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Religion on TV News:
Secular Orthodoxy Still Reigns

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By Tim Graham and Ken Shepherd
March 28, 2005
Page 1 of 2

Church and State

Kerry’s Catholic Communion Battle

Devout Kerry, Scripture Expert     As in last year’s spate of stories on gay Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson, the network reporters covering the year’s major religion controversies treated these issues as primarily political and secular. Take the controversy over some Catholic bishops publicly declaring Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s record of pro-abortion voting and advocacy made him unqualified to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. Senator Kerry replied that his public life was entirely separate from his private life. In their set of stories (comprising eight evening news stories and two anchor briefs, as well as four morning segments) traditional church teachings were portrayed as a “conservative” violation of church-state separation and an unnecessary obstacle for “observant Catholic” Kerry. Networks preferred the Kerry Catholic Church to the Roman Catholic Church.

     TV reporters did not explain official Catholic teaching on reception of the Eucharist. They also did not explain that priests should not give communion to someone who is in a state of “objectively” grave sin, i.e., a clear rejection of basic Church teaching. For example, the gay protesters of the Rainbow Sash movement wear sashes to Communion to suggest that by granting them the sacrament, the priest endorses their lifestyle as acceptable to the Church. They are regularly refused.

     On Good Morning America April 9, ABC’s Diane Sawyer began the first network morning story by reporting, “There are some in the church, apparently, who believe that Kerry, although he is an observant Catholic, should not be allowed to take communion.” Reporter Dan Harris said the Kerry campaign was not worried about “an implied threat from the city’s top church official” that Kerry might be denied communion. Harris highlighted that Kerry “is a former altar boy who says he once considered becoming a priest. But his support of abortion rights has Vatican officials, U.S. bishops, and conservative Catholics concerned.” While they would identify’s Kerry’s critics as “conservative,” none of the network stories on this controversy used the label “liberal” for Kerry or his supporters.

     Harris quoted Kerry stressing his own secular media-pleasing principle to never bring his religious beliefs to work: “I fully intend to practice my religion as separately from what I do with respect to my public life. And that’s the way it ought to be in America.” The ABC reporter then shifted the “implied threat” from Kerry back on to church officials: “Even as the Boston archdiocese is still reeling from the priest sex scandals, the archbishop might not want to invite any more controversy.”

Is "Devisive" Religion Necessary?     On CBS, reporter Jim Axelrod ended his April 9 Evening News story with what could have been labeled commentary: “Clearly, a quarter-century of conservative appointments by Pope John Paul II is having its effect on American politics. But church leaders need to be careful, and not just to avoid a backlash by those who think Kerry is being bullied. There’s a much bigger risk than that.” Then Joe Feuerherd of the liberal National Catholic Reporter newspaper suggested the Church ought to take dictation from the state: “After all, Senator Kerry might one day be President Kerry, and it’s a difficult circumstance to have distanced yourself from the head of a major superpower when you have world interests like the Catholic Church does.”

     On April 12, the morning after Easter, NBC reporter Carl Quintanilla reported the church “targets” politicians who “according to priests” don’t vote their way. Kerry “defended his faith....dismissing some conservative Catholic bishops.” Quintanilla concluded that “polls show Catholics don’t believe the church should tell them or politicians how to vote, one reason Kerry believes he can ignore the protests without losing the voters.”

     Today continued the discussion by interviewing not a church official or religious scholar, but liberal historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who dismissed the controversy: “It seems like it’s still a small group of conservative Catholics who are claiming...he’s not able to take communion. It’s not really what the general feeling of the Church is, as I understand it.” But the networks often confused the “general feeling” of Catholics, churchgoing and non-churchgoing, with official teachings. That night, NBC reporter Kelly O’Donnell summarized it right: “Kerry is Roman Catholic, but some of his positions are not.”

     On the April 23 CBS Evening News, Bill Plante described Kerry as a “practicing Roman Catholic,” and quoted Deal Hudson for rebuttal, labeled as a spokesman for “conservative Catholics.” The networks often underlined their religious illiteracy or willingness to accept Democratic spin when they called Kerry an “observant Catholic,” a “practicing Catholic,” and even a “devout Catholic.” 

