Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 03/31/23

From The Christophers website

It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. So goes the motto of The Christophers, the Catholic organization known for its annual awards honoring movies, television and books that reflect that world views. The 2023 winners were announced last week.

This week I spoke with Christophers Director of Communications Tony Rossi about what goes into choosing the honorees and about a Wall Street Journal poll (summarized in the New York Post) suggesting that Americans’ regard for traditional values like patriotism, religion, raising children, involvement in community and tolerance has taken a significant hit in recent years. This as our national regard for the value of money has apparently risen. I guess you could call that a win for the Green Agenda.

As I’m tempted to curse the darkness – and the corporate globalist media that I think thrives on division and has played an outsize role in getting us to this point – Rossi reminds me that it’s important to focus on – and encourage – the positive.

JWK: So, what went into choosing this year’s Christopher Awards winners?

Tony Rossi: We got a good number of submissions, as we usually do. Essentially, we were looking for projects – books, films, TV programs – that, I guess you could say, touch the mind, touch the heart and touch the soul; stories that just have something positive and hopeful to say about the human spirit and humanity, stories that lift up – not stories that ignore the bad things of the world. In fact, a lot of our stories deal with some of the hardships that people endure in life and in society and the world but there’s also, generally, an aspect of hope, of people doing the right thing, of practicing selfless love, courage and sacrifice. So, that’s what went into our picking of the awards.

JWK: Do these projects generally get pitched to you or do you find them yourselves?

TR: It’s a combination of both. Every year we send out a few entry emails to publishers, TV producers and (others) who are on our email list. So, they submit stuff. We get a lot of submissions especially in our Books for Adults and Books for Young People categories. Feature films we tend to find on our own though we do get a few submissions and we do receive a good amount of TV submissions as well. So, it’s a combination of both. I’d say our picks this year were 60/40 things that were submitted and otherwise things we found on our own.

JWK: I know you probably don’t want to play favorites but was their anything that touched you personally among them?

TR: I’m not gonna pick a favorite but…there was one in the TV category. We are giving an award to a couple of episodes of an Apple TV+ series called Amber Brown. Amber Brown is the title character. She’s 11-years-old. Her mom’s divorced.

TR:  In the two episodes (we awarded) she starts volunteering at a nursing home/assisted-living facility. She befriends an elderly widow there and she kind of takes her on an outing. Just because I personally am dealing with being a caregiver for senior parents, I like seeing that storyline about a young person befriending an elderly person because I do think the elderly are sometimes forgotten in society. They need socialization. They need friendship and everything. You know, I’m not gonna say that it’s my favorite. I think there are a lot of strong TV and film winners but that story I would say just jumped out at me for my own personal reasons. I just think it was handled very well, the way the story was told.

JWK: Next year will mark the 75th annual awards. Anything special planned? This year – as in recent years due to Covid – there was no live presentation. Will you go back to that next year?

TR: We’re hoping to. We plan to explore that over the next few months. We’re hoping to go back to an in-person ceremony for the 75th anniversary. Nothing is scheduled or set in concrete just yet but that is the hope as we approach next year.

JWK: How do you rate the media as a positive cultural force overall? You’ve found positive examples but, in general, do you think the media is living up to its candle-lighting potential?

TR: I have given this some thought…I know it’s almost fashionable to kind of bash the media. Sometimes I hear the accusation that the media is anti-Christian, against faith, that kind of thing but, in my years at The Christophers, we’ve had a lot of (media) people on our TV and radio show who are involved with the awards, who are journalists (and) who are people of faith. So, I don’t always agree with the assessment that the media is anti-Christian because I think that there are a lot of people who do work in the media that are faith-friendly or, at least, are open to it.

I mean just (recently) I saw stories on ABC News about the terrible tornadoes in Mississippi. They featured people talking about how their faith in God is getting them through. Last year, I think, there was a story on The Today Show about a Catholic bishop in New York who uses rap music appeal to young people. So, I think the news media gets bashed sometimes more than it deserves.

As a whole are they doing enough to lift the human spirit? I think sometimes the loudest voices are not necessarily representative of the majority. I think anger and negativity generate big ratings and page views but they’re not healthy, I think, for the soul of our society or for our personal souls either. Is part of that the media’s responsibility? Yeah – but part of it is also the people who are going on the media programs to emphasize those angry, negative (and) divisive arguments.

JWK: How about movies, scripted TV series, novels and music? A lot of those things reach people in a way that a strict news report can’t. Do you feel that they’re bringing out the best in us?

TR: I’m not totally up on my movies anymore – outside of the few that I watch essentially for Christopher Awards consideration. I know going into them that there is some kind of hopeful bent to those.  So, I can’t really judge overall.

