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Religion on TV News:More Content, Less Context

The media’s Rolodex of religion experts was dominated by those hostile to religious orthodoxy.

When religious scholars are presented, the scholar Rolodex is dominated by experts who match the media viewpoint of hostility to religious orthodoxy. The networks heavily favored “religious” scholars and journalists who strongly question orthodox religion and the accuracy of the Gospels, but did not describe them as liberals or secularists.

For example, there were no labels in ABC’s DaVinci Code special. But the soundbite count was very slanted: 58 soundbites in favor of the liberal theological interpretation (Richard McBrien 15, Dan Brown 12, Elaine Pagels 12, Karen King 10, Margaret Starbird 6, Henry Lincoln 6, and Robin Griffith-Jones 2) to just ten opposed (Darrell Bock 5, Umberto Eco 3, Jeffrey Bingham 2, and one soundbite of a woman on the street denouncing the theory as “sacrilege”). This does not include quotes about Leonardo daVinci.

Another example came on February 25, the debut of The Passion of the Christ. On ABC’s World News Tonight, Peter Jennings concluded with a replay of his 2000 special, The Search for Jesus. The experts were N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop widely respected by traditionalists on one side, and on the other, liberal Jewish scholar Paula Frederiksen, and John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg of the “Jesus Seminar,” a group of skeptical academics which have voted as a group that most of the Gospels are false. Jennings never explained who these men were. One was labeled as a professor emeritus at DePaul, the other as a professor at Oregon State University. ABC did not explain the more vivid details of their scholarship, for example, Crossan’s suggestion that the body of Christ was more likely torn apart by wild dogs rather than raised from the dead.

In this story, as in others, the soundbite for the traditionalist was used merely to provide a limited recounting of what the Gospel says (for example, that Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple), and then the liberals are asked to determine the broad question of the historicity of the Gospels. The result is not a debate, but a stilted discussion where apparently disinterested “experts say” the Gospels and history are two distinctly different things.

But even this Jennings replay contained a lot of conjecture. “The way I imagine it is that they know that Pilate is getting nervous about the crowds,” began Frederiksen in one sentence. Borg stated that “it’s possible” Pilate acted without Jewish goading, but most scholars would suggest that “most likely,” the Jewish elite was involved. With so much uncertainty in the equation, why isn’t there a more balanced debate?

As Associated Press religion reporter Richard Ostling wrote in reviewing the 2000 Jennings special, “as the old saying goes, a reporter is only as good as his sources. In Jennings' lopsided lineup, the key talking heads consist of five American liberals, a middle-roader in Israel and a lone traditionalist from England. Jennings seems to have discovered none of the estimable moderate and conservative scholars in America.”