MSNBC, a major American network, spends a lot of time in prison. In fact, nearly every evening, prime time, viewers are treated to intimate conversations with murderers, their private lives, their feelings. The criminal is given all the glory of national recognition. Whatever comfort is in fame, is it freely given to the inmates. This is not only true for American prisons, but MSNBC hits prisons around the world. It is a remarkable effort, and merits reflection. MSNBC said one out of every 32 American adults was in prison, on probation, or on parole, by the end of 2005. It is a sensational statistic, illusory or not.
Are such reports designed for “compelling” entertainment, as Dan Abrams would say? MSNBC cancelled the popular Rita Crosby show to feature crime and punishment as a daily dish to the American prime time audience. Yes, a lot of it seems condemnatory of US policy, US government, US society in general. That is to say, the reports inevitably create sympathy for the prisoners, as if to suggest it is wrong to put anyone in prison, much less to execute him. But this may be an unvoidable impression. It doesn’t have to be the intent of MSNBC. Prison is hell. No one wants to be there. Any story about a prisonor automatically elicits sympathy. Vicarioiusly, according to natural, psychological law, we have sympathy for people in prison. They have no freedom. And especially if we don’t know them, if we were not affected by the crime they committed, we have natural sympathy for them. There would be something wrong with us if we didn’t.
However, the social trends in our modern “liberalized” society dictate that we also feel guilty for having prisons, having courts, and even having laws in the first place. Prison is a denial of freedom. Prison is taking away rights. Prison is doing wrong to the wrong doer. Plain and simple. What we need is public tax-funded (government sponsored) rehabilitation programs.
Yet, there is a deeper side to this issue. It is a religious side. A Christian side. Jesus spoke about it. “I was in prison, and ye came unto me,” He said, commending those who cared for the misfortune of others. Of course, condemnation rests upon those who did not care. (Matthew 25: 34-38.) In a stunningly real sense, one could look at the liberal, almost anti-American efforts of MSNBC as basically a Christian gesture. MSNBC in fact visits the prisoners. Sure, it’s emotional gore, it’s “yellow news,” and it’s sick entertainment. But, in a very real sense, the prisoners are visited–by the world. Through media, through MSNBC, they have a sense of importance. All is not lost. They are not forgotten or forsaken. Society is in fact vitally interested in what’s happening to them. This is phenomenal degree of compassion, objectively speaking. It is unprecedented in history. That’s one view of the show.
Of course, there’s the other side to that. It is as if prisoners are rewarded for their crimes. They get their fifteen minutes of fame for wrong doing. The attention is some kind of compensation for their imprisonment. Movies are made about them. Books are written about them. (Sometimes they write their own.) Marvelous curiosities are generated by their lives. This whole business can easily be looked at from an ominous point of view:
Lawlessness, dissipation, and corruption are sweeping in upon us like an overwhelming tide. In the family, Satan is at work. His banner waves, even in professedly Christian households. There is envy, evil surmising, hypocrisy, estrangement, emulation, strife, betrayal of sacred trusts, indulgence of lust. The whole system of religious principles and doctrines, which should form the foundation and framework of social life, seems to be a tottering mass, ready to fall to ruin. The vilest of criminals, when thrown into prison for their offenses, are often made the recipients of gifts and attentions as if they had attained an enviable distinction. Great publicity is given to their character and crimes. The press publishes the revolting details of vice, thus initiating others into the practice of fraud, robbery, and murder; and Satan exults in the success of his hellish schemes. The infatuation of vice, the wanton taking of life, the terrible increase of intemperance and iniquity of every order and degree, should arouse all who fear God, to inquire what can be done to stay the tide of evil. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p.513.
One has to wonder. Media is about making money. Yes, it seems to have social and political influence, but, it is not really focused on these influences. It’s about money. What brings viewers? What makes a show success? How can news be presented as “compelling” entertainment? What are the subjects? A water pipe crack isn’t the same kind of “compelling” news as a terrorist attack (–though more and more, all mishaps are being immediately associated with Muslim murderers, and rightfully so).
Would a prisoner react differently to an MSNBC camera than a old Baptist preacher, or a priest, coming into his cell? Why? What are the dynamics, psychologically? Who’s offering what, to whom? If the minister’s pleas to the prisoner were broadcast, the sincerity of both men would be suspect. Yet, I dare say the minister’s visit is more important! We must make this observation: MSNBC does not feature ‘conversion’ stories. Not if it involves Christ. Occasionally there are Muslim stories, but MSNBC is not going to feature Christian repentence as entertainment. That’s probably a good thing, no? Repentence is not entertainment. When it become such, as on many televangelist enterprises, then we have to step back from that.
But MSNBC goes where I can’t go. MSNBC talks with people who would not talk with me. This I find interesting. And there are always stories like Keith Morrison’s, on the preacher who murdered his wife, cut up her body and buried in the desert, and when interviewed behave in a most congenial, happy, unrepentent manner. “Perhaps he is merely determined to keep his torment private,” Morrison says. Does that mean MSNBC prison specials are in fact entertainment after all?
And what about the innocent?!
Prisoners of Buchwald, 1945
That’s a whole different story.