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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Thursday, February 08, 2007

CNN atheism debacle

It's not normally like me to send off letters or e-mails complaining to the media about their handling of current issues, but just this once I've joined the bandwagon complaining about the panel discussion in Paula Zahn's recent segment on the social persecution of atheists in the US.

For those three people and a dog in the world who missed it, Zahn presented a segment about the harassment of a couple who were basically driven out of town by religious zealots. In the following panel session, two members of the panel essentially claimed that atheists need to "shut up", because they bring such intolerance on themselves.

The third, and the only one who made any sense, was an ESPN sports analyst who proclaimed that he loves the Lord but also believes in constitutional rights. Good for him. He tried to remind the other two that the US is a country which (supposedly) values freedom of belief and speech. This led to a general shouting match.

There has apparently been a massive flood of mail in response. In my own belated e-mail to Zahn's show, I said the following (typos and all, alas):
Dear Ms Zahn,

I was dismayed by the panel discussion in your recent segment on atheism, particularly by the suggestion that atheists bring hatred on themselves and should simply, as Ms Hunter put it so charmingly, "Shut up." This seems like a rather extreme example of blaming the victim, especially considering that it immediately followed your report on a case of blatant social persecution of a couple of (apparently) good citizens who happen not to believe in the existence of the Christian God.

I understand that the panel may have been chosen for another purpose (to comment on the Superbowl), and that this may explain the ignorance and egregious imbalance that we saw. However, it was most unfortunate that not one member of the panel was actually an atheist, and that the whole framing of the debate assumed atheists to be an "other" to be discussed in absentia as a problem for "us". Stephen Smith did make some commendable efforts to draw attention to the fact that atheists have legal and constitutional rights, like everyone else, but the attitudes of the other two panel members were appalling, and reflected badly on themselves, your segment, and CNN. It would be mild to say that they made fools of themselves, you, and the network.

None of this is to deny them (or you, if it comes to that) the right to express whatever views they wish, however intolerant or bizarre - I well understand the principle of freedom of speech. But I do believe that a major media outlet such as CNN should make an effort to achieve at least some semblance of balance, especially when discussing the possible reasons why a despised minority is actually despised.

In addition, I regret to say that I was surprised that you were unable to test the more outrageous claims and proposals that were being made - I expect any television moderator to hold panel members to account and test their claims, especially when they take the wild form that we saw from Ms Hunter in particular.

More positively - and I do regret that we are required to mark our feedback as either "positive' or "negative", with no more nuanced options available - I understand that Professor Richard Dawkins will now be appearing on your show in the aftermath of this segment. I commend the decision to invite Professor Dawkins as a guest. I hope that this will allow for a more considered and useful discussion of the topic of atheism and the widespread rejection of traditional religious belief. I look forward to seeing his contribution.

Your sincerely,

Russell Blackford


Blake Stacey said...

Not trusting myself to be appropriately statesmanlike, I didn't send a letter. (At least a couple people hanging out at Pharyngula said that they'd received automated replies thanking them for their response to the Steve Irwin memorial piece, so one could have wondered if e-mails would've had any effect at all.) Yours is good, much along the lines of what I would have liked to write.

Unfortunately, I'll have to wait until the interview appears on the Blagnet, since among the many nice features of my home is its lack of a television set. Here's hoping Prof. Dawkins upholds his reputation as the atheist Magneto. . . .

Blake Stacey said...

Dawkins just wrote on Pharyngula,

I just learned that CNN's plan for this evening has changed. My 20 minute interview will be edited down to about 4 minutes, and it will be followed by a panel discussion involving Christopher Hitchens (representing atheists) and two religious spokesmen.

I can't say I'm enthused. Leaving aside the numerical disparity, Hitchens wouldn't have been my first choice. Plenty of other names leap to mind, e.g., Skatje Myers.