When media push the envelope, push back

  • October 4, 2011

In a recent episode of the Canadian TV series Rookie Blue, a priest is tackled by a pair of police officers who show little patience with his explanation: A penitent had threatened to do something stupid, hence the priest, baseball bat in hand, chased him up the street. In the ensuing dialogue, one officer notes, “He’s a priest. He can’t be lying.” The other counters, “Pff, priests lie. Ever see that wafer that they call bread?”

The snide reference to the Eucharist offended many Catholic viewers, some of whom forwarded complaints to me as well as to Global Television, the originating network. In my own message to the network, I pointed out there must be countless, less offensive ways to convey a character’s skepticism about clergy and organized religion. The scene and its dialogue were unfortunate, given that the rest of the episode contained little if anything that would be regarded as offensive. (I had never watched the show before. When I saw the title in listings I had simply assumed it was yet another American crime offering.)

As a friend pointed out, the vignette had actually slammed two sacraments, not just one, in a mere 30-second clip. The impression of a priest chasing a penitent and discussing something said in the confessional was another flippant misrepresentation of Catholic teaching and custom. Flippant and deliberate, but hardly unusual.

The casual misrepresentation of Catholicism is common in all media, and offensive jibes about the Church, its clergy and sacraments are not infrequent. Jay Leno’s jokes about the sex-abuse scandal, often told to groans from the audience, have produced no fewer than a dozen publicized complaints from the U.S. Catholic League in the past year or so, and there is worse to be found on the late-night circuit on both sides of the border.

Given that obtaining apologies or corrections is difficult, if near impossible, some people question if it’s worth phoning or e-mailing networks or advertisers when clicking the channel or the off button is much easier. I would say yes, for the same reason eligible voters should cast a ballot even if they live in a riding where their preferred party is unlikely to win. If you stay away, there won’t even be a record of protest, which is surely the beginning of any change.

In the case of an offensive television program, turning off the channel is certainly important, but a phone call or e-mail to advertisers and TV network helps drive home the message. In fact, messages from turned-off viewers are as important, if not more so, than those from people like me who send them as part of their job.

Media tend to push the envelope, and sometimes pushing back can have an impact. Earlier this year the Catholic Civil Rights League filed a formal complaint with the Canadian Advertising Standards Council after Virgin Radio posted a series of billboards incorporating the “F” word with the Lord’s name in acronyms that are well-known to the youth market to which the ads were aimed. Citing the ASC’s code dealing with standards of public decency, the CCRL argued that the wording was not something the vast majority would consider acceptable in a public forum.

The complaint was upheld but the advertiser appealed, claiming among other things that all the terms were acceptable since the ads were aimed at the young, who instantly understand and accept them. In our response, it was pointed out that billboards are probably the most invasive of all publicity, and the fact that such speech might be commonplace in private or in text messages doesn’t mean it should be “anything goes” in public, where the rest of us have no choice but to see it. The ASC agreed and the ads came down. (A second complaint about the same ads related to content demeaning to women was unsuccessful.)

Despite the problems, there is plenty of good work being done in the media by way of evangelization. Catholic networks and publications, a few columnists in secular newspapers and video web sites are just some examples. Supporting those efforts instead of watching the junk will help ensure we continue to have some choices.

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