Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Speaking of Tabloid Journalism, Karl Keating of Catholic Answers Has Something to Say!


Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:

My wife was at the gym when a woman entered and breathlessly asked no one in particular, "Did you hear the news?"
For a moment my wife feared there had been some calamity--a wildfire threatening the neighborhood, the death of a prominent political figure, the bottom falling out of the stock market--but no. It was bigger than that. The woman revealed that "Paris Hilton is out of jail!"

The next day, I would guess, the woman returned to announce that Paris Hilton was back in jail. I know of her return behind bars only because it was reported on the front page of the "San Diego Union-Tribune," right alongside other important international news.

And I know who Paris Hilton is only because I looked her up on Wikipedia, where I learned that she is an actress who cannot act well, a singer who cannot sing well, and a courtroom bawler who cannot even bawl well. She is an heiress who, at birth, was given the name of a hotel. That may explain things.


It has been more than twenty years now since I gave up television. (Foolishly, I didn't do it as an ongoing Lenten penance and therefore got no spiritual brownie points for it.) But I do remember, years ago, being puzzled when watching a particular game show. I no longer remember which show it was, but I remember one of the regular participants, Orson Bean.

I never could figure out who the guy was. So far as I knew, he never had done anything of note. He was on the show because he was a celebrity, and he was a celebrity because he was on the show. It seemed a perfect circle. Perhaps Bean actually had done something interesting in his earlier life, but to me he became the symbol of the vacuity of celebrityism. He was the compleat artificial man.

Today's equivalent is Paris Hilton or whoever else can be found on the front pages of supermarket tabloids: people who are famous for being famous but not for having done anything worthwhile. Most of them are entertainers, either actors or singers. Although I haven't seen them act or listened to them sing, my impression is that, on the whole, neither their acting nor their singing measures up to the standards of a few decades ago.

In "Sunset Boulevard," Joe Gillis (William Holden) says to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), "You used to be big." She replies: "I am big. It's the pictures that got smaller." That was from a movie released in 1950. If Norma Desmond were still around, I suppose she would have especially unflattering things to say about today's shrunken celebrities.

However that may be, my interest is not in Paris Hilton or Orson Bean or the fictitious Norma Desmond but in the woman at the gym who, unfortunately, is not fictitious and who, equally unfortunately, seems to be representative of many Americans.

I mean those many Americans who are unserious. They aren't given to real thinking. They emote. They easily are swayed by appeals to greed and envy. They are interested in bread and circuses.

This makes them difficult targets for evangelization. No matter how well trained you are in Scripture, no matter how clearly you can explain Church teachings, no matter how convincingly you are able to put the case for Christianity, none of it will have the slightest impact on a mind closed to higher things. You cannot walk through a door that is closed and locked. (Our Lord could--and did--but you are not our Lord.)

There are many Americans who hunger for the truth of the Catholic faith. They may not know that the Church has what they need, but they know they need truth, and they look for it, even if in fits and starts. But there are many Americans who have not yet begun to search. They have not yet begun to think that a search might be necessary. They do not feel an intellectual and spiritual emptiness because they are preoccupied with the transitory things of the tabloids.


"Paris Hilton is out of jail!" Today, one witless Hollywood star. Tomorrow, another. Next week, still another. And so it goes. How do we get through to people who think such things matter? How do we make them see that their focus on celebrities may amuse them, may entertain them, may occupy their time but undoubtedly has taken them away from really important things?

When I engage in apologetics, I interact with people who are interested in religion. Even atheists are interested in religion, if only to oppose it. Their very opposition shows that they are further advanced than are the readers of the tabloids. At least they know that religion matters.

And the Protestants and Catholics I deal with, even though sloppy in the practice of their faith, know that religion is one of the few things that count. They may misunderstand what Christ taught, and they may follow his injunctions irregularly, but they know that he is talking about the important things and that the "National Enquirer" is not.

There are millions of Americans who already are Catholics, at least in name, and need help in knowing their faith better. There are millions more who are Christians of some other sort and need to understand that their true religious home has its terrestrial headquarters in Rome. And there are millions of other Americans, of other faiths or no particular faith, who are searching for truth, however ineffectively.

But there also are millions who do not even rise to Pilate's level to ask, "What is truth?" To them, truth is whatever is in the entertainment headlines, which is to say their truth is entirely fictitious. Is there any way to make real headway with such people? Do we have to wait for them, one by one, to come to the realization that celebrityism, in the long run, not only is unsatisfying but actually is subversive of true happiness?

