An Analysis of Differing Sources and the "War On Christmas" of 2005

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A paper I wrote analyzing the "War on Christmas" (a cultural war identified by conservatives as a liberal agenda to eradicate Christmas from American culture) and its coverage in different types of media. I wrote this is 2006. Also, I left the leftovers because you know what? Sometimes leftovers are delicious.

Submitted: January 12, 2009

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Submitted: January 12, 2009

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In studying the media’s role in democracy, one fact cannot and will not be ignored: we live in a mediated society. The implications of this are just as pervasive as the media itself, and the “war on Christmas” represents these consequences clearly.


The term “war on Christmas” was coined in 2001 by Michael Medved but it was not until the winter of 2005 that the theory catapulted into the forefront of the American consciousness. Primarily and originally covered by Fox News Channel (FNC) journalists (particularly Bill O’Reilly) and supported by conservatives, Christian advocacy groups, and bloggers, the theory suggests that there is a conspiracy by secularists, progressives, and liberals to undermine or abolish Christmas in the US. In October of 2005, John Gibson (host of FNC’s “The Big Story”) released his book "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought," which asserts that the “war on Christmas” is part of a larger attempt to entirely remove Christian influences on American society.


Critics of this theory include those coming from other media outlets such as NBC, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and bloggers. They question not just the legitamacy of the allegation but its existence at all, and suggest that it is actually a conservative conspiracy attempting to further the conservative Christian agenda. Some leftists accused conservatives of using the “war on Christmas” to create controversy so they could gain voters# while others, like Sam Donaldson, claimed O’Reilly used the controversy to gain ratings.


Retailers’ marketing efforts as well as government observances (in schools or local displays) were two main targets of the “war on Christmas.” Examples include the use of the word “holiday” in displays or phrases that traditionally included the word “Christmas” or municipal governments banning the use of Christian or Christmas symbols in their holiday displays. Pressured by boycotts, call-ins, and perhaps the negative publicitiy on FNC programs, some retailers, like Target and Lowe’s, surrendered to conservative Christian advocacy groups (such as the American Family Association) and began explicity using the word “Christmas” in marketing efforts.


The significance of the “war on Christmas” does not lie in the question of its legitimacy, but rather in the way in which different media outlets covered the issue. As Robert McChesney, Neil Postman, and many others asserted, there is nothing natural or inevitable about the way in which our media system operate, especially because “…the very definition of news is politically, economically, socially,…technologically…,”and historically determined. Affected by all of these, the “war on Christmas” exemplifies the inability of today’s mainstream media to seriously and substantially cover the issue, while exposing non-traditional ‘journalism’s’ ability to provide some of the most insightful, useful, and reliable information.


The “war on Christmas” in many ways confirms Neil Postman’s criticism of television’s role in journalism and a democratic society. Without idealizing a print-based culture, it is important to distinguish the differences between a print and television culture. Postman asserts that every medium “makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility,”# so that the way in which we understand the world is affected by the way in which we receive information about it. For Postman, the printed word has a “lineal, analytic quality”# that demands “considerable powers of classifying, inference-making, and reasoning.”# People of a print-based society are required to use analytical and logical skills in order to comprehend information. These mental exercises foster a society with honed skills in analysis, logic, and reason that help informed citizens make sense of the world.


The New Yorker’s commentary by Hendrik Hertzberg exemplifies Postman’s assertion closely. Hertzberg uses wit, humor, and both contemporary and historical facts to sustain his position against the “war on Christmas.” For example, Hertzberg discusses how members of the John Birch Society in the 1950’s accused the U.N. and communists of attacking Christmas, and attributed this to a larger effort “…to destroy all religious beliefs and customs.”# Here, this information requires that the readers be somewhat informed of the state of American culture and politics in the 1950’s so that the information provided is contextualized. Later in the piece, Hertzberg quotes O’Reilly commenting that there is a “secular progressive movement…[to] get religion out…” of American culture. Thus, Hertzberg uses historical and contemporary facts to parallel today’s situation with yesterday’s so that the reader may reasonably understand his position. It is important to note the two above quotes are not physically near each other (three paragraphs separate them). Instead, the reader is required to comprehend and retain the information given in order to follow Hertzberg’s argument, a task made easier when one may continuously re-read the article. Thus, like Postman said, the written word “makes possible and convenient to subject thought to a continuous and concentrated scrutiny.”#


