Reporters Take a Men's Movement at Face Value
It’s easy to tell what makes folks in the establishment media nervous. When black men came together in Washington, D.C. for 1995’s Million Man March, most journalists scrutinized with healthy skepticism the political agenda fueling the Nation of Islam-led event. Many came down hard and heavy on the organizers’ exclusion of women and whites.
Similarly, when Pride rallies involving thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people attracted national attention in the early 1990s, ABC World News Tonight and CNN’s Larry King Live (both 3/26/93) played excerpts of a hate-filled videotape of the marches made by homophobes, and debated what the right labeled “The Gay Agenda” on national TV.
Every woman knows that a lot of men get the jitters when females meet “alone” in groups of two or more. In1996, feminists couldn’t convene a single day of networking without Robert Novak grilling NOW’s Patricia Ireland about whether the so-called “Feminist Expo” was anti-men (Crossfire, 2/2/96).
Yet when an “out” homophobe and anti-feminist founds a movement to defend “traditional” (anti-equality) values, and he attracts a million men to a military-style program called Promise Keepers, mainstream media don’t seem to worry. In fact, they cut him acres of slack: “Full of Promise,” gushed Time magazine (11/6/95). The New York Times (9/22/96) reported on the Promise Keepers’ “manly devotion to spiritual yearnings.”
In the case of the Million Man March, journalists distinguished between the leaders and the led. Most reporters agreed that the majority of marchers were well-intentioned, but they played up the possibility, even probability, that a nefarious political program lay behind the facade of Rev. Louis Farrakhan’s atonement day. But when more than 30,000 Promise Keepers filed into Shea Stadium to sign up to fight an explicitly sexist, implicitly racist culture “war,” New York Times reporter Frank Bruni (9/22/96) saw only the bright veneer.
From Bruni’s description–“The men listening raptly…were white, black, Hispanic and Asian, reflecting the organization’s call for interracial harmony”–readers would never have guessed that attendance at PK rallies is generally more than 95 percent white (The Nation, 10/7/96). In his report from Shea, Bruni failed even to mention that the PK gathering kept women out. (That the event was for “men only” appeared only in the photo caption.)
The Times headline–“In an Arena of Faithful, Joyful Noise and Prayer”–also gave no indication that PK was political. “The program for Friday evening and yesterday involved sermons and singalongs, tearful testimonials and matter-of-fact discussions of current events,” wrote Bruni. Nothing to get anxious about in that.
Bruni quoted no critics of Promise Keepers in his 28-paragraph story for the Times. But some were present, and to many, the speakers’ political agenda was clear. House majority leader (and born-again Christian) Dick Armey (R-Texas), one of Newt Gingrich’s closest House allies, was held up as a model congressman; a speaker announced that the PK rally was to be broadcast into Cuba, where it would “explode like a bomb.”
Reporters didn’t have to venture inside most PK events to see the literature tables burdened with materials from explicitly right-wing organizations. Focus on the Family, a $100 million religious-right organization, publishes the books of PK founder Bill McCartney and helped bankroll the group at the start. FOF’s leader, social psychologist and radio commentator James Dobson, spent much of 1996 disparaging the current Republican Party for its “moderate” tilt. The Campus Crusade for Christ, the Christian Coalition and Exodus International (a group dedicated to “converting” homosexuals) generally pepper PK events with their representatives.
“We see what we want to see,” feminist activist and writer Suzanne Pharr told FAIR’s CounterSpin (9/27/96). “[The mainstream media] think this is something large and sort of trendy, something at best they might poke a little fun at, but not really take a deep look at or do some real analysis.”
Discerning the political proclivities of Promise Keepers hardly requires deep research.
The group’s founder, former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, once defended two of his players accused of date rape by saying it’s only rape “when real physical violence is involved.” In 1992 he used his name and university affiliation to support Amendment Two, a statewide ballot measure (later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court) blocking local anti-discrimination laws that protected gays and lesbians. He told a local press conference that homosexuality is “an abomination of almighty God.” (The New York Times had reported those comments–3/15/92—but in 1996, its PK reporter apparently failed to check the file.)
Coach McCartney has been a featured speaker at meetings of the militant anti-feminist, anti-abortion outfit Operation Rescue. Like some of his antiabortion colleagues, he’s keen on military language: “Many of you feel like you’ve been in a war a long time,” McCartney told the crowd at a PK rally in Los Angeles in 1996. “The fiercest fighting is just ahead…. It’s war time.” A videotape of several PK events, including this one, has been made available to the press by Sterling Research Associates in New York City.
PK literature is easy to read. In Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, Dallas pastor Tony Evans states the pro-patriarchal program plainly: “The first thing you do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: ‘Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake, I’ve given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.’ Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I’m urging you to take it back. If you simply ask for it, your wife is likely to [refuse]…. Your wife’s concerns may be justified. Unfortunately, however, there can be no compromise here.” (Quoted in Ms., 11-12/95)
At one of the Promise Keeper rallies videotaped for Sterling Research, an unnamed woman appeared on a massive video screen to ask for forgiveness for females: “We ask you to forgive us for not showing you the respect that you deserve.” Tens of thousands of men present roared.
