The Media, Flyover Country, Betsy DeVos, The New Yorker, And The Truth

On Wednesday of this week, Jane Mayer published what is known in the journalism business as a “hit piece” in The New Yorker on Betsy DeVos, whom president-elect Trump has nominated to become the Secretary of Education. Mayer begins “dirtying up” DeVos right away by positioning her as an insider and a member of the hated “donor class” (and thus a contradiction of Trump’s “outsider” campaign theme). She notes DeVos’ connections to the Koch Brothers and some of the travails of the DeVos family going back to the Reagan administration. Most all of this is standard DC-NYC corridor stuff. It is intended to comfort the readers of the New Yorker that yes, they were right to vote for Secretary Clinton, yes, the bad people are now in charge.

Along the way, however, as Mayer illustrates yet again why people ignored her class in this election, she also illustrated how utterly disdainful they are toward what they really do regard as “flyover country”—that great swath of the U.S. between Manhattan and Santa Barbara—but also how utterly disinterested they are in the truth. Mayer knows her job: to reinforce what her readers already believe to be true. So insulated is she that, when confronted by evidence to the contrary about basic facts (what is) she cannot accept the evidence. She knows a priori that she cannot have erred.

How do I know this, the reader might reasonably ask? Because I saw it with my own eyes on Twitter. At 7:59PM James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, posted a quotation from Mayer’s article in which Mayer wrote that the DeVos family belongs to the “deeply conservative Dutch Reformed Church and has pushed for years to breach the wall between church and state on education, among other issues.” Smith responded to this sentence by writing, “Stopped reading at this sentence which is a factual embarrassment twice over. So much for fact checking.” Mayer replied 8 minutes later confirming that Smith teaches at the college from which DeVos graduated and asking “what are the errors?” Smith informed her that there is no such denomination (at least since the mid-19th century) in the U. S. and that she is not a member of a Reformed Church. She is, in fact, a member of Mars Hill Bible Church, founded by Rob Bell. Smith explained that DeVos is a member of the Christian Reformed Church, regarded by some evangelicals as liberal (his language) and that she does not question the separation of church and state.

To this Mayer replies, “those are both matters of opinion, not fact, ergo, incorrect to suggest fact checking issue.” Arguably, the latter might a matter of opinion but the former is a matter of simple fact. Either DeVos is a member of Mars Hill or she is not. Either there is an American religious denomination “Dutch Reformed Church” or not. In fact, as noted already, there is not. There was a church in the Netherlands, the Hervormde Kerk (Reformed Church). When members of the Hervormde Kerk emigrated to the American colonies c. 1710, they were known as the Dutch Reformed Church and later, in 1867, as the Reformed Church in America. In 1857, those Dutch Reformed immigrants who had begun to arrive in 1848, split from the Dutch Reformed Church/RCA to form the Christian Reformed Church. The DeVos family has long been associated with the Christian Reformed Church. These are historical facts. They are not matters of opinion or interpretation. Remarkably, Mayer replies to Smith’s Twitter-length (140 character) clarifications by challenging his church history! She writes, “The Dutch Reformed Church was her denomination for years, then merged, split and renamed itself 2004.” I pay reasonably close attention to these things and I have no idea what she is saying.

Twitter is public and other readers began to chime in with clarifications. To be sure, to be in one of these discussions can be a bit overwhelming and Mayer did acknowledge the clarification regarding the DRC/RCA but she clings to other errors of fact. Again, I know this because it is published for every English-reading person to see for himself. As of this morning, so-called “Black Friday,” the article still says:

The DeVos family belongs to the deeply conservative Reformed Church in America, and has pushed for years to breach the wall between church and state on education, among other issues.* (The Washington Post reports that Betsy DeVos has been an elder at Mars Hill, a nondenominational megachurch in Grand Rapids.)

There is one note of correction, as is common in reputable publications, but the note is irrelevant. Mayer has revised the article to acknowledge Betsy DeVos’ membership at Mars Hill and to put the DeVos family in the RCA but the latter is still factually incorrect. She chided Smith for not reading his own website when, in fact, it is she whose research is incomplete. What is important is not what a writer in the New Yorker might regard as a niggling detail, but her resistance to new information and new ways of seeing things. Though offered new information by those who live in proximity to DeVos, whose lives, in certain ways, are shaped by the DeVos family, who live, work, and worship in the same city as DeVos, Mayer cannot assimilate it because it does not fit her paradigm.

