It was fitting to see so much gushing on TV news about Rev. Jerry Falwell in the hours after his death. He and TV news held the same things sacred: fame, soundbites and uninformed fear-mongering.
At the beginning of his rise 25 years ago, it was mainstream media complicity and gullibility that helped build Falwell’s Moral Majority and the myth of its clout. As documented in Tina Rosenberg’s 1982 Washington Monthly piece, “How the Media Made the Moral Majority,” Team Falwell repeatedly violated the Ninth Commandment by misleading journalists about their numbers and power.
Despite hundreds of outlandishly inaccurate, uninformed and bigoted comments http://www.rightwingwatch.org/individuals/jerry_falwell/index.html over the years (not just the three you may have heard last night), Falwell remained a respected fixture in TV news. The TV producer’s friend – he didn’t need to know much about a topic to say yes to the invitation.
In FAIR’s exhaustive study of ABC Nightline’s guest list during the mid-1980s, Falwell was one of the show’s most frequent guests; he offered his expertise about homosexuality on one episode, and about AIDS on another. (Falwell saw AIDS as a holy punishment of gays, and once asked why people with AIDS were not quarantined like infected cattle.)
My only direct experiences with Falwell were fittingly with Falwell, the TV pundit. We did battle via TV studios, his natural habitat. As a paid pundit at MSNBC in 2002, I had colorful on-air debates with Falwell (described in my book, “Cable News Confidential”). http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/097606216X/sr=8-3/qid=1146516370/ref=pd_bbs_3/002-5161334-4221647?%5Fencoding=UTF8
When I debated Falwell in 2002 on whether to invade Iraq, he pointed his pudgy finger at Saddam Hussein as having been involved in the 9/11 attacks. Falwell was a Republican team player – blaming 9/11 on Saddam was now more important than blaming it on feminists, gays and the ACLU, as he’d done on September 13.
During another MSNBC debate we had on the separation of church and state, Falwell was in fine form and in love with his own voice: “Much of public education today,” he intoned, “is designed to create an atheistic society that totally repudiates our religious heritage. This is a nation under God!”
Near the end of the debate, I restated a point I’d opened with that Falwell had not answered: “Rev. Falwell, if we are a nation under God, it’s interesting that the founders of our Constitution, our framers, didn’t even put the word [God] in the Constitution. That was by design.”
“You haven’t read it very clearly,” Falwell responded. “Let me correct you on that. The Constitution is dated 1787 in the year – of – our – Lord.”
He slowed down to enunciate each precious word, considering it a “gotcha” moment. Falwell and I were on a split screen; as he sternly pointed his finger at me, I shook my head, face in my hands, in disbelief.
The debate closed with Falwell continuing to a big finale: “The separation of church and state is a myth,” declared the preacher, “like global warming.”
We were now on split-screen – with me laughing at the ignorance I’d just heard. Falwell appeared very self-satisfied over his pro-God/anti-environment twofer.
For years after, the factually-challenged Reverend continued as a TV pundit. By contrast, I was silenced for political reasons as the Iraq war neared. With the media cheerleading for war, the last thing TV news wanted was sober and accurate caution about the impact of an Iraq invasion. TV prefers the Falwells and Ann Coulters and Frank Gaffneys.
Instead of so much gushing about how Falwell had involved “values voters” in our democracy, it would be nice to see some introspection from TV news about its own role in foisting factually-challenged rightwing bigots on the American public to the near-exclusion of informed, progressive voices.
Jeff Cohen http://www.jeffcohen.org/ is founder of the media watch group FAIR http://www.fair.org/index.php, former TV pundit/producer, and author of “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.” http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-097606216x-0