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Preachers Playing to the Press

By Froma Harrop

Jerry Falwell seemed "a grandfather figure," Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said on PBS, "not someone who looked like Elmer Gantry." Many in the media have compared Falwell, who just died, to the huckster preacher in the 1927 Sinclair Lewis novel, and so Perkins was, in a sense, heading the interviewer off at the pass.

It has long struck me how news folks delight in recounting Falwell's outrageous statements and questionable business practices -- visions of Elmer Gantry dancing through their prose -- without noting their own resemblance to another character in the book. I speak of Bill Kingdom, the "veteran reporter" at the Zenith Advocate-Times.

Gantry visits the paper to drum up publicity, but makes little impression on Kingdom. "Bill looked uninterested when Elmer came around with the juiciest of stories about dance-halls," Lewis wrote. Then Kingdom decides to work with Gantry, egging him on to increasingly intemperate acts of crusading as the price for extensive coverage.

When the preacher leads a mob into the flat of a "scarlet woman," Kingdom offers the following critique: "Oh rats! This girl looks as dangerous as a goldfish, Gantry."

Gantry finally earns Kingdom's approval when he leads the police and his followers to break up a beer hall (this was during Prohibition) and has the German-immigrant proprietor arrested. Kingdom sees the headline: "Gallant preacher single-handed faces saloon full of desperate gun-men and rebukes them for taking the name of the Lord in vain," then thinks, "Oh, I'll get a swell story."

That's the way it works. The media find someone with "the Rev." in front of his name who provokes lively controversy and builds him up into public figure far bigger than his actual support warrants.

The Rev. Al Sharpton is an obvious example. The agitator earned fame for his anti-Asian and anti-Semitic boycotts, the phony rape accusations against white men and racially inflammatory remarks wherever cameras were present. His minstrel show greatly embarrasses many fellow African-Americans, but the white-dominated media keep it going as a bottomless trove of entertainment.

Falwell is a somewhat different case in that he did start off as a genuine political force. He founded the "Moral Majority" and in the 1980s turned Christian conservatives into a Republican base. But his influence fell as time went on, brought lower by weird comments, such as his suggestion that a purple Teletubby on the children's show was a gay plant.

Sadly, the more thoughtful and less flamboyant evangelicals don't receive a fraction of the airtime the showmen command. A friend who considers himself a social and Christian conservative complains about the media "hanging Falwell around our necks." He has much company.

Falwell hit bottom after the Sept. 11 outrages, when he said that "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians" -- and he threw in the ACLU and People for the American Way -- "helped this happen." President Bush denounced the comment, and Falwell apologized, lest this step too far land him in the hole of oblivion.

Asked on PBS about Falwell's infamous remark, Perkins dismissed it as "just that one statement," and he blamed the media for distorting what was said. But even Perkins acknowledged that there was collaboration between Falwell and an allegedly hostile media.

"He knew how to get headlines," Perkins said. "He would make a statement, usually in jest, knowing that a reporter somewhere would pick it up and run with it."

Yes, Falwell knew how to get headlines, but he could not have gotten them without his Bill Kingdoms. The journalists in "Elmer Gantry" don't come off any better than the preachers.


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