This seems true of DeVos’ alleged desire to breach the wall of separation between church and state. Nowhere in the article does Mayer substantiate her claim that DeVos is, in effect,unAmerican in her view of church and state. As others have noted, DeVos is an evangelical Kuyperian, an intellectual movement to which Smith belongs named after Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the founder of university, a pastor, theologian, publisher, member of parliament, and Prime Minister of the Netherlands. DeVos’ approach to these issues is informed by Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of “sphere sovereignty.” Though there are some neo-Kuyperians who perhaps resent the wall, it seems clear that Mayer intends to play on the fears of her readers that DeVos is part of a secret cabal of right-wing religious types who want to take over America. It is a lazy if familiar narrative. I say, “secret cabal” because Mayer writes,

The family supported conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation; academic organizations such as the Collegiate Studies Institute, which funded conservative publications on college campuses; and the secretive Council on National Policy, which the Times called “a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.” The Council’s membership list, which was kept secret, included leaders of the Christian right, such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schlafly, and anti-tax and pro-gun groups.

The word secret occurs twice. Is it not amusing that the same sort of conspiracy-mongering (e.g., Bilderbergers, Masons etc) that she would surely scorn as the product of a fevered imagination is easily accepted and indulged when it involves DeVos? One reason Mayer may have difficulty finding the “Council on National Policy” is because she seems to be looking for the wrong organization. A quick Google search turned up a webpage for the Council for National Policy.” They have a pubic website. Ergo, they cannot be all that secretive, at least not successfully so. They do seem to feature prominently on left-wing conspiracy sites.

There are still responsible American journalists out there. Two of them (James Rosen,  Sharyl Atkisson) were hacked and/or threatened by the Obama administration for doing straightforward reporting about the administration but the sort of resistance to facts and to competing interpretations evident both in Mayer’s Twitter feed and in the article itself are too often the norm and more evidence that Stella Morabito’s concerns are entirely justified.

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  1. And, I’ll add, I have heard both CRCNA and RCA referred to informally as “Dutch Reformed”. It’s a description from a pair of accurate (more or less) adjectives, but not an official name.

  2. You may want to read Jules Isaac’s _The Teaching of Contempt_ for this kind of scare tactics. We’re a minority religion now, and one that is frankly shrouded in a mist of ignorance, half-truths, and outright lies (believe me. I teach high school social studies and what we are given on the Reformation is frankly abominable, and the publishers ought to be ashamed of themselves). The Trump administration is gonna turn us into South Africa (that’s all the secular scholars know about the “Dutch Reformed” and, if it even reaches their radar, Kuyperians)! We’re gonna have thumbscrews in the basement of the Capitol! We’re gonna burn Unitarians at the stake! Women are gonna be forbidden to read! They’re gonna use atheists’ babies (at least the ones that don’t get aborted) for blood to make communion bread (oops! That’s what they used to throw at the Jews)!!!!!!!

    It’s sad, but that is what we’re up against.

    It will be even worse if the recount shows that Trump actually did win.

  3. As someone who lived in West Michigan for years, I sure can tell there is a difference between the RCA and CRC. What about the OPC and other “Dutch Reformed” denominations? They all are different despite their common backgrounds. The DeVos family has spent lots of money making West Michigan better. It may be “flyover country,” but real people live there with real lives.

    • Hi Amanda,

      Thanks for this.

      Yes, there are historic differences and doubtless there are proportionately more conservative congregations in the CRC than in the RCA, but the new joint hymnal signals the future direction.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Good corrections, but a question: What evidence is there that the errors in the article show “disdain” for flyover country, and are simply meant to reinforce DC-NY corridor biases? They may just be errors. You may be right, but I think that is an assumed point, rather than proven, and helps feed a narrative that leads to our own form of prejudice and resentment.

    But if we are going to compartmentalize our nation further, it’s not as though “flyover” media outlets were paradigms of accuracy and objectivity this campaign season. The NYT and WaPo were two of the few newspapers to do actual, hard investigative journalism, largely, for naught.

    Truth, in general, has taken a hit in the U.S. these past 18 months, something a long time coming, I suppose. We are surrounded by relativists on both left and right. It’s a wonderful time to be a 2K Christian, and see if the Church will indeed remain separate and fairly call out evil on all sides. It will be interesting, that much is sure!