Television, I think we have series that are good. It’s not a winner but there’s a show called Abbott Elementary that I know is very popular. I’ve seen several episodes. They do a good job of highlighting the comedy in the situation but it’s also, I think, a hopeful show that kind of looks at the best in people, the best in teachers.

(On the other end of the spectrum are) true crime stories. I know people love them but that to me really kind of focuses on the worst of humanity and it’s not even like a dramatization. They’re real stories.

JWK: I’d like to discuss the Wall Street Journal poll I emailed you about that gets into the decline in people’s attitudes toward patriotism, religion, having children and even the importance of tolerance. What are thoughts on all that? Is the media doing its part to, as you say, “light a candle” and bring us together?

TR: Is the media doing it’s part? I will say this. I essentially watch, in terms of news, the local news at night and then the world news. So, I’m not part of the 24-hour cable news channel thing. I don’t watch any of them. I read the occasional story online (about them) but I’ve never been a 24-hour cable news guy. So, I can’t say what they’re doing.

I apologize for drawing this back to The Christopher Awards but one of our winners last year was a book called High Conflict by Amanda Ripley in which she essentially analyzes this issue about the negativity, the divisiveness and the hate that is polarizing so much of the country and what the solutions are to moving past it. One of the things she pointed out is that is that (it’s been shown) in studies if you go into a conversation with somebody you disagree with fundamentally you should go into it essentially open to listening with an air of humility – maybe to learn why the other person thinks the way they do – you generally come out with a better understanding and a more peaceful understanding whereas if you go in thinking you know everything and you have nothing to learn from this other person then essentially everything just stays the same and you leave sometimes more divided than you were before.

JWK: I think that’s true. I think most people do that. In my personal experience most people want to get along and kind of understand that there’s more than one side to a story. The media doesn’t always reflect that though – and not only the news media. I would bring it back also to the entertainment programs that kind of highlight the divisions we have rather than what we have in common. Not all of them. Like you say, there are good shows but, talking about the crime shows you mention. I grew up with Columbo, The Rockford Files and Murder, She Wrote. The crime shows that are on now are much more violent and, generally, darker than those shows were. Do you have any thoughts on that?

TR: I don’t know, when it comes to that stuff, whether the culture is setting the tone for people or people are setting the tone for the culture (through) the popularity. They wouldn’t make it if people weren’t watching it. So, obviously, there’s an interest in it. Again, just as a society, I think maybe our views have become a little darker and more polarized in the last years.

JWK: So, it’s like what came first? The chicken or the egg?

TR: I think maybe sometimes in entertainment they see a grain of something in society and then they take it and kind of make it bigger and expose it to a wider audience. So, maybe the creators are seeing that kind of negativity in society and they’re putting it on TV which essentially increases the negativity and the darkness – but, at the same time, I look at the popularity of show like Ted Lasso. I only watched a few episodes recently but essentially that’s a show that’s become very popular (and) become very much a part of the cultural zeitgeist here in the United States. It is ultimately a hopeful show. It can get a little vulgar and raunchy at times but I mean, ultimately, the character in the story – at least in the (episodes) I’ve seen – is kind of promoting positive values in terms of how you treat people, how you work as a team and that kind of thing.

So, I think people are hungry for those stories. The fact that show’s like Ted Lasso and Abbott Elementary (are hits shows) that people are still hungry for those types of stories because they’re essentially almost, I’d say, about found family as opposed to maybe always blood family. They’re about people getting along because there’s really nothing in life that can compare to working together in community with other people toward a common goal when you like and respect each other. So, I think there’s still that hunger inside the human heart for that kind of programming. Should there be more of it? Probably. I mean between broadcast TV and all the streaming services now it’s almost hard to keep track. I don’t know what outnumbers what.

JWK: In a way I think that’s part of the problem.

TR: There are too many choices.

JWK: It’s like they’ve flooded the zone. It’s almost like it dilutes the culture to have so much available.

TR: Yeah. So, I don’t know if that answers your question.

JWK: It does. So, what else is The Christophers up to these days? What’s coming up that you’d like people to know about?

TR: We still have the weekly radio show that I host at SiriusXM Sunday mornings at 7:00 AM (ET) and 11:30 AM (ET). We’re still doing our Christopher News Notes which are pamphlets on spiritual topics of interest to people. They are our main outreach to our supporters and donors. They really love the stuff we send them because, again, they’re hungry for hope. That’s something we try to do in our News Notes – try to blend in kind of real-life, real-world relatable examples with stories from the Gospel and stories of faith to make that all more an integral part of their lives. We have youth contests. We have a poster contest for high school students. We have a video contest for college students in which they’re asked to highlight the theme of making a difference for others.

So, we’re doing our best just to highlight that message to light the candle in the darkness and to hope that by us promoting it that we kind of light one candle and the (next) person lights another and another (person lights another) and it just adds a little bit more light to society as a whole.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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