Nielsen Ratings, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, and Fox News’s Buddhist Problem

Danny Fisher reflects upon Buddhism’s appearances in the mainstream news lately, and it’s place in the American religious landscape.

Danny Fisher
29 April 2010

Danny Fisher reflects upon Buddhism’s appearances in the mainstream news lately, and it’s place in the American religious landscape.

When I heard what Brit Hume said back in January on Fox News Sunday—that Buddhist Tiger Woods’ religion did not offer the “forgiveness and redemption” of the Christian faith, and that the disgraced celebrity golfer should convert “if he wants to make a total recovery and be a great example to the world”—my first thought was of my former barber. Over at the small, old-fashioned barber shop in Greensboro, NC, where I used to get my hair cut (with hot shaving cream and lilac vegetal and everything!), the proprietor is a genial, forty-something Cambodian Buddhist gentleman who loyally keeps the TV set tuned to Fox News. I wondered: How did Hume’s comments play with him?

The mood at my neighborhood barber shop might also be a microcosm of sorts. Indeed, as my friend, the great Buddhist scholar Jeff Wilson, has noted:

Here in North America, there are large numbers of registered Republican Buddhists. Many of them are Asian-Americans, immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who fled left-wing violence in their native countries.

It’s probably safe to assume, then, that more than a few Asian-American Buddhists keep an eye on the right-wing Fox News—just like my barber. In fact, the Nielsen Company found in 2008 that no less than three Fox News programs were among the ten most-watched cable programs by Asian-American viewers. Knowing this, it was a little surprising to me that Fox News hosted Hume’s comments, considering their obvious possibility of offending Buddhists and others among those devoted Asian-American viewers. I presumed, then, that Hume was to some degree “going rogue,” perhaps even frustrating the network brass.

But then Hume was back on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, in the wake of Tiger Woods’ statement to the media. In those remarks, Woods said that he would look to his Buddhist faith for help. Hume responded:

I think, because I’m a Christian and I believe that Christianity is true, that Tiger Woods and his wife Elin would be a lot farther down the road toward forgiveness and redemption if they were both Christians, but they’re not. And they’re going to do the best they can with what they have. And I wish Tiger Woods well.

At this point, I wanted to dig a little deeper. Things were starting to get confusing for me. I wondered: Is Fox News taking a devil-may-care attitude with an important demographic by continuing to host Hume’s contemptuous remarks without any sort of counterbalance? Or, is the network taking its chances as a willing partner in his denigration of Buddhism and proselytizing of Christianity? Or, is no one paying attention to the Nielsen ratings anymore?

One possible answer emerges from another set of statistics: Two years ago, the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that self-identified Buddhists make up only 9% of the total Asian-American population. Compare that to the 45% of Asian-Americans who identify as Christian, and the 46% who represent a range of other faiths. The same report also found that the total number of Buddhists in the U.S. make up only 0.7% of the whole population. Could it be that Fox News is hosting these comments because, if these statistics are all approximately correct, the network might only risk directly offending such a small percentage of their viewership? Perhaps that is a gamble worth placating religious exclusivists like Hume among their wider audience?

But then more items appeared elsewhere, presenting yet another, simpler possibility: that Fox News, like so many others, tends to see Buddhism in America from the point of view of and mostly in relationship to usually liberal, usually upper-middle class, usually white, usually male converts. Despite the fact that Woods (who is of mixed African-American and Thai parentage) was brought up in the Theravada Buddhist tradition by his mother Kultida, many news outlets covering his story have persisted in framing Buddhism principally as thought it was only just one more item in the catalog of “Stuff White People Like.”

First, the Associated Press ran an article about Hume’s comments in which they consulted five experts on Buddhism: all of them white, and all of them male. Second, in criticizing Woods’ invocation of his religion, comedian Bill Maher said dismissively, “Buddhism is for actors”—no doubt referencing U.S. popular culture’s most recognizable Buddhists next to His Holiness the Dalai Lama (celebrity converts such as Richard Gere, Steven Seagal, and Orlando Bloom). Then, Slate suggested that “with a little help from Tiger Woods and [PBS’s recent, high-profile documentary The Buddha], Buddhism may finally shake its counterculture image [in America]…(think the Beats and their psychedelic ‘60s followers).” Finally, just this week, The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Though Buddhism has been growing steadily in America in the past 30 years, the religion is still a bit far out for American golf, a relatively conservative, country-club sport where the commentators find it shocking when players neglect to wear socks.”

All of this is observed not to begrudge the often quite important contributions of these particular Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism—whether it’s the experts consulted in the AP article, Beat poets, Richard Gere, or others. I am merely concerned with the extremely narrow range of experiences represented and reflected in these articles and comments, and interested in how that might factor into our understanding of what exactly Fox News is or is not up to by hosting Hume’s comments.

With this apparent tendency to see Buddhist America largely through the eyes of a certain kind of convert, speaking we might then ask: Is it possible that Fox News is hosting Hume’s disapproving comments because of a projection about the nature of Buddhism in America? If Buddhism is so often spoken of in connection with sixties counterculture and Hollywood elitism, is it possible that Hume and Co. have decided that U.S. Buddhists are not “real Americans?” Is a media culture that tends to see the history of Buddhism as beginning with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (and not with Chinese immigrants in California in the early nineteenth century) ultimately responsible for Buddhists being belittled on Fox News?

To be fair, there have been attempts in recent press coverage of the comments by Woods and Hume to say something about the diverse and dynamic quality of Buddhism in America. Trouble remains, though. For instance, the author of the Slate piece did well to note, “In multi-ethnic America, especially, the Buddhist landscape is far more complex and fragmented than anything you see in the PBS film,” but the piece also trots out the usual, obstructive trope about Buddhist America: namely, that Buddhist Americans can be neatly divided into (Slate’s words) “Asian-immigrant” and “Euro-American convert” communities. As Wakoh Shannon Hickey has noted previously in the pages of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, however:

The tendency to talk about American Buddhists as either “ethnic Buddhists,” which is usually code for Asian-American or Asian-immigrant Buddhists, or “convert Buddhists,” which is usually code for Caucasians, is problematic… We don’t think of African-American Christians as ethnic Christians; we think of them as Christians first, and then maybe as Baptists or some other denomination. There is also ethnic diversity among convert Buddhists that is overlooked by using the “ethnic” label. Such categorizations also disregard people…who are of mixed parentage.

In addition, as “Arun,” the Angry Asian Buddhist, has put it so well elsewhere:

Faced with increasingly globalized cultural and demographic changes, Western societies have come to struggle with what “Western” (or “French”, “American”, “Australian”, etc.) really means. Is the British-born daughter of Punjabi immigrants a Westerner? And what about the Indian/American/Englishman who lives in Kyoto? Is Mitch McConnell more Western than Steven Chu? …Common sense tells me that I can be Asian and a Western Buddhist without being a contradiction.

When Buddhism was first starting to be talked about with regard to Tiger Woods, I naively thought that this might present teaching opportunities for the mass media in terms of these issues in Buddhist America. But it seems to me now that, for the most part, it has just made what Arun aptly terms our “rhetoric of marginalization” all the more glaring. Like him, I would largely blame all of this on “misplaced biases and stereotypes” rather than “outright racism.” Still, these marginalizing tendencies must all be confronted and changed. As Arun writes:

These subtle habits of the mind manifest even when we believe we know better. But we can only change our biases if we are willing to acknowledge them.

Whether this is what’s going on at Fox News or not, I’ll be very curious to see what’s on the television next time I get a haircut in Greensboro.

Danny Fisher

Danny Fisher

Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008. In addition, he is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. A member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, he serves on the advisory council for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.