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The Trashing Of The Christ

Contrasts In Media Treatment of The DaVinci Code and The Passion

2. The Passion of the Christ was treated as a social problem – the biggest TV anti-Semitism story of that year – while The DaVinci Code was presented more often as an "intriguing" theory rather than threatening or offensive to Christians.

Nearly every one of the 66 network segments on The Passion touched on complaints about its supposedly incendiary portrayal of Jews. But only 27 of the 98 Code segments focused on Christian and Catholic protests.

The network scrutiny of Gibson and his alleged anti-Semitism was intense months before the movie came out. Within our study period, NBC’s Matt Lauer pressed the question in a September 8, 2003 interview with Peter Boyer of The New Yorker: "The Anti-Defamation League expressed concern over whether it would portray the Jews as, quote, ‘bloodthirsty, sadistic, and money-hungry enemies of Jesus.’ You spoke to the head of the ADL. Did he think it was an anti-Semitic movie?"

On February 16, 2004, Diane Sawyer began by welcoming viewers to ABC’s one-hour special on The Passion, "the film that set off an explosion of debate, controversy, and feeling in America....And not only between Christians and Jews, but Christians and Christians, historians and scholars, true believers and secularists, and everyone who falls somewhere in between."

Sawyer reported Gibson’s film suggests "echoes, the critics say, of what were called ‘Passion plays,’ which through the ages, were used to inflame Christians against their Jewish neighbors. Ghettos were sacked, the Jewish populations terrorized." (Sawyer didn’t relate that Passion plays are read or performed annually around the world in millions of Christian churches without outbursts of anti-Semitic violence.) Sawyer asked Gibson, point blank: "Are you anti-Semitic?" She brought in the Nazi angle: "Hitler went to a passion play and came away saying that, you know, this is a precious tool in the fight against Judaism."

The networks commonly presented as a reasonable possibility the outbreak of anti-Semitic hatred or violence based on Gibson’s film. The networks never provided the Anti-Defamation League or other Jewish and secular critics with any countering scrutiny, as in: What if the film isn’t anti-Semitic and doesn’t lead to any anti-Semitic incidents? Or: How can you attack a film you haven’t seen?

Since Catholics and the Catholic group Opus Dei were harshly attacked by Dan Brown, maligned as a murderous group in the book and film, the three networks did give them time to respond – but it’s important to note that the coverage was not a one-sided portrayal of outrage, like the Anti-Defamation League received. All three networks also noted Opus Dei critics, like former member Tammy DiNicola, who charged that she had been brainwashed like a cult member during her time in the group. On ABC, John Donvan expressed an extra measure of skepticism, underlining for the audience that Linda Ruff, the Opus Dei member they were profiling, was handed to ABC by Opus Dei publicists: "Now, we want to say clearly that Opus Dei found Linda for us. And the organization, with the movie about to come out, is deeply concerned about getting a head start on some good public relations."

The networks were clearly enamored of The DaVinci Code as an "intriguing" theory – even though they could have been asking Dan Brown or the filmmakers point blank if they were "anti-Christian" or "anti-Catholic," or to take a page from Jewish groups critical of The Passion, merely "money-hungry enemies of Jesus."

On May 23, 2005, ABC’s Good Morning America spent a large chunk of its air time in an attempt to "span the globe on our hunt for the real DaVinci Code," as Diane Sawyer put it. She called it "a fascinating morning of mystery, myth, and controversy."

Echoing the Elizabeth Vargas special from 2003, ABC’s Bill Weir couched the Code as an enthralling set of Christianity-debunking questions: "What if we told you that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute as believed, but rather the wife of Jesus Christ? That she had his baby? That their holy bloodline survives to this day? And that the Catholic Church knows this and is suppressing this stunning truth? And what if this truth was protected by a secret society of visionaries, including the artist, Leonardo da Vinci? Extraordinary claims, to be sure, capturing the world’s imagination because they appear in the mega-best seller The DaVinci Code."

That tone suffused other shows as well. ABC’s December 29, 2005 special on the theory that there was a female pope in the Middle Ages, a "Pope Joan," began with Diane Sawyer calling it "as riveting as The DaVinci Code" and "an enigma to rival The DaVinci Code." On February 13, during Olympics coverage in Turin, Matt Lauer announced a story on the Shroud of Turin with this introduction: "It is a story every bit as intriguing as The DaVinci Code." The overall narrative of Code coverage was that it was upsetting only to a minority, and fascinating to everyone else.

Left unexplored: This theory was "intriguing" to whom? It’s possible that the networks find "intriguing" talk to be sales chatter, stay-tuned talk. But it also can sound like joy in poking at Christianity and those perceived to be least "inclusive" in their view of its fundamental rightness – conservative Christians.