     The definition of “practicing” begins with the duty of Catholics to attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days of obligation. Is that what Bill Plante meant in his report? More importantly, it should seem obvious that John Kerry cannot be both in very public disagreement with church teachings on a core issue like legalized abortion and yet be presented with adjectives like “observant” or “devout.” You could argue that in his campaign speech to NARAL Pro-Choice America in January 2003, Kerry was condemning the Catholic Church when he proclaimed, “We need to take on this President and the forces of intolerance on the other side.”

Clamoring Against Colorado

     The networks upped the ante on Catholic officials when The Denver Post reported that Michael Sheridan, the Bishop of Colorado Springs, wrote a pastoral letter that stated that not merely pro-abortion Catholic politicians, but Catholics who vote for them, are outside of full communion with church teaching and should not receive communion.

     Here’s the essential paragraph: “Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or for any form of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation. Any Catholics who vote for candidates who stand for abortion, illicit stem cell research or euthanasia suffer the same fateful consequences. It is for this reason that these Catholics, whether candidates for office or those who would vote for them, may not receive Holy Communion until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance.” That is the teaching of the Catholic Church — not the “conservatives” or the “liberals” in the Church, but the Church.

     In a June 2 newspaper column, Bishop Sheridan protested the media treatment: “The most serious misrepresentation of my letter was the conclusion drawn by many that I or other ministers of Holy Communion would refuse the sacrament to people who voted in a particular way. Nowhere in the letter do I say this or even suggest it....How, in fact, could I deny anyone Holy Communion since I would not know the condition of the communicant’s soul?” If the bishop had written abortion advocates “should not” receive communion instead of “may not,” it may have been seen as less of a command. But the networks were in a fighting mood.

     On ABC’s World News Tonight on May 16, reporter Brian Rooney put all the pressure on the Church, not Kerry. Typically, Rooney began with the liberal assumption: “The bishop says he’s not violating the separation of church and state, merely instructing Catholic parishioners that when they vote, they should vote according to Catholic teachings.” Rooney then used liberal Georgetown theologian Chester Gillis to claim President Bush was also an unsuitable voting choice for Catholics, who would have to vote for someone closer to perfection, like Mother Teresa. Rooney ended by pressing Bishop Sheridan on who he was going to vote for, as if it was improper for him to have a public opinion. (The bishop declined to endorse Bush.)

     CBS liked the angle of church “punishment.” On the May 14 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather said “some Roman Catholic voters may soon face a hard choice between a matter of faith and the orders of their church superiors and casting a ballot in line with their own political beliefs. CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod reports on the politics of punishment for voting against church doctrine on abortion and other issues.”

     On the May 30 CBS Evening News, substitute anchor John Roberts announced “A new CBS News poll tonight finds that Democrat John Kerry enjoys overwhelming support among Catholic voters, which makes it particularly ironic that Kerry has recently run afoul of church doctrine because of his support for abortion rights. And Kerry is not the only one. Sharyn Alfonsi tonight on parish politics and punishment.” 

Bishops Are The Worst Sinners     Alfonsi touted more CBS poll results: “And 78 percent of Catholics polled by CBS agree. They said they don’t think it’s appropriate for bishops to refuse communion to elected officials who differ with official positions of the church, people like presidential candidate John Kerry.” Alfonsi brought on Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the liberal Catholic magazine America, to state there could be a pro-Kerry backlash among Catholic voters. CBS even concluded by leaving the distinct impression that the bishops were graver sinners than abortion-enabling John Kerry.

     When NBC Nightly News picked the story up on June 17, the tone was still putting church officials on the defensive, as Tom Brokaw promoted the report: “God and politics: where’s the line that separates church and state in this election year?”

     Reporter Roger O’Neil began with liberal Catholics: “With their Bibles, signs, and voices, some of the faithful are hoping to persuade Catholic bishops, their leaders, to reject the latest explosive issue facing the Church: playing politics with God.”

     The burden of scandal rested on church leaders, with O’Neil using bomb terminology: “The Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, lit the fuse in January, saying he’d refuse communion to Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic, because he’s pro-choice, defying church law. Then last month, Michael Sheridan, Archbishop [sic] of Colorado Springs, shortened the burning fuse, writing ‘even rank-and-file Catholics who vote for sinners should stay away from the communion rail.’” 

     This was the worst case of utter network misquotation. NBC was not quoting from Bishop Sheridan, who didn’t use terms like “rank-and-file Catholics” or “vote for sinners” (as if President Bush was without sin!) in either his pastoral letter or the June 2 newspaper column. The Denver Post routinely used the phrase “rank-and-file Catholics,” but not the bishop.

