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TV News to America: God is Off Limits

TV News to America: God is Off Limits
by L. Brent Bozell III
March 27, 1997

Earlier this year in the National Journal, two Washington Bureau Chiefs called for a less narrow-minded approach from the media to the subject of religion. Time's Dan Goodgame claimed "I don't want someone who thinks going to church twice a week is aberrant behavior. While it may be in Cleveland Park or pick-your-own Washington suburb, it's not in the rest of the country." Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times said his main concern has been a "cultural gulf" between the public and "disproportionately liberal-Democratic-secular-humanist reporters." McManus felt that gulf left news organizations "out of touch" with "a whole sphere of American society."

Both these men run print media operations which have religion beat reporters, and both can be satisfied that the print media gnerally do a commendable job covering religion. But where the TV networks are concerned, it's a wholly different story. No network employs a full-time religion reporter (ABC does use the very talented part-timer Peggy Wehmeyer); as such they have no one monitoring the subject; and are ignoring the vital role religion plays in the lives of most Americans.

In the last four years, the Media Research Center has conducted an annual survey of the quantity and quality of TV religion coverage. Year after year, the landscape remains tragically unchanged. The networks have failed to crack the one-percent barrier of its total news content. The pattern of neglect in unchanging - religion is not worthy of network news.

Once again, in 1996, the number of network news treatments of religion barely increased: 269 out of 18,000 evening stories (or 1.3 percent); 258 of 26,000 morning stories (0.8 percent). There were only 19 magazine segments, and not a single Sunday-morning news interview show did a segment on religion.

If you look at numbers for the last four years, it's truly depressing. From 1993 through 1996, the networks have aired an estimated 176,000 morning and evening segments. But only 1,785 of these were devoted to religion, about one percent.

Why is this? We know that newsies don't hang around churches unless there's a kidnapping, a fire or a suspected pro-lifer inside. But does that mean that there's nothing in the world of religion and theology that's worth covering? Look at some of the stories that received covering the print media last year, but went untouched by the networks:

* First awarded in 1972, the annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion is the world's largest monetary award, with the winner receiving $1.2 million. Every year reporters cover the less generous Nobel Prizes, but ignore the Templeton Prize.

* Any scientific advance proving Darwinism gets automatic coverage. What is the opposite happened? In 1996, two academics challenged the orthodoxy of Darwinian theories of evolution in 1996. Lehigh University biology professor Michael Behe wrote the book "Darwin's Black Box," that argues that the human body is a machine of "irreducible complexity" that would have had difficulty evolving into a cohesive whole. David Berlinski, wrote a cover story in the June Commentary that facts in favor of Darwinian theory "have been rather less forthcoming than evolutionary biologists might have hoped." Network coverage? Zero.

* Have a secular group complain about human rights abuses and you can count on automatic coverage. But in 1996, in response to pressure (primarily from church leaders), the State Department appointed a panel of 20 religious figures and scholars to monitor religious liberty abroad. TV coverage? None.

* The networks missed the angle of military chaplains and their role in ministering to soldiers in trying times - whether it's serving in Bosnia or dealing with the military's social disputes. The networks also ignored controversy over a lawsuit opposing an Air Force ban on chaplains organizing a postcard campaign against partial-birth abortions.

At a press conference to release these finding, an NBC News producer asked a question that may illuminate the media mindset. After mentioning that the largely faith-based movement behind crisis pregnancy centers saving babies from abortion is avoided by TV, he asked: "If you, I mean, if you get a pregnancy center or a point of view that is the religious point of view... There's a question of God being there. But if it's Planned Parenthood, it sort of like fixes it in a secular area, so people can make decisions about it. But if the Pope makes a statement about it, that's sort of God's word coming to the people. Now, isn't that something of a problem when you attach religion to it [the abortion debate]?"

What a strange news formula: if it's secular, you can report it. But if it's religious, it's radioactive, third-rail, controversial stuff. How sad. Especially when you consider that religion, according to national surveys, is quintessentially important to a only 91 percent of the public.