The Christian Coalition’s magazine Christian American profiled PK in April 1995 with an article titled “Real Men Are Back”; in the same month, the Coalition-linked TV show The 700 Club gave PK and McCartney a lengthy plug.
Reconciliation =/= Justice
It’s no surprise that right-wing media love McCartney, but it is still a tad surprising to see a right-wing demagogue get the same uncritical treatment from ABC’s World News Tonight.
The week after Bill McCartney convened the country’s largest-ever gathering of male clergy, Peter Jennings (2/16/96) dubbed McCartney “Person of the Week.” Rather than researching PK himself, Jennings regurgitated what sounded like PK publicity handouts: “McCartney has been criticized by homosexuals who say that he discriminates. McCartney does take the traditional biblical view that homosexuality is a sin,” Jennings said. Then he waxed lyrical about McCartney’s achievements: “He has once again managed to inspire a large number of people to come together for what they regard as the common good.”
In anticipation of the rally in Los Angeles, the L.A. Times (4/20/96) declared that the “Men’s Group Strives for Racial Harmony,” echoing slippery PK rhetoric about racial “reconciliation.” But being reconciled is not the same as being equal. Indeed, PK president Randy Phillips was quoted in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph as saying, “The goal is not integration.” (The Nation, 10/7/96)
Al Ross pointed out on CounterSpin (9/27/96) that if the economic agenda of PK and their allies was carried out, “the economic infrastructure of communities of color would be devastated!’
“Ralph Reed used to say that the stealth candidates of the Christian Coalition had to fly beneath the radar of society to make inroads,” Ross observed (CounterSpin, 9/27/96). “PK have been filling enormous football stadiums with extreme right-wing activists and no one’s noticed. Either there is no more radar, or someone’s turned it off.”
When critical pieces have appeared in commercial outlets, there has often been a sharp response. The Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ) ran a strongly critical piece about PK in January 1996. (Author Scott Raab says that what PK offers men is “protection—from themselves.”) The Christian Coalition immediately accused the magazine of “bigotry” and retaliated with a slew of press releases (Freedom Writer, 9/96).
Writing in The Progressive magazine (8/96), Nancy Novosad reports that when a domestic violence worker named Mary Pohutsky was quoted in a Michigan newspaper voicing her qualms about PK, her organization was besieged with calls. Influential members of the local community threatened to withdraw their support from her organization. The newspaper, too, received an onslaught of calls that appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign. Perhaps it’s that sort of PK power that is making the movement too hot for mainstream media to investigate.
Or perhaps the power press is simply not disturbed by PK’s talk. We heard plenty of rhetoric just like it during the recent debates over affirmative action, gay and lesbian rights, welfare and crime. The mainstream media are very receptive to people who promote “individual responsibility,” demonize “immoral” females and homosexuals and bemoan the “traditional” family’s decline. Perhaps that’s why PK’s not scary. It’s forthright talk about equality that makes establishment media squirm.
SIDEBAR: When the Radar is On
Reporters looking for in-depth reporting on Promise Keepers can read the alternative press: On the Issues (Spring/95), Ms. (11-12/95). Sojourners (9/96), Freedom Writer (9/96), In These Times (8/5/96) and The Nation (10/7/96) have all carried articles on PK.
As most media failed to do this research, some activists have tried to do it for them. In Portland, Oregon, when PK came to town, Suzanne Pharr, with colleagues from the anti-domestic violence and gay and lesbian rights movements, distributed articles from the alternative media to reporters and held a teach-in. Having challenged the PK’s right to exclude women from the state-funded stadium, the activists won access for all. Ten women and 10 men from Pharr’s group attended the rally, then reported back to activists and did interviews with mainstream and alternative press.
Sometimes simply by turning up at PK events, activists can affect the media spin. TJ Walker, a radio talkshow host turned organizer, showed up outside the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg when a PK rally was being held there in August 1995. His opposition to PK made it onto every local news channel and into the St. Petersburg Times (8/5/96).
“Its easy to shape local news coverage,” says Walker, who now directs an organization called Equity Media Center in New York. “News media can’t resist the conflict and confrontation aspect, yet almost everywhere PK goes there’s no one there to talk to reporters.”
Walker dogged PK in North Carolina and in New York City—and each time, he was interviewed by local reporters. Outside Shea Stadium, the cable news channel New York 1 (9/21/96) asked Walker’s colleague, Rev. Wanda Gayle Logan, to respond to PK’s “chivalrous” attitude toward women: PK may put women on a pedestal, said Logan. “but that pedestal comes with a price…. She doesn’t have a vote—that’s sexism.”
“Rather than talking among ourselves, we need to be out there, at the event, to talk to the mass public [via mass media],” says Walker.
Equity Media Center offers media training workshops to people who would like to gain more facility with talking to the press. Other groups offer similar workshops nationwide—check with local media activists.