The Sad Paradox of Religion News

Thanks to the historic box-office bonanza of Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" ($330 million and rising), the topic of religion is "hot" right now. Still, you get that sinking feeling that for the press, it's just another raging fad like the Tickle Me Elmo doll or the Atkins diet.

The other night, ABC's Peter Jennings took three entire hours of prime-time television to explore the relationship between Jesus and St. Paul - and that's two more hours than ABC gave Britney Spears a few months ago. Airing this subject matter - and this much of it, too - was a radical departure from the norm. But what about the quality? Wouldn't you know it, ABC had to put a negative spin on Paul; he isn't really to be trusted as a writer of the New Testament, and that he can be a force for what Peter Jennings calls "puritanical intolerance." He is somehow a human failure, and the Holy Spirit is nowhere to be found in the Word of God.

This sad paradox - more religion news, with less religious context - comes through in a Media Research Center study of 12 months of religion coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBC from March 2003 to February 2004. Counting all the morning, evening, and prime-time shows together, the amount of stories has more than doubled from a similar study of 1993 - from 336 stories ten years ago to 699 last year.

Some of that increase can by attributed to the passion over "The Passion," although the movie stories came in at about one-tenth of the total. In recent months, a number of other dramatic religious news stories have unfolded, from religious freedom in Iraq, to the installation of an openly gay Episcopal bishop, to the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's pontificate. Is this a trend that will last? It largely depends on what stories unfold, since the media don't usually go searching far and wide for religion stories.

News, with its focus on the shocking things at the expense of the everyday happenings, still accentuates the negative with religion. For example, almost half of the evening-news stories on the Catholic church in the 12-month study period still focused on the problem of clerical sexual abuse. The quiet work of the faithful goes on, and the vast majority of Catholic bishops and priests go about serving their communities and leading souls to Christ without the slightest hiccup of media interest.

The hottest Protestant story of the year was the installation of openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, but reporters on that story treated it as a milestone against discrimination, focusing on its political impact, not its scriptural or theological implications. Most of the TV time on the happy-talk morning shows went to Robinson and his supporters (ten interviews to just one for an opponent). Just like in other political stories on the gay issue, the labeling was very imbalanced, since Robinson's critics within the church were described as "conservatives" 42 times, but Robinson's supporters drew just five "liberal" labels. Robinson himself was so revered that not once was he ever described as either "liberal" or even as an "activist." (Now ask how many times you've seen the label "conservative" and much worse attached to Pope John Paul.)

Yes, the networks love progressive fads, religious or secular, but they remained hostile to the most traditional interpretations of religion. One example was Gibson's "Passion," which was the biggest supposed anti-Semitism hubbub of the year, if not in the last decade or two. (Erupting as a "hate speech" hot button in August, It didn't become a story about Christian inspiration until the advance-ticket sales began in mid-February.) How sick is that? We have suicide bombers blowing up buses in Israel, and very real anti-Semitism on the march in Europe, but the TV networks located the worldwide danger zone for Jews as the space between Mel Gibson's ears.

Progressive religious fads often emerge from academia, where professors can be located to tout - as the most credible, objective, social-scientific findings - loopy conspiracy theories like "The DaVinci Code" or phony "gospels" that teach Jesus was less like God and more like a profound Grateful Dead groupie. Sadly, the media's Rolodex of religion experts was dominated by academics who are hostile to religious orthodoxy. They are never described for the viewer at home as boutique liberals or hard-line secularists.

In short, the media have taken a burst of passionate Christian enthusiasm for an orthodox movie, and responded with an increase of religion programming that too often dismisses rather than debates that very orthodox vision. When surveys of the national media have shown that half of journalists are religiously unaffiliated and 86 percent never attend church or synagogue, it's not a surprise that they just don't get it.