Mix FOX News, Tiger Woods, Brit Hume, and the question of forgiveness and you get Buddhism’s blurry moment in the spin zone. Rod Meade Sperry on how to respond when the angry men of cable news attack.
It started innocently enough. On a FOX News roundtable on January 3, various talking heads were making sports predictions. That’s when once-venerated newsman Brit Hume dropped a doozy about Tiger Woods, suggesting a damage-control strategy for the golf legend, whose philandering had become gossip gold:
“It’s a tragic situation with him,” Hume said. “The extent to which he can recover, seems to me, depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith.”
Up ’til that point, I’d steered clear of writing about the Woods scandal on the Shambhala Sun’s SunSpace blog, not because he’s some kind of embarrassment to Buddhism—his affiliation never seemed to be that serious anyhow. (Woods would confirm that his Buddhist practice had become lax in his now-famous media statement of February 19, suggesting that he would be rededicating himself to practice.) The quality or frequency of Woods’ Buddhism was beside the point. The point was: What Hume had said was out of line and just plain ignorant.
I posted an item about it on the Shambhala Sun blog, and then ran out for an afternoon of errands. By the time I returned, it was clear that Hume’s remarks had struck a nerve. Readers’ comments were coming fast—about a hundred over four days—and yes, some were furious. The majority seemed determined to set the record straight. A sampling:
Adam: “The only people Tiger needs to ask forgiveness from are his family and himself. But Hume needs to ask the Buddhist community for forgiveness for such remarks, and if he does so with sincerity, we will act compassionately and give it to him. My biggest concern is that he just completely misrepresented Buddhist ethics and morals to his viewers.”
Steve Silberman: “FOX has done more than any other big media organization in history to increase the amount of suffering, delusion, aversion, violence, rage, and just plain ignorance on the planet. Not sure what to do about it, though; I don’t believe this country has ever faced anything like it.
pkhusker: “A real Christian would have called up Tiger and asked if he needed a shoulder… or just prayed for him.
CamUhR1: “What Hume meant was, ‘Tiger should convert so that I may forgive him.’ A Buddhist would just forgive Tiger (and Hume too, LOL).”
All in all, this sort of online turnout was good news. Why? Well, Buddhists don’t proselytize. Neither do true newsmen. But Hume had thrown impartiality out the window along with his common sense, presenting to FOX viewers—and the worldwide media, who quickly made hay with their colleague’s blunder—a divisive and, yes, proselytizing suggestion that colored Buddhism as inferior. As the story broke, one had to wonder not just how Buddhists would stick up for themselves, but if.
Another question: Would Big Media allow Buddhists to speak up on their airwaves? There was plenty of punditry, sure—starting with Hume on FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, answering “I don’t think so” to the question of whether he’d been proselytizing, and going on to argue that Woods should make a “true conversion.” O’Reilly, predictably, steered the talk into his comfort zone: “I don’t think we’re trying to denigrate Buddhism… What do you think drives the negative comments about Christianity?” Pat Buchanan, for his part, admitted on MSNBC that Buddhism was being denigrated, but so what? “There are not a lot of Buddhists watching FOX.” A direct offer to FOX News executives—for a Shambhala Sun interview with Hume, wherein he could speak directly to the Buddhist world—went, it would seem, into the digital trash.
So it was a sweet sight to see commentators like Don Imus and Howard Stern starting to rail against FOX. But was anyone going to ask Buddhists what they thought about the Hume Affair? All anyone had to do was to scroll through the comments on our blog, and elsewhere in the Buddhist blogosphere, and they’d see: Buddhists were a lot more savvy and impassioned than Big Media was giving them credit for. Maybe that was the problem.
Finally, CNN’s Rick Sanchez did have the Interdependence Project’s Ethan Nichtern on. Sanchez made himself clear: “As a Christian, I think that [Hume’s suggestion for Woods] is a fine one.” Nichtern, though, skillfully explained that Buddhism is a system of meditation techniques, psychological teachings, and ethics “for creating greater self-awareness and understanding.” Together, he reasoned, this greater self-awareness and understanding are the redemption that Hume sees as inadequate in the Buddhist faith.
For all of the online outrage, Nichtern got to the heart of the matter: When it comes to faith, no one way is the true way. But when it comes to being fair and balanced, well, I’d say the Buddhists won this one hands down. In the face of unfair and imbalanced coverage, we banded together as best we could, determined not to stand by as the O’Reillys and the Humes of the world distorted what we stand for.
We’ll surely have to do so again sometime; as Buchanan made clear with his remark, certain news outlets aren’t interested in what Buddhists think. Well, not yet at least. But as the punk pioneer Jello Biafra said, if you don’t like what you’re seeing in the news, “Don’t hate the media. Become the media.” The question is, can we counter the dualism so perfectly expressed in FOX’s black-and-white coverage not just with passion, but with skill? Can we express truth with confidence, and without contributing to divisiveness? Can we be lotus flowers, strong, inviting, and unsullied in Big Media’s muck?
We’ll have to. To respond with articulate compassion—as so many Buddhist bloggers did in the case of the Hume Affair—is not only an expression of our practice. It’s guerilla PR, a way to get noticed despite the racket created by the big guys.
I’d like to think that’s just what we’ll do if Hume ever accepts my offer for an interview. I’d love for him to learn what Buddhism’s brand of forgiveness and redemption might really look like.