But television does not allow audiences the same luxury of scrutiny, as the information from one moment literally disappears the next. Thus, television is not scrutinized but obviously watched, and from this comes the idea that “seeing is believing.” Television promotes a public discourse consisting largely of visual images which, according to Postman, creates a decline in the “…seriousness, clarity, and, above all, value of public discourse.”# The very fact that media programs discussed the “war on Christmas” at length in the midst of our country’s current war abroad attests to this decline. But the use of television “requires minimal skills to comprehend it and is largely aimed at emotional gratification,”# and these characteristics, especially the latter, largely contributed to the momentum of the “war on Christmas.” Similar to the penny press, television uses sensationalism and controversy to garner viewers. O’Reilly’s coverage of the “war on Christmas” immediately grabbed viewers’ attention using dramatic music and emphasizing the phrase “Attack on Christmas.” O’Reilly presented this war as immediate and directly affecting viewer’s personal lives, an easier task given the topic of religion.


Like its predecessor, the telegraph, television offers viewers decontextualized, often unexplained fragments of information. This fragmenting of information makes it much easier for those in power positions to use certain facts over others in order to convey a specific perspective. Moreover, “people of a television culture need ‘plain language’ both aurally and visually.”# “The O’Reilly Factor” utilizes both fragmented information and plain language in the “Talking Points” segment of the show in which often editorialized information is presented in its most simple and watered-down form. “Talking Points” also happens to be the scene of a major incident of misinformation (one of four instances within the “war on Christmas” in which O’Reilly stated false facts). He claimed that a school in Wisconsin secularized the lyrics of “Silent Night” and named it “Cold in the Night,” which his “Talking Points” segment prominently displayed.# In actuality, the song was part of little-known play that borrowed the tune of classic Christmas song. Despite the falsity of his claims, O’Reilly repeated his version of the story twice more, once on David Letterman. This incident represents one of the most dangerous results of the combination between television-based information and lack of accountability on the part of a prominent and influential media elite.


Robert Entman criticizes the media for what he terms “aggressiveness without accountability,” in that the media does not hold the government accountable for its actions. Applied to this case, the irony lies in the aggressiveness with which other media outlets attacked Fox and O’Reilly’s “war on Christmas” coverage without holding him accountable for the misinformation he utilized. For example, on the January 8, 2006 episode of NBC’s Dateline, correspondent Josh Mankiewicz said the “nutty war on Christmas…was a giant, laughable lie.”# Similar to the language O’Reilly uses on his show (for example, calling liberals “nuts” frequently), the comments do not shed light upon the issue or counter the “war on Christmas” with anything even remotely resembling intellectual or thoughtful consideration. Yet there are four demonstrable instances in which O’Reilly made false claims that many critics fail to mention adequately, if at all.


Another paradox Entman describes is the idea that the media has power without control over it. Although this may be generally true, FNC and Bill O’Reilly, within the context of the “war on Christmas,” challenge this idea, primarily because the issue was not an issue until covered extensively on FNC. Within the context of the two-step flow theory, O’Reilly is an “opinion leader,” in that he has quite strong views and stances on issues that he filters to others. With his own show, O’Reilly takes full advantage of his influential position. He sets the agenda for his news show (though other media outlets, whether they agree or not, often follow in their coverage). Though no one can control the interpretation of a message, the constant coverage of the “war on Christmas” made the issue seem relevant and pressing. For example, Media Matters for America reported that between November 28 and December 2, FNC aired fifty-eight different reports, interviews, and debates on the “war on Christmas”(incidentally, from November 29-30, Fox conducted a poll to find out whether or not people believed the “war on Christmas” existed – 42% did, 48% did not).

