War on Christmas

Evangelists of conservatism bash bastions of pop culture with anything but peace on Earth

The holiday season is upon us, which in recent years has meant the inevitable meme within conservative media circles about the “War on Christmas” — intended to denote hostility toward those in the Christian faith who distinguish the Christ part of the holiday from the retail.

Yet this evergreen story runs on a parallel track with another — that Jews, mostly liberal, “run Hollywood,” wielding outsized influence over popular entertainment. And while the two conversations seldom directly intersect, it’s not hard for one thesis to bleed into the other, since movie studios, TV networks and news divisions are controlled by the same massive corporate entities.

What’s generally missing is any sober-minded acknowledgement regarding the perceived cultural divide between Christians and the so-called mainstream media. Instead, the debate is frequently conducted via flare-ups — some tinged with anti-Semitism — notably emanating from ideologically opposed political quadrants.

Rapper Kanye West, for example, recently said on a radio show that President Obama’s public-relations woes exist in part because “black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people (or) oil people.” His comments join a long line of similar utterances by entertainers, including Marlon Brando’s 1996 Larry King interview in which he said: “Hollywood is run by Jews. It’s owned by Jews.”

At the parochial end of the spectrum, William Donohue of the Catholic League doubled down on comments about Hollywood Jews antagonizing Catholics, sarcastically telling CNN, “Is it the Vietnamese who are making movies in Hollywood? Is it the Puerto Ricans who own Hollywood?”

Elsewhere, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have begun Fox News’ annual chronicling of “War on Christmas” slights — a strategy as familiar at the Roger Ailes-led network as tinsel on the tree, and just as effective in distinguishing Fox from news organizations run by “secular progressives.”

The issue is raw enough that even joking about it can raise hackles, as Seth MacFarlane discovered when he (or, rather, his furry alter ego Ted) referenced Jews running Hollywood while hosting the Oscars, drawing condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League. “We’re vigilant about calling people out, whether from the right or the left, if they engage in stereotypes,” says ADL Civil Rights director Deborah Lauter.

Separating reality from the profitable machinery of perpetual outrage is always complicated.

It’s not really an insult to observe that Jews are disproportionately represented in media, given their percentage of the population. What matters is the proposition that decisionmaking in news or entertainment is determined by that — or dismissive of the Christian majority.

Historically, TV’s desire to play to the broadest possible audience dictated avoiding overt religious content out of fear it might be exclusionary. If TV’s values were inherently conservative, people rarely quoted scripture beyond “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” That line of reasoning has been altered somewhat by a more fragmented media environment, which allows greater emphasis on niche programming.

At major film studios, meanwhile, the emphasis on theatrical tentpoles has made them most comfortable with gods like Thor, who can play to a global audience and maybe even generate multiple sequels.

A few years ago, columnist Joel Stein turned the whole thing into a joke, writing, “As a proud Jew, I want America to know about our accomplishment. Yes, we control Hollywood. Without us, you’d be flipping between ‘The 700 Club’ and ‘Davey and Goliath’ on TV all day.”

Still, ADL’s Lauter maintains that words, and stereotypes, have consequences. She also called the “War on Christmas” a “red and green herring,” inasmuch as the expression “happy holidays” reflects not disrespect but a simple desire to be inclusive, which also provides the underpinnings of Hollywood’s pragmatic philosophy.

Finally, considering the media’s tendency to lurch from crisis to crisis and fight the last war, it’s common to overlook progress. As speakers at Variety’s Family Entertainment & Faith-Based Summit in June repeatedly stated, peddling religious-themed material can be a tough sell, but what isn’t? Even if executives don’t always share those convictions, studios and networks are looking for product that will attract viewers — and “The Bible” rocked the ratings for History channel.

So with that in mind, happy holidays. And no offense intended.

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