Dec 1 1999

Media Coverage of Religion

An Overview

In the wake of the horrific shooting at Forth Worth’s Wedgwood Baptist Church, pundit-evangelist Jerry Falwell assumed his usual position in the center of the media story and offered this assertion: “Most hate crimes in America today are not directed toward African-Americans or Jewish people or gays or lesbians,” he told Time magazine. “They are directed at evangelical Christians.”

Falwell’s role in the massacre story symbolizes much of what passes for mainstream news coverage of religion and religious debates: it’s loud, divisive, simplistic and full of unchallenged falsehoods. According to the FBI’s most recent hate crime statistics, in 1997 there were 3,838 bias-motivated offenses against African-Americans, 1,159 against Jews and 1,351 against gays and lesbians. Bias-motivated offenses against all Protestants totaled 59.

The world of religion and spirituality is vast and complex. Yet mainstream media tend to reduce religion coverage to a narrow set of debates promoted by conservative evangelicals — gay rights and abortion, plus school and censorship issues — while mainline denominations and concerns are marginalized.

Beginning with the media-assisted rise of Falwell’s Moral Majority (see Tina Rosenberg’s May 1982 Washington Monthly piece, “How the Media Made the Moral Majority”), mainstream news outlet have come to equate religious activism with that of the right-wing. They’ve elevated Religious Right leaders to the top tier of punditry, while shying away from serious scrutiny of their movements.

Indeed, media gullibility over a 20-year period has helped the Religious Right project political power way beyond its real strength. In recent years, credulous journalists have frequently reported that Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition has 1.7 million members (when only 310,000 member-subscribers received the group’s magazine, say postal records) and “distributes” 40 million voter guides (though former leaders say it was expected that millions would never be distributed).

One wonders if the dearth of investigative inquiry about conservative evangelical movements stems from journalists’ guilt over their largely secular backgrounds — or fear of being called “Christian-bashers” or “religious bigots.”

For all the complaints about “liberal bias” distorting their views, religious conservatives communicate directly to millions of Americans every day through media they own and control — including more than 1300 Christian broadcast stations (nearly 10% of all TV and radio stations), radio networks such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and various cable TV platforms. Left-of-center movements — feminist, labor, environmental, etc. — have nothing close to this media power.

There’s also the constant access that mainstream media have provided to Religious Right advocates like Falwell, Cal Thomas, Gary Bauer and Oliver North as commentators. They’ve been among the most frequent guests on such TV news shows as Nightline, where Falwell offers his expertise about AIDS and homosexuality. Thanks to CNN and The McLaughlin Group, Religious Right fellow-traveler Pat Buchanan was the first pundit to appear on national TV seven days a week.

By contrast, the Religious Left — a leading force in most American social movements today for peace, economic justice and human rights — is virtually missing from mainstream news. Don’t take my word for it: A 1993 study of religion coverage on network TV by the right-wing Media Research Center concluded, “With a handful of exceptions, the religious left went unnoticed and uncovered by the networks.”

Also undercovered are mainline religious institutions, which regularly issue political/moral positions on controversial topics. In September, two dozen religious leaders — including the heads of the National Council of Churches, Catholic Bishops and major Christian denominations — issued an appeal urging President Clinton to end the Iraqi embargo due to the “morally intolerable” suffering and deaths of civilians. The letter was greeted by media silence.

That mainstream news frames religious activism and advocacy as a conservative endeavor is clear from the selective coverage given to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church’s policymaking arm and a strong voice for the poor in Washington. On many issues, NCCB takes vocal positions that are left of center and left of President Clinton — opposing, for example, capital punishment, the welfare reform bill signed by Clinton, and the embargoes on Cuba and Iraq. It also, of course, opposes abortion — the one issue on which its views are eagerly sought by mainstream media.

During the health care reform debate in 1993, the Catholic Bishops put out a letter calling for universal coverage, opposing a “two-tiered health system” in which the well-off would get better services (implicitly criticizing the Clinton plan) and opposing abortion funding. After the press focused only on abortion, NCCB social development staffer John Carr commented: “Many media outlets focus quickly on abortion. There’s a tendency to reduce the Church’s advocacy to a one-issue approach.”

A persistent media bias projects religion or morality as exclusively conservative. “In spite of efforts by some candidates to make religion, or issues of morality, factors in their selection of a candidate,” reported The New York Times on the eve of the 1992 election, “there are some indications that voters are not buying it.” The evidence that voters weren’t applying religion or morality to their choice? Bill Clinton was leading George Bush among Catholics, according to a poll. That Catholic voters may have weighed moral issues — perhaps on economics — in preferring the more liberal candidate was apparently not considered.

An enduring myth is that secular mainstream media are hostile to organized religion. Given that journalism is supposed to be hardheadedly fact-based, and religion is faith-based, one might expect tension. But in practice, coverage is often so embarrassingly soft that it seems to be pandering to believers. This was the conclusion of a FAIR survey examining dozens of cover stories on religious themes in recent years in three news-weeklies: Time (“The Search For Jesus”; “Who Was Moses?”; “The Shroud of Turin”; etc.); Newsweek (“The Meaning of Mary”; “Rethinking the Resurrection”; “The Mystery of Prayer”; etc.); and U.S. News and World Report (“Prophecy”; “In Search of Christmas”; “In Search of Jesus”; etc.). Journalistic codes of balance were often jettisoned — Time‘s cover article “Does Heaven Exist?,” for example, didn’t quote a single naysayer.

One religious group that can legitimately complain of recurrent bias are followers of Islam. On talk radio, Islam is denounced as a “violent religion” — while terrorism “experts” falsely declare that Islamic religious doctrine sanctions genocide. Mortimer Zuckerman, owner and editor of U.S. News and World Report, once wrote that Islam’s founder Muhammad had a “doctrine” of “making treaties with enemies while he is weak, violating them when he is strong.” Islam has no such doctrine.

Mainstream journalists report on terrorist incidents by matter-of-factly referring to “Islamic violence” (but would know better than to speak of “Christian violence” or “Jewish violence”). After the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed, The New York Times speculated on possible Islamic culprits in part because “the city is home to at least three mosques.”

If there’s a group that gets coverage more biased than Muslims, it’s non-believers. An NBC report on the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair began with Tom Brokaw’s comment “She had the dubious distinction of being known as America’s most outspoken atheist” — and included a soundbite from a Christian evangelical: “If she is indeed dead, then she’s burning in the fires of hell.” Many Christian fundamentalists believe Catholics and Jews also burn in hell — it’s hard to imagine NBC quoting one upon the death of the Pope or a famous rabbi.

The truth is that if mainstream media were hostile toward the organized church and religious conservatives, Gov. Jesse Ventura’s recent remarks disparaging religion would have been greeted by either approval or apathy. Instead, the response was a bit like Moses’ reaction on seeing his people worshiping the golden calf.

A version of this appeared in Brill’s Content (12/99-1/00).