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Dobson's crusade sends a message the media don't get

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Op/Ed Columnist
Published January 28, 2005

It is something that draws an easy laugh, especially from journalists: a campaign condemning America's most beloved cartoon sponge.

But James Dobson's high-profile jabs against Nickelodeon's monster hit SpongeBob SquarePants are no laughing matter. They are, instead, a textbook example of how powerful evangelical conservatives send galvanizing messages to their faithful that sail over the heads of those who aren't supposed to get it.

Dobson, founder of the Colorado Springs-based ministry Focus on the Family, is a minister whose radio show draws 7-million listeners, a man who helped President Bush win the tough swing states of Florida and Ohio.

A leader this savvy knows the power of the media and likely doesn't believe his attacks will bring down the Sponge-ster, Nickelodeon's most popular cartoon.

But what he can do is mobilize his supporters by relying on three themes the religious right has beaten like a drum for decades: demonization of the media, demonization of liberals and demonization of gay people.

Dobson's grievance surfaced last week during Bush's inaugural festivities, when the minister criticized a protolerance video headed for elementary schools featuring Nickelodeon's character alongside kids TV icons such as Barney and Jimmy Neutron.

SpongeBob's transgression? The group behind the video, the We Are Family Foundation, includes sexual identity in a tolerance pledge on its Web site - not in the video.

Mainstream media outlets have had lots of fun with Dobson's critiques, from a Miami Herald writer noting SpongeBob's fictional home Bikini Bottom "is about to join Iran and North Korea in the axis of evil" to an MSNBC commentary by anchor Keith Olbermann headlined "Will SpongeBob make you gay?"

But such talk isn't funny to Barbara McGraw, an associate professor at Saint Mary's College of California and author of the book Rediscovering America's Sacred Ground: Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America.

Though she says her own political views are quite liberal, McGraw has devoted significant time to exploring the friction between the religious right and secular left, declaring, "somewhere in the middle, you find the basic values of the nation." And she sees a significant message in Dobson's criticisms.

"Dobson says words such as tolerance and diversity are code words for a kind of progay agenda some parents don't agree with," said McGraw, noting carefully that she doesn't agree with the minister's assertions.

"You're not going to have millions of people following something that is completely stupid . . . and there is a legitimate point about parents raising their children according to the values they have," she added. "One of (Dobson's) key points is that liberals are using buzz words to promote an agenda that goes beyond race and religion. The mainstream media need to be sensitive to that."

My hunch is that McGraw is right. And other conservatives have taken similar stances; most recently with Education Secretary Margaret Spelling's stand against an episode of Postcards From Buster in which the cartoon character visits lesbian mothers.

But the PBS series Frontline exposed another agenda conservative politicians and activists often have during such crusades: demonizing key buzzwords among their faithful followers.

Frontline's recent documentary The Persuaders followed consultant Frank Luntz, the man credited with turning the public against estate taxes by call them a "death tax." In his hands, "tax cuts" become "tax relief," and the "war on Iraq" becomes the "war on terror."

"Eighty percent of our life is emotion and only 20 percent is intellect," Luntz told Frontline. "I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think." Asked if such terms don't just confuse the issue, Luntz had more wordplay ready: "Some people call it global warming, some people call it climate change," he rationalized. "What's the difference?"

Using the Luntz model, if Dobson can convince enough Americans that "tolerance" and "diversity" are simply code for "gay rights," then he's won a war on the language battlefield - the same way Rush Limbaugh helped demonize "liberal" and "feminist."

Mainstream news outlets cracking jokes only help Dobson's cause, allowing conservative complaints about how the liberal media twist their words around.

On Fox News Channel's Hannity and Colmes program, for example, conservative pundit Sean Hannity assured Dobson that "what (mainstream media) try and do is marginalize conservatives . . . create this impression that it's a really extreme idea . . . They want to minimize your effectiveness."

But Dobson's message can be amazingly effective in generating fear, convincing conservative parents they can't even place their children in front of kiddie channel Nickelodeon without exposing them to radical ideas. No one should forget how effectively fear sold the American public on war with Iraq and a president with a seriously low job approval rating.

These are seeds, once planted, that will pay off in future campaigns against media indecency and gay rights. And when Dobson's faithful turn out again to press their issues at the ballot box, mainstream media outlets will cluck their tongues and wonder how they once more missed the message.

Eric Deggans is a Times editorial writer. His e-mail address is

[Last modified January 28, 2005, 00:21:17]


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