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Religion on TV News:
More Content, Less Context

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By Tim Graham
MRC's Director of Media Analysis
April 6, 2004
Page 2 of 2

4. The tone of network TV religion coverage was hostile to orthodox faiths, and supportive to minority religions and progressive fads.

God, According to Andy Rooney     Even if the amount of religion news coverage increases dramatically, is that a good thing for religion or religious Americans? One part of that answer is the tone of news coverage. Is it open to both sides, both the orthodox approach to faith and the more heterodox, modernist view? News coverage in this study period demonstrates that the tone on ABC, CBS, and NBC is still hostile to orthodox religion, and supportive to minority religions and progressive fads.

     This contrast is perhaps best explored by two commercially successful products: Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, which presents the central Christian story in traditional biblical terms, and Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code, which suggests in a much less orthodox way that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who was impregnated by Jesus, and moved with her baby to France, where the child became part of the Merovingian line of kings. Dan Brown’s Vatican-bashing novel The DaVinci Code, was promoted with the mildest of factual challenges, without any notion that it was crudely and falsely anti-Catholic, while Gibson’s film was questioned thoroughly about its accuracy, its fairness, and its potentially violent impact.

     Like The Passion, the theories behind The DaVinci Code were promoted by all three networks, but the best comparison comes from ABC’s Primetime, which devoted a Monday night hour to each subject. One was divisive and scary, while the other was mellow and intriguing. On February 16, 2004, Diane Sawyer began by welcoming viewers to this special event about The Passion, “the film that set off an explosion of debate, controversy, and feeling in America....And not only between Christians and Jews, but Christians and Christians, historians and scholars, true believers and secularists, and everyone who falls somewhere in between.”

     On November 3, 2003, Elizabeth Vargas began by lowering the bar of accuracy and draining out the notion of divisiveness: “There is a legend that sometime in the first century, just after the death of Jesus, a boat full of refugees from the Holy Land arrived in France.” She then added that the show would explore “extraordinary claims” from The DaVinci Code: “Some of the claims that book makes are simply not credible, and some of the claims have been made before. But there are some surprising truths behind the story of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Leonardo DaVinci.”

Mel's "Ecumenical Suicide Bomb"?     Sawyer reported Gibson’s film suggests “echoes, the critics say, of what were called ‘Passion plays,’ which through the ages, were used to inflame Christians against their Jewish neighbors. Ghettos were sacked, the Jewish populations terrorized.” (Sawyer didn’t relate that Passion plays are read or performed annually around the world in millions of Christian churches without outbursts of anti-Semitic violence.)

     Vargas reported The DaVinci Code theories also can be traced back violence: “Why not just say, Mary Magdalene, impregnated by Jesus?” Author Henry Lincoln, who helped inspire Dan Brown, explained: “That is not the way that our orthodoxy would have it. You can’t have a married Jesus.” Vargas replied: “It was too dangerous to tell?” Lincoln charged: “Anything that runs counter to orthodoxy has always been dangerous. The Church has always responded with violence. Think of the Inquisition.”

     The big question behind The DaVinci Code special was, why would a “hard news” division devote an hour to a novel, and to a theory that’s highly improbable, a “legend” instead of a history? Vargas sounded serious even as she explained the most fanciful allusions: “The First Merovingian queen was impregnated by a creature from the sea, the fish, which you theorize, could symbolize Jesus.”

     But Sawyer hounded Gibson about matters of fact: “What about the historians who say that the Gospels were written long after Jesus died, and are not merely fact, but political points of views and metaphors? Historians, you know, have argued that in fact it was not written at the time [of Christ]. These [gospel writers] were not eyewitnesses.” Gibson protested, and Sawyer insisted: “But historians have said they don’t think so.” It all came back to politics, that the Gospels were better understood as partisan tracts instead of the word of God.

     In general, Gibson’s movie was covered first as a political problem. It was without question the largest anti-Semitism story of 2003 on the TV networks, since nearly every one of the 66 network segments on ABC, CBS, and NBC touched on those complaints. News coverage didn’t shift from offending Jews to inspiring Christians until a week into February, when it became apparent that the film could fuel a box-office boom. Even then, the anti-Semitism angle was still strong. Anti-Semitism in Europe, or the Muslim world, was apparently of little concern in the newsrooms, while the real threat to Jews worldwide was being cooked up in a Hollywood editing room. ABC and NBC did segments promoting the is-it-anti-Semitic angle heavily in the waning months of 2003.

     When Peter Boyer’s interview with Gibson for The New Yorker came out in September, the Gibson criticism was in full swing. Matt Lauer elaborated in an interview with Boyer: “The Anti-Defamation League expressed concern over whether it would portray the Jews as, quote, ‘bloodthirsty, sadistic, and money-hungry enemies of Jesus.’ You spoke to the head of the ADL. Did he think it was an anti-Semitic movie?” The networks never provided the ADL or other Jewish and secular critics with any countering scrutiny, as in: Are you also responsible for fomenting division, for driving a wedge in Christian-Jewish relations? What if the film isn’t anti-Semitic and doesn’t lead to any anti-Semitic incidents? And most importantly, how can you attack a film you haven’t seen? That’s certainly the take reporters had for critics of the doubting, sex-starved savior of The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.