     O’Neil quoted Catholic author George Weigel with a rebuke of Kerry, but the reporter concluded: “But for Catholics who sit in the pews, like Denver’s Amy Sheber-Howard, communion shouldn’t be a divisive weapon...which if denied, could divide rather than unite.” Here again, O’Neil misled the audience: Sheber-Howard does not just “sit in the pews.” She’s a vice president of the left-wing Catholic splinter lobbying group Call To Action, which lobbies for an end to priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, and ultimately, an overthrow of the teaching authority of the Pope, giving way to a church run by majority vote. To portray this lobbyist against “authoritarian and hypocritical” Catholic tradition as opposed to “division” is to provide a clear example of misleading liberal bias. 

     For all of their First Amendment alarm, none of the networks contemplated their own secular interpretation as threatening church-state separation in reverse: that candidates for federal office or their supporters would tell the Church what their teachings should be about reception of the sacraments. After all, if John Kerry didn’t want to accept Catholic teaching, he is free to join a Protestant church instead. No one took offense at the idea that Catholicism would be defined not by bishops or pontiffs or the Scriptures, but by focus groups assembled by political organizations like the Democratic National Committee or CBS News.


What Stories Did Reporters Want to Skip?

     Since the number of TV network religion stories has declined, the question emerges: What did the networks fail to cover? What stories could have been pursued by a creative TV producer interested in religion news? One easy way to find out is to look at the top 2004 stories as selected by the Religion Newswriters Association. Stories about President Bush’s faith and The Passion of the Christ — which the networks addressed — tied as the number one story of the year. But some other stories the RNA listed were largely ignored by the networks, including:

     ■ Gays and the clergy: In a year when the first openly gay bishop was installed in the Episcopal Church and gay marriages were permitted in Massachusetts, one might expect significant coverage of gay marriage controversies in American churches, particularly the Methodist Church, which saw two defrocking trials within a year’s time with different results. Surprisingly, given last year’s 64 stories largely celebrating Bishop Robinson, this wasn’t the case with network treatment of the trials of two openly lesbian ministers in the United Methodist Church.

     In mid-March 2004, a church jury tried and acquitted lesbian Rev. Karen Dammann of Seattle of violating the teachings of the Bible on homosexuality and her church’s disciplinary guidelines on sexual ethics for ordained clergy. In December, across the country in Philadelphia, a similar proceeding tried and convicted lesbian Methodist pastor Beth Stroud and removed her ministerial credentials later in the year.

     The broadcast networks aired stories on Dammann but not on Stroud, and neither trial generated interview pieces with conservative Methodists. ABC in a four-day period (March 18-21) aired two stories and one anchor mention on the trial and acquittal of Dammann, but ignored Stroud. CBS aired no stories on Dammann, but did air one anchor brief on The Early Show on December 3, 2004, the day after Stroud was convicted. NBC ran one story on March 21, 2004 on Dammann’s acquittal. The piece was slanted toward Dammann’s position, featuring both laity and a Harvard feminist theologian rejoicing in the decision, against one unnamed lay person who is leaving the Methodist church in protest. NBC didn’t run any stories on Stroud’s conviction.

     The Anglicans’ Lambeth Commission pleased neither conservatives nor liberals and offered no resolution to the rift in the Anglican Communion over the installation of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson. Other than a March 60 Minutes profile of Robinson, TV coverage of the ongoing Anglican dispute almost vanished from the networks.

     ■ Rick Warren and Joel Osteen: Southern California pastor Rick Warren’s best-seller The Purpose-Driven Life has been all over the news since former hostage Ashley Smith talked about reading it to murder suspect Brian Nichols. But well before the fatal Atlanta courthouse shootings, Warren’s book has been a bestseller for two solid years, selling more than 20 million copies by last October. By February 28, 2005, the last date studied for religious stories in our report, the hardcover edition had been on the USA Today best-seller list for more than 110 weeks. This year, many churches across America, both mainline and evangelical, have adopted the book during Lent to help guide the devotional lives of their parishioners. Yet aside from NBC, none of the networks took notice.