When I see such people in the checkout line at the supermarket, I sometimes wish I had with me a good book--perhaps a biography, a history, or a work of religious devotion. "Here," I'd say, "take this home and read it. Swear off this junk in the racks. Read books that will improve your mind." But, of course, I don't do that.

What do you think should be done? How can we make headway with such folks? Is there something proactive we can do, or do we just have to hope they someday will tire of wallowing in celebrity worship and will turn toward real religion?

I'd like to have your thoughts on this--but please don't try to send them to me via a reply to this E-Letter. I won't see your comments that way. Go instead to our forums ( and add a post to the thread that is devoted to this issue of the E-Letter.


Our Word said...


I think there's something to what Keating says, but I'm not sure I accept the premise of his argument.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is far too much of an emphasis on pop culture today - people consumed by what is often little more than putrid filth.

And yet, for the discerning viewer, there is much of value in television - movies, sports, documentaries, the occasional classic program.

P.S. if Keating saw Orson Bean on a game show, it was most likely "To Tell the Truth." In fact, Orson Bean has had quite a distinguished career - Broadway (including a Tony nomination), several TV series (including Dr. Quinn, which was often considered a family-friendly show), movies, and is the author of several books.

Which points out my problem with Keating's comments - to withdraw too completely from pop culture is, to a great extent, to lose touch with what is going on in modern society. While I don't watch reality TV, nor most of the most popular series (i.e. The Sopranos), you can bet that I'm aware of them, and it helps me understand more about the people who do watch them.

Keating also risks adopting an elitist attitude toward pop culture, which at the same time runs dangerously close to the sin of pride. Note that I am not accusing him of this, merely pointing out that many people speak with a disproportionate amount of pride of things such as not watching television - implying, somehow, that it makes them better than those who do.

TV is neither good nor evil; like most material things, it is morally neutral, defined only by those that use and watch it.

Yes, television has to be improved, as do movies, news organizations, and journalism. Yes, I share a certain amount of distain for those who get all their news from People or the Enquirer, who spend all their time watching Entertainment Tonight and its clones. I think that much of our culture today is a mess, as anyone who reads Our Word can testify, and I believe there are standards of dress and conduct that should not be lowered. But, as the poet says, "I am involved in mankind," and I take those aspects of it, for better or worse.

And so while I agree with a good bit of what Keating says, ultimately I think he's setting up a straw man: the idea that it has to be all or nothing? Can you understand – even enjoy – aspects of pop culture without being consumed by it? I think you can.


Unknown said...

Mitchell here.

Last year, in a comment to a post by Ray, I upbraided Karl Keating for being willfully out of touch with popular culture. "Can you understand – even enjoy – aspects of pop culture without being consumed by it?" I asked at the time. "I think you can." I took particular exception to what I saw as a gratutious shot by Keating at the actor Orson Bean. (" I never could figure out who the guy was," Keating wrote. "So far as I knew, he never had done anything of note. He was on the show because he was a celebrity, and he was a celebrity because he was on the show. . . He was the compleat artificial man.")

Not only was this needlessly cruel, I argued, it was also patently false - Bean had had a long and succesful career on Broadway (including a Tony nomination), movies and television, and had authored several books. Meanwhile, at my main blog Our Word, Drew piled on with his comments in this piece.

Well, over at the inimitable Dirty Harry's Place, Harry links us to this video of Orson Bean appearance this week on Dennis Miller's radio show. In it, Orson talks about iconic things such as the first blacklist, Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar and his new book M@il For Mikey, in which he discusses finding God and becoming a Christian.

orson bean
Uploaded by dollarsandsense123

We can only be glad, I guess, that God has a wider range of interests than Karl Keating. But, more seriously, we can be very happy for Orson Bean, and that the many years of pleasure he has given us has now been matched by the happiness that his his.

Cross-posted to Our Word and Welcome to It

Unknown said...

I confess to wondering about Orson Bean when I would regularly see him on talk shows. I just figured he was a bright and entertaining guy. I'm surprised to hear he is still alive.

Karl Keating and I probably have the same excuse. I was in Duluth in 1950s and Karl was in San Diego with a metro population of maybe 500,000. Today it is 3,000,000 and is no doubt fully supported by modern communications technology, as is Duluth (not the 3,000,000 part).

In those days I vaguely knew that "Broadway" was where they put on musicals that wouldn't seen at the movies in Duluth for five or ten years (if ever). I had no idea that "regular plays" were also on Broadway and that Orson Bean had been in many of them.

Times have changed.