In this capacity, too much of the mainstream media, especially on television, fail to adequately and fully cover the issue. Instead, the most prolific coverage comes from two seemingly unlikely (and unprofessional) sources: entertainment shows and blogs. The Daily Show “and other comic venues…[often] have more insight and command of facts…”# than “…the half-baked thinktankery that passes for upscale television.”# For example, Stewart shows a clip of O’Reilly commenting that he does not believe rational, sane non-Christians are offended by the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Stewart agrees and suggests it is unreasonable for anyone to be offended such a phrase, before showing the next clip in which O’Reilly heartily agrees that Christians are unquestionably offended by the words “Happy Holidays.”#(He later retracts this comment). The humor of the clip inevitably lies in the blatant hypocrisy and double standard of O’Reilly’s comments. Later in the show, correspondent Jason Jones reports from a mall in which he and Stewart (through sarcasm and satire) indicate that despite words or greetings, nothing significant has changed in retail regarding Christmas. When Stewart asks the question (most likely on many people’s minds) as to how much the omission of the word Christmas in some retail settings affects people’s lives, Jones answers “How else are we gonna keep Jesus in our hearts without constant visual and verbal reminders? Heeding his words?”# Again, through humor, Stewart and his fellow correspondents demonstrate the level of ridiculousness that the omission of the word “Christmas” in a few advertising campaigns could constitute as a “war on Christmas.”


In a lengthy but humorous blog entry, Jonathon David Morris discusses how the use of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” never inflicted a religious belief (or lack thereof) upon the receiver. Through the lens of the “war on Christmas,” however, these previously innocuous phrases “are now politically loaded…”# He is concerned primarily because by using these phrases, it seems almost as if one is choosing sides in this invisible war. He cuts to the heart of the issue by choosing neither side and emphasizing that these phrases are common courtesy and “were never meant to be political weapons.”#


Walter Lippman first said that “people…respond not to the world but to the pictures in their heads.”# These “pictures in our heads” constitute the pseudo-environment which the media play a substantial role in creating. The question therefore is not whether the “war on Christmas” exists but whether it exists in our collective minds. For many, the answer was yes, of which Target and others felt real world repercussions. The irony is that those outlets that used humor to convey their perspective seemed to treat the issue with more seriousness and veracity than traditional media. In the end, our current mainstream media coverage of such issues has led us into a reality in which we’d seemingly prefer debate about whether or not a war exists rather than discussing the very real war waged in our name.





Leftover:
Although the “war on Christmas” originated on a television program, even radio has contributed to this decline. In a December 4 appearance on CBS’ Face the Nation, Senator John Kerry commented that American soldiers in Iraq should not be pillaging Iraqi civilians’ homes. In a response on his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that Kerry first should not comment on "soldiers terrorizing women and children at Christmas-time."# The qualification that issues occurring in our current war should not be discussed simply because it is Christmas is reprehensible on many levels. Limbaugh went even further to suggest that Kerry, along with the entire Democratic Party, were “trying to…get Christmas out of the public consciousness.”# The possibility of eradicating Christmas from American public consciousness based on one comment is in itself impossible and ridiculous, but that Limbaugh would value Christmas over the discussion of wartime crimes (and that he suggests they are mutually exclusive) emphasizes the inability of the show to seriously consider relevant issues. It suggests to audiences Christmas is a time when politics should not be discussed, an idea that is overwhelming dangerous to citizens of a democratic society.

The personal aspect of this “war” spoke to many people’s own experiences and memories of Christmas and thus became threatening not just to our nation but to individuals.


Just as the written word organizes our thoughts, television “imposes itself on our consciousness...”# so that we are a culture who believes when we see.

For example, one of conservatives main examples of the “war on Christmas” was the President’s greeting card which said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The Daily Show pointed out, however, that the card also included a quote from the Bible, highlighting the fact that the omission of the phrase “Merry Christmas” did not indicate an omission of Christianity.

As Walter Lippman pointed out, our understanding and perception of reality and the world are filtered through the mediums in which the information reaches us.

“Television is at…its most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.”#


© Copyright 2020 newly written. All rights reserved.

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