Toxic Talk: The Penalties We Pay

By Neil Earle

Neil Postman wrote insightfully about the merging of news and entertainment back in the 1980s.

“The news is just awful,” one of my kindly deacons confessed to me some years back around the church coffee pot. It’s hardly gotten better since then.

Sometimes you wish everyoine in the media would take a week off, but that’s too much like scapegoating the press and unfair to the good men and women trying to do their job. Still, there’s truth in respected NBC sportscaster Bob Costas’s remark that “the problem with television is that almost everything is reduced to sound bites and drawn in primary colors.”

Today the colors seem to be blaringly psychedelic.

Tongues of Fire

I’ve been in journalism for 48 years and I see why people get frustrated with us media types. We have a public platform and we have to be careful about grinding our own axes in full view. I try to be guided by the New Testament quote in James 3:5, “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” It’s hard to know who to be more upset about – the wrong doers handcuffed before us on our nightly TV screens or the endless repetition we have to endure of the same scene.

Such overkill smacks a bit of emotional abuse. Years ago TV critic Neil Postman quipped that our news reporters act like “they’ve been ordained,” not just working people like the rest of us doing a job. All of this has escalated in the Age of Trump with much right and wrong on both sides. So this column appeals from the Biblical Book of Proverbs on the wise and unwise use of one of the most potent small weapons in the universe – our tongues.

Let’s start in Proverbs 10.

Biblical Cautions

Proverbs 10:6 is hardly namby pamby idealism. It says forthrightly: “Violence covers the mouth of the wicked.” There’s a sad saying in modern journalism: “If it bleeds it leads.” I’m afraid a certain amount of this emotional shock jockery is part of the price we pay for free speech. But if your favorite TV channel is getting you continually agitated “for one against the other” (1 Corinthians 4:6), try for a less glandular way to get the news – a newspaper can’t holler at you, a magazine can’t easily assail you so overtly and quietly reading a well-researched book is still the best way to learn about something in depth.

“Everyone should be...slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness life that God desires.” Basil Wolverton artwork

The fact is that anyone who knows a fair amount about a subject is always surprised how so much of the story gets missed on television – even TV documentaries. So stay balanced in your approach to the news. Check it out. Use more than one source before forming important conclusions. Remember the principle taught in 2 Samuel 18 when the ancient King David’s fate hung on the outcome of a particular battle. On hearing that Ahimaaz was running at top speed as a courier from the front, David said: “He is a good man and comes with good news.” How true: Good people like to bring good news. Media types need to be good people – a shallow appeal I suppose, but I’ll say it anyway.

It’s better to become known as the one people want to be around rather than the bad news bearer. “Saturday Night Live” had a skit a few years back about the “Debbie Downer Syndrome.” This gal always found a way to spoil everyone’s good time. At Disneyland when people were emoting about how much their children were enjoying it Debbie piped up with, “Too bad we’re now in a soft target area for terrorists.”

Being one who accentuates the positive will pay dividends as life goes on. I remember during a particularly traumatic time in our church history when an attendee asked who was speaking that day. When told it was another pastor and myself sharing the pulpit that day, the visitor replied: “Oh, these are not bad news bears! I’ll stay.” I’ve never forgotten that incident. Can you see why?

One of the Bible’s recipes for a long and happy life is 1 Peter 3:10, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.”

Note Proverbs 10:7, “the wise in heart accept commands.” This tells us that we should be listening more than speaking. The New Testament equivalent of Proverbs is the Book of James which advises: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness life that God desires.” Some people love to push our hot buttons. One of our tasks in living a meaningful responsible life is to identify such people and avoid them.”Go from the presence of an angry person” says Proverbs 22:24. This is not easy in the day of 24/7 cable news but peace of mind is worth clicking the remote quite often.

Biblical Encouragements

Proverbs 10:11 says “The mouth of the righteous is a well of life.”

This refers to the good usage of the tongue which ministers, politicians, and news-anchors should highly prize. A “well of life” refers to depth. How refreshing it was in the election of 2008 when Republican Presidential candidate John McCain defended his opponent on live TV when his opponent was being unfairly denigrated by a well-meaning partisan. How memorable, too, when President Barack Obama “threw away the script” at a memorial service in Charleston honoring the victims of violence and began singing “Amazing Grace.” I chuckled because the media were forced to broadcast a well-known hymn on prime time. God will get himself the glory. These are two great moments in live journalism we should never let ourselves forget.

It’s wise to search out programs or articles which reflect multiple views on subjects or tune into a foreign news service occasionally. One reason we are in such turmoil today is because our tongues have run wild with very little respect for opposing arguments or the people who hold them. You and I don’t have to play that tired old game.

Pushing Our Buttons

Proverbs 10:7 says “the memory of the righteous will be a blessing.”

So…Question One: What do you think of when you hear the name Benedict Arnold?

Question Two: What comes to mind when you hear the name Abraham Lincoln?

See how it works? These are living principles from the Book of Proverbs, rules of life that extract fearsome penalties when violated. By the way, the orator at Gettysburg Cemetery in 1863 spoke two hours; Lincoln achieved immortality in a 2-3 minute speech. Proverbs 10:21 says “the lips of the righteous feed many.” And Shakespeare knew that brevity – shortness of speech – was the soul of good wit. There’s that incentive to positive use of the tongue again.

Proverbs 10:19 say “when words are many sin is not absent.” I’ve dabbled in television quite a bit and I know that nothing eats up material quicker than TV or radio. It’s just a challenge to fill a three-hour slot on the airwaves so it’s easier to resort to questionable material or go on the attack. Johnny Carson was wise when he fought against filling 90 minutes on The Tonight Show. He was only lured out of retirement by promises of a 60-minute stint. Lots of talking makes space for lots of errors. No fact-checker in the world can keep up with some of the gratuitous exaggeration flooding over the air waves and blogs these days. “Blog” – ugh! What a demeaning title. Who’d want to tell people you blog for a living?

Finally, Proverbs 10:20, “The tongue of the righteous is choice silver.” God’s word urges us to build people up rather than tear them down. Jesus gave a fearsome warning that most talk show hosts might laugh their heads off about I suspect. But here it is. One day we all have to answer for our misuse of the power of the tongue. Jesus was no far-out hippie type. He could be quite pointed. He warned: “I tell you that men will have to give account in the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

Gulp. Who knew that was part of the Gospel? The problem with toxic talk is it slowly alters and affects the social climate. Just as snowflakes accumnulating over time can stop a freight train, so the constant seepage of negative reporting into our national life can create monsters of the mind. It can make us accessories to the decline of public life. After his arrest Timothy McVeigh, who killed almost 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1994, was heard to say something like: “Doesn’t everybody hate the federal government?”

See how it works?

Toxic talk: There’s no place for it in the body of Christ or in our own homes or in our own lives. God help us to be ambassadors of good will instead.