague memories of cocktail-party-level psychoanalysis. The goal of Underwood's chapter 16--providing educated speculation as to how today's journalists would cover an appearance on Earth by Jesus--has been done before; it's a little too much of a gimmick and a cliche to include in a scholarly book.
To be fair, Underwood also gets much right about U.S. journalists, one example being "journalists are generally anti-intellectual in orientation; although viewing themselves as dispassionate, journalists are often motivated by strong emotions" (p. 65). Discussing the difficulties of U.S. journalists explaining physics to the general public, usually without a good mathematics education, he insightfully writes:
"more difficult is the challenge journalists face in trying to convey the theories of Einstein, which have undercut the Newtonian notion of the way the universe works, with a journalistic methodology that is still Newtonian in its epistemological foundation. Journalism, more than any other field, is committed to the notion that the average mind (with the journalist showing the way, of course) can comprehend the physical world as it truly is. Even today, no other field is more locked into a persistently outdated quasi-Newtonian (or, more accurately, Newton as interpreted by the Enlightenment philosophers) worldview, all the while left with the increasingly baffling duty of trying to interpret twentieth-century scientific developments with their abrupt departures from the comforting uncertainties of Newton's picture of the universe." (pp. 170-1)
On page 202 (and elsewhere), Underwood points out that journalists often avoid complexity, let alone expertise, and that the public's perceptions of anti-religious bias (let alone other biases) stem as much from journalists simply being, let's say, not as competent as they should be in what they cover.
Still, Underwood's entire book seems devoted to subtly promoting religion by attempting to prove that what E. W. Scripps said about himself is accurate, logical, and necessary for U.S. journalists, not only for those who are not professed Christians or Jews, but who might be atheist, Wiccan, etc.: "I cannot recall the time when I was not what is commonly called an atheist. I do not believe in God, or any being equal to or similar to the Christian's God.... Yet when I called upon myself to classify myself as to what school of philosophy or religion I belong to, I have had no doubt but that I should be classified as a Christian. My morals, or my moral convictions, are those common to members of the Christian religion." Regardless of whether this is true of most or all U.S. journalists, the reader may properly ask whether this point alone, made in other books such as Mark Silk's, is worth a new 360-page book.
Underwood's introduction says, "Although I still think of myself as a journalist, nearly fifteen years in the academic world have turned me into something of a scholar in outlook." This might be true, but Underwood's new book isn't very good history and it is very poor social science. In fact, like his previous book, When MBAs Rule the Newsroom (perhaps the most overrated and overquoted book on media management of the last fifteen years), Underwood's new book reads more like journalism in overdrive. And as Underwood himself writes, "The journalistic method has pretenses to being scientific and empirical, but, in fact, it usually is not" (p. 113). It's enough of a stretch when Underwood essentially finds religion everywhere and anywhere, sometimes equivalent to feeling humidity and thinking one has found a lake--although there is enough of a theological tradition to sustain some people's belief that God's hand is in everything, all of the time. But the book's publisher failed to carefully edit it and point out to Underwood that correlation does not mean causation; similarities do not mean sameness; acquaintance with a person, idea, or book does not mean influence; and coincidences usually are just that, rather than significant and meaningful. This might be a passable introductory book for those who have never read anything on the history of religion-and-media, and most committed history of religion-and-media scholars who will probably read this book regardless of its quality, but others should look elsewhere.
Dr. Dane S. Claussen is associate professor of, and director of the graduate program in, Journalism and Mass Communication, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he teaches mass media history, newspaper and magazine management, and other courses. He is the editor of, and a contributor to, Sex, Religion, Media (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and two interdisciplinary, critical books on the Promise Keepers, among his other books, and is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Media and Religion.
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Dane S. Claussen. Review of Underwood, Doug, From Yahweh to Yahoo! The Religious Roots of the Secular Press.
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