    • Chris,

      Did you look at the interchange between Mayer and Smith. He corrected her with actual facts and she couldn’t hear them. She rejected them immediately as “opinion.” Even when she tried to correct it she still couldn’t get it right. Why not? Is she incurably stupid? Perhaps but that seems like an unlikely interpretation. Stubbornness is a better interpretation but more fundamentally she just doesn’t care. Why not? Because, from her perspective, who cares about a bunch of Grand Rapids rubes who’ve risen up and taken over the country. That coastal elites think this way about what they regard as “flyover country” is manifestly true.

      I don’t know any other way to interpret the piece as a whole than as I wrote. Disdain drips from each sentence.

      I agree that there were attempts from coastal outlets to do real reporting but those would seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Were middle-American outlets uncritical of Trump? Perhaps some but my hometown paper (the Lincoln Journal Star) is a typical college-town, state-captal paper with the predictable bent.

      As “2K Christians,” to be clear (not that you’re suggesting anything to the contrary) I’m not speaking on behalf of the visible church but as a citizen of both kingdoms.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    Yes, I did read that part. I am just not sure that her errors and attitude come from geographical/cultural prejudice although that may be the case. We certainly know it is true with some.

    By flyover media outlets, I was more thinking of talk radio, the Foxnews opinion division, and the Drudge report, among others. I was not clear about that, but my point is that these outlets appeared to influence “flyover” country more than the main stream media, and I am not sure that has been an entirely good thing at all.

    I am saying that prejudice can work both ways, and I think we will find that the coastal newspapers may well become important allies for Christian conservatives over the next few years. At least some of them are still talking about the importance of truth and facts. This is not a small thing in Trump’s America, in which sheer winning and the ends justifying the means appear to be the order of the day, all for the sake of attaining specific policy goals.

    And yes, of course, we are all muddling through this mess as citizens of both kingdoms! Thank the LORD that the marching orders for the Church herself are much more clear — Word, Prayer and Sacrament, and we will be alright in the End.

  6. Thanks for your speculation and commentary on my work. Too bad you don’t know how to spell the name of President Reagan (see line #7, paragraph #1 of your post). I covered his presidency for the Wall Street Journal – a happy accomplishment for a kid whose family roots are in mid-western “fly-over” country, and Calvinism.
    You misunderstand my exchange with Prof. Smith. The matters of opinion to which I referred are whether DeVos’ church is “conservative” and whether her aim is to “breech the wall between church and state.” In contrast, the name of her church is of course a matter of fact, and when I realized I had inadvertently mis-identified it in a deadline blog post, I asked for a correction. Thanks for your interest in my work. I hope you’ll continue to read it with care. Best wishes, Jane Mayer.

    • Ms Mayer,

      Thanks for your editorial help. Unlike you, I do not have an editor to catch typos and unlike you, when a reader points out a factual error (or a typo) I correct it immediately, as I have done. Thanks again.

      As of the writing of this post you still had not got right the difference between the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America.

      Twitter does have its limitations but it seemed quite clear both to me and to many other readers that you dismissed his factual correction as a matter of opinion. This is the logical force of the word “both.” Had you paid attention to my essay, you would have seen that I conceded that DeVos’ agenda is a matter of interpretation.

      More importantly, had you paid attention to the essay you would have learned a bit of church history and a bit about why there was a populist electoral revolt in the first place, a lesson that you and others seem doomed to miss and that’s a shame.

      Ross, Thurber, and White must be spinning in their respective graves.

  7. Dear Mr. Clark,
    Blaming your inability to properly spell a president’s name on the absence of an editor, or anyone but yourself, seems an odd argument for someone whose entire critique was my ostensible resistance to take responsibility for an error…which I corrected. The gist is that no one likes being purposefully misunderstood, or impugned, for minor faults. Best, Jane.
    Best, Jane.

    • Ms Mayer,

      1. I see that you’ve now omitted any reference to the CRC and the RCA but haven’t you misidentified the super secret cabal, The Council for National Policy? If you’re going to traffic in conspiracies, it helps to name the correct conspirators.

      2. Your language and your intent seems quite clear to me.

      3. In every one of my books and in I do not know how many articles I’ve published over the last 25 years, I am certain that there has been a typo. I’m grateful for those copy editors who have saved me from myself.

      I am responsible for my typos and remain grateful for your generous help.

      I was going to congratulate you for your immaculate writing but I see that you’ve made my point for me.

      Thank you.

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