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Religion on TV News:

Secular Orthodoxy Still Reigns

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.