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Baptism by Fire: Executive Summary

With the 2012 elections less than a year away, the liberal media are attacking President Obama's potential opponents on a number of fronts, but especially on religion.

ABC, CBS and NBC have used religion in two ways, either painting the field of GOP primary challengers as a God Squad of religious zealots or playing up differences in their faith. Whether they're letting viewers know that "Rick Perry's gonna have to answer some questions about the people" he prays with, fretting that God "told Michele Bachmann," to enter politics, or devoting no less than 40 segments to the question of whether Mormonism is "a cult" or if "Mitt Romney is a Christian," the networks have repeatedly used faith against the GOP field.

Media preoccupation with the GOP candidates' faith is the exact opposite of how they covered (or didn't) candidate Obama's 20-year attendance at the church of a racist, anti-American pastor who subscribed to "black liberation theology," or Obama's half-Muslim heritage.

The Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute studied network news reporting on the GOP candidates and religion from Jan. 1-Oct. 31, 2011, and compared it to coverage of the Democratic presidential primary candidates over the same period in 2007. The discrepancy, in both the amount and tone of the coverage, was striking. Network reporters, so disinterested in the beliefs of Obama and his rivals for the 2008 nomination, took every opportunity to inject religion into their coverage of the GOP field. Among CMI's key findings:

Networks Get Religion 7 times more for GOP: ABC, CBS and NBC mentioned GOP candidates' religion 143 times in the first 10 months of 2011. By contrast, Democratic candidates' faith was brought up only 19 times in the same period of the 2008 election cycle.

Journalists Confront, Criticize and Question Conservatives on Faith: In 2007, reporters accepted at face value liberal candidates' statements about religion. Not so for 2011's conservatives. The networks were nearly 13 times more likely to be critical or challenging of conservative candidates' faith than liberals'. And more than half the religion mentions in 2011 sought to create and exploit controversy over how many Christian denominations regard Mormonism.

Grilled about God: The media have already targeted three of the top Republican candidates for scrutiny of their beliefs, and the primaries haven't even begun. Networks covered Michele Bachmann's beliefs, her husband's Christian-based therapy practice and her interpretation of wifely "submission" 15 times. Journalists found Rick Perry's unapologetically public faith worth noting 10 times and asked most of the candidates what they thought of Mormonism.

Networks Create more than 100 "Mormon Moments": The three networks brought up Mormonism more than 100 times in 10 months. The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints is the fourth largest religious denomination in America. Yet network reporters clearly think having two Mormon candidates (Romney and Huntsman) of the nine in the race is newsworthy. Before October 8, they mentioned the candidates' Mormonism 61 times, and 13 times wondered if conservative Christians would vote for them. When an evangelical pastor and Rick Perry supporter said Mormonism is "a cult," the networks brought up the incident 40 times over the next 22 days.

Incurious About Democratic Faith in '07: The networks had plenty of opportunities to question Democrats about their beliefs during the 2008 election cycle. Several candidates were Roman Catholics whose voting records on abortion were at odds with their church. None of the three networks mentioned that. Questions about Barack Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, surfaced in early in March 2007 and were covered on Fox News and in newspapers, but it took an entire year for any of the networks to mention Wright. Out of 11 mentions of Obama's religion, not one challenged, criticized or took his statements at anything other than face value.

Recommendations

Tell the Story That's There: The 2011 elections are likely to be decided on economic issues - unemployment, inflation, regulation, public debt and the housing market. They impact and interest religious voters every bit as much as secular ones. Reporters should refrain from injecting religion where it doesn't belong.

Don't be Foreign Correspondents: According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, more than 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians of one denomination or another, and 93 percent say they believe in God. But too often network reporters covering religious conservatives sound as though they're reporting back from an encounter with remote, primitive tribes. In vast swaths of the United States, people attend church regularly, pray publicly and don't find expressions of faith uncomfortable or alarming. Those people are news consumers too.

Democrats' Faith Matters Too: A candidate's religious convictions - or lack of them - are worth reporting on, as long as it's done even-handedly. Obama listened to radical, racist sermons at Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ for more than two decades. Joe Biden's support for abortion rights is fundamentally at odds with his professed Catholicism. These examples are at least as compelling as an evangelical pastor's opinions on Mormonism or who Rick Perry prays with.