     Most of the network coverage was a politicized rollout. Gibson was described as “ultraconservative” and a “Catholic fundamentalist,” but his critics were never described as “ultraliberals or “hard-line secularists. “ People magazine writer Jess Cagle summarized the media take on “extreme” Mel vs. his unlabeled critics on CBS’s The Early Show on January 8: “I think at the heart of the controversy is Mel Gibson’s extreme passion for his very ultra-conservative Catholic faith, and Jewish leaders who are worried that a film about the crucifixion could feed into anti-Semitism. That’s at the heart of it.”


5. The media’s Rolodex of religion experts was dominated by those hostile to religious orthodoxy.

     When religious scholars are presented, the scholar Rolodex is dominated by experts who match the media viewpoint of hostility to religious orthodoxy. The networks heavily favored “religious” scholars and journalists who strongly question orthodox religion and the accuracy of the Gospels, but did not describe them as liberals or secularists.

     For example, there were no labels in ABC’s DaVinci Code special. But the soundbite count was very slanted: 58 soundbites in favor of the liberal theological interpretation (Richard McBrien 15, Dan Brown 12, Elaine Pagels 12, Karen King 10, Margaret Starbird 6, Henry Lincoln 6, and Robin Griffith-Jones 2) to just ten opposed (Darrell Bock 5, Umberto Eco 3, Jeffrey Bingham 2, and one soundbite of a woman on the street denouncing the theory as “sacrilege”). This does not include quotes about Leonardo daVinci.

     Another example came on February 25, the debut of The Passion of the Christ. On ABC’s World News Tonight, Peter Jennings concluded with a replay of his 2000 special, The Search for Jesus. The experts were N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop widely respected by traditionalists on one side, and on the other, liberal Jewish scholar Paula Frederiksen, and John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg of the “Jesus Seminar,” a group of skeptical academics which have voted as a group that most of the Gospels are false. Jennings never explained who these men were. One was labeled as a professor emeritus at DePaul, the other as a professor at Oregon State University. ABC did not explain the more vivid details of their scholarship, for example, Crossan’s suggestion that the body of Christ was more likely torn apart by wild dogs rather than raised from the dead.

     In this story, as in others, the soundbite for the traditionalist was used merely to provide a limited recounting of what the Gospel says (for example, that Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple), and then the liberals are asked to determine the broad question of the historicity of the Gospels. The result is not a debate, but a stilted discussion where apparently disinterested “experts say” the Gospels and history are two distinctly different things.

     But even this Jennings replay contained a lot of conjecture. “The way I imagine it is that they know that Pilate is getting nervous about the crowds,” began Frederiksen in one sentence. Borg stated that “it’s possible” Pilate acted without Jewish goading, but most scholars would suggest that “most likely,” the Jewish elite was involved. With so much uncertainty in the equation, why isn’t there a more balanced debate?

     As Associated Press religion reporter Richard Ostling wrote in reviewing the 2000 Jennings special, “as the old saying goes, a reporter is only as good as his sources. In Jennings' lopsided lineup, the key talking heads consist of five American liberals, a middle-roader in Israel and a lone traditionalist from England. Jennings seems to have discovered none of the estimable moderate and conservative scholars in America.”


Recommendations for Improved Coverage of Religion

     How could the balance and fairness and context of TV religion coverage improve? There are some simple recommendations to increase the quality of religion reporting on TV news.

     1. Hire a religion reporter. Ten years ago, ABC hired local religion reporter Peggy Wehmeyer in Dallas to contribute to World News Tonight, which did not lead to a significant increase in ABC's religion coverage, but did provide a more sensitive, less hostile portrait of religious issues. ABC ultimately let her go, and she was not replaced. None of the networks have a religion specialist.

     2. Hire reporters who are religious. Surveys and the tone of religion news suggest that the majority of reporters remain in the pattern of hostility toward traditional religious values. As national journalism organizations publicly declare diversity in the newsroom as a requirement for a balanced reflection of the communities they serve, why is that any less compelling for people of faith than other constituencies in the viewing audience?

     3. When covering religion stories, use religious questions and approaches, not just secular or political ones. The media elite have taken the separation of church and state into another dimension: the separation of church and culture, or ultimately the separation of church and news. On social issues from abortion to so-called gay marriage, religiously inspired political views are no less valid in the public square than atheistically inspired political views.

4. If TV news wants to dabble in theology, the sample of experts interviewed ought to reflect the actual playing field in seminaries and universities, balancing conservative and progressive experts and scholars instead of relying on a preponderance of progressives. Airing stories on complicated religious subjects is an ambitious undertaking. But viewers with orthodox views often don’t see their worldview discussed so much as dismissed.

Go to Page 1


Executive Summary
Press Release
PDF Version

Page 1
Religion Coverage More Than Doubled
Coverage of Islam Up Dramatically
Reporters Approach to Religious Issues

Page 2
Tone of Network TV Religion
Media's Rolodex of Religion Experts
Recommendations for Improved Coverage


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