Press Coverage of Religion Tilts Right

Cowed by leaders who spoke as true believers and wary of offending readers and viewers, journalists fell into line.
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With its recent report "Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media," Media Matters confirms what some news consumers previously suspected: Press coverage of religion tilts right. The media watchdog's survey reveals that mainstream television and newspapers quote, mention and interview conservative religious leaders nearly three times more often than their moderate and progressive counterparts. That exposure explains how and why the right's pet issues define public religious discourse and shape conventional wisdom about the "culture wars."

Released in late May, "Left Behind" traces the coverage imbalance to the 2004 "values voters," the media's term for religious conservatives more concerned with morals than politics or economics (thus explaining President Bush's re-election despite an unpopular war and a shaky economy). The significance of values voting was quickly discredited (a faulty exit poll was blamed), but many reporters continued to treat conservative values as a key wedge issue, playing up the Right's political clout.

"Left Behind" is correct as far as it goes. But the real story is more complex. The religious right does dominate news coverage but that's because it's had a significant hand in framing the news agenda.

In the mid-1980s, religious conservatives as a voting bloc were barely a blip on the media's radar. Despite growing grassroots clout of groups like the Moral Majority, the increasingly contentious debate about abortion, and overwhelming evangelical support for Ronald Reagan, reporters failed to see what was unfolding before their eyes: the transformation of the Republican Party. But by the time the GOP had morphed into God's Own Party, journalists regarded right-wing orthodoxy as the authentic religious voice. Leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson quoted the Bible and commanded a voting bloc ergo they represented America's faithful.

The right not only became the de facto religious face of the nation, it also drove some of the biggest religion stories. In the mid-1980s, conservative leaders launched a strategy to defund and de-legitimate mainline Protestant moderates and progressives. The plan proceeded on two fronts -- from within the mainline, by fomenting internal dissension over the role of gender and sexuality and from without, by using the mainstream media to attack the mainline. Documented by historians and reported in the alternative and online media, these campaigns were instigated by the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), a conservative think-tank. In the waning days of the Cold War, with Reagan in the White House and what remained of the Civil Rights movement in disarray, the IRD mounted the first attack in what was to become a long campaign against progressive religious institutions when it took to the nation's airwaves and news stands to accuse mainline Christians (especially those in the National Council of Churches) of being soft on Communism. IRD's claims led to stories in Readers Digest and The Wall Street Journal and on 60 Minutes that charged ecumenical leaders with supporting and funding Marxist guerrillas, liberation theology and other Communist fronts in Third World nations.

At the same time, IRD cultivated fifth column forces in the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, USA and the Episcopal Church. Subsequent theological and ecclesiastical debates over the ordination of gays and lesbians, same sex marriage and acceptance of GLBT people as church members in good standing became wedge issues, if not grounds for schism, among Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. As a result, news coverage of religion focused on conflicts over sex and gender rather than efforts to promote environmental concerns, immigrant rights and economic justice. Many religious moderates --Catholics and Jews as well as Protestants-- felt their issues were invisible to the media.

But the real squeeze came after 9/11. The religious right had a two decade history of shaping how the press covered faith and values. But its ability to influence media coverage of politics blossomed after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The Bush administration yoked American politics to the conservative Christian project, a linkage most of the press uncritically and unquestioningly repeated for nearly five years. Why did it take the mainstream media so long to interrogate the president's religious rhetoric and the significance of religion in public life? In part, the "echoing press" reflects the post 9/11 political climate. But it also underscores the news media's ignorance of both the actual role and the rhetorical importance of religion in many Americans' lives. Cowed by leaders who spoke as true believers and wary of offending readers and viewers, journalists fell into line.

One caveat: it would be wrong to blame everything on the media. The religious right's message slipped easily into America's national narrative: God's people in God's land doing God's business. Even Max Weber could not have anticipated how Calvinist strands would be rewoven by Protestants who believe that shopping can be sacred. The very vitality of the Christian market --everything from religious tee shirts to faith-based films-- makes the progressives' urge to clothe the naked and feed the hungry seem naïve by comparison. That vision, in which greed and materialism are sins, is antithetical to the current cultural moment. Until that moment passes, moderate and progressive religious voices will remain left behind -- in and out of the mainstream media.

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Religion and Media at the University of Southern California.

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