     NBC’s coverage consisted of two pieces, one a Dateline piece by correspondent Josh Mankiewicz on Sunday, October 3, 2004, the other an Ann Curry interview on the Today show for October 18. The Mankiewicz piece focused more on Warren’s pastoral ministry and casual style, whiles Curry touched mainly on the themes of the book and its success beyond strictly Christian audiences. Unlike Curry, Mankiewicz also prodded unsuccessfully for a taste of Reverend Warren’s politics.

     Houston pastor and bestselling author Joel Osteen wrangled just one taped interview in February 2005 with Jamie Gangel on Today, a few soundbites from a December 2004 World News Tonight report on ABC, and zero stories or interviews on CBS. Osteen’s book, Your Best Life Now, which topped the charts at number two, has been on the USA Today list since last October 21. Osteen might consider himself blessed for getting media attention so soon after publication: a Nexis search shows no interviews or reports on Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life from the time that book initially hit bookstores in October 2002 until the Dateline piece two years later.

     Gangel reported and questioned Osteen about critics of his preaching style and theology, including Westminster Seminary’s Michael Horton, who derided Osteen’s preaching as a “fortune cookie” Gospel. The World News Tonight piece by reporter Erin Hayes ignored theological disputes, instead portraying Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, and Catholic priest Francis Mary of Eternal Word Television Network as leading voices in a new generation of television evangelists which cater to the heart of President Bush’s electoral base, social conservatives. Once again, a religious story was covered purely from a political template.

     ■ Sunni vs. Shi’a Theology: In all of their coverage of Iraq’s religious factions and their political aims, none of the broadcast networks ever gave a basic explanation of the key religious differences between these sects of the Islamic faith. For all their warning of impending civil war, they haven’t explained why their differences on matters of faith have proven a consistent source of conflict. 

     The differences are these: Upon the death of Muhammad, two major factions emerged from disagreement on the question of prophetic succession. Those siding with Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, claimed he was the rightful heir to Muhammad’s prophetic office, and possessed with it the ability to teach the Islamic faith and govern the Islamic ummah (worldwide communion of Muslims) infallibly. He was chosen as the first Imam. Opposing Ali’s claim were the Sunnis, who thought it wiser to elect a successor (or caliph) from among elders to serve in the place of Muhammad. Unlike Shi’a imams, the Sunni caliphs needed not be descended from Ali, nor were they considered doctrinally infallible.

     Today, many Shi’a have an eschatological belief that the twelfth Imam, the mahdi, shall reemerge from his “occultation” to lead Muslims in the future. It is somewhat similar to the Christian belief in the second coming of Christ. This belief in an imminent return of the mahdi has inspired, in fact, the Mahdi Militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters suggest he is in effect the Islamic Messiah, and the Americans are trying to kill him. No such explanation was aired on the broadcast networks, a disservice to American viewers regardless of their personal religious faith.



     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. Networks continue to assign general-assignment reporters to the religion beat instead of hiring a religion specialist. None of the networks have a religion specialist. The reporters cited in this study – from ABC’s Brian Rooney and Dan Harris to CBS’s Jim Axelrod and Sharyn Alfonsi to NBC’s Roger O’Neil and Carl Quintanilla – have no noticeable background in religion coverage, nor do they have degrees in religious studies.

     2. Hire reporters who are religious. Both opinion surveys of journalists and the tone of religion news suggest that the majority of reporters remain in the pattern of hostility toward traditional religious values. More religious reporters would bring greater knowledge and fairness to religious debates. Editors prefer to assign minority reporters to cover minority groups. Why can’t they find religious reporters to cover religion?

     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. Once again this year, news stories on the social issues that inflamed religious Americans the most, from “gay marriage” to embryo-destroying stem cell research, didn’t often find a place in those stories for a religious perspective. Religiously inspired political views are no less valid in the public square than atheistically founded political views.

     4. If TV news wants to dabble in theology, the sample of experts interviewed ought to balance conservative and progressive experts. NBC still enjoys bringing on liberal Catholic priest and author Andrew Greeley to speak for Catholics. As previously explained, CBS liked finding liberal Catholic experts and journalists to warn the bishops away from criticizing John Kerry. ABC found its expert in God with its own liberal medical reporter (and minister) Dr. Timothy Johnson, giving him two segments to plug his book, Finding God in the Questions.

     Airing stories on complicated religious subjects is an ambitious undertaking. But viewers with traditional, more orthodox religious views often don’t see their worldview discussed so much as dismissed.

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