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The Problem With the Press, Part 1: Religion

The Problem With the Press, Part 1: Religion

By Carl M. Cannon - April 15, 2013

I’ve always loved journalism. Born and raised in this industry, a newsroom has been my only professional home. But all is not well in our house.

As most people know, the business model that sustained news organizations for the better part of a century has collapsed. Profitability, it turns out, depended not just on paid advertising but also on the near-monopolies that made those ads so lucrative. That symbiotic bond was breached, thanks to the democratizing advent of the Internet.

In the last two weeks, coverage of religion in the mainstream media -- and of the faith-tinged issue of abortion -- has revealed that our journalism model is also broken. Most dispiriting of all, the recent coverage suggests that economic pressures are making the problem worse.

Despite the presence of the occasional pious Catholic, observant Jew, or devout Protestant, American newsrooms have long been highly secular places. This is as it should be for a mass circulation audience in a pluralistic society. But political and cultural polarization in the past generation has exacerbated the great spiritual divide between journalists and those we cover.

Although the number fluctuates, some 40 percent of the American people describe themselves as evangelical Christians. Yet in traditional U.S. news organizations, print or broadcast, such believers are a rarity. The news coverage tends to reflect this disconnect. Evangelicals are often dismissed, particularly in political reporting, as exotic; or, worse, as a menace to civil society.

Traditionally, the people covering religion knew what they were talking about, at least. And presumably, they exerted a leavening influence inside their newsrooms. But Biblical literacy isn’t necessarily a requirement for that beat anymore; meanwhile, newsroom budget cuts have decimated the ranks of the nation’s religion writers.

The upshot during Holy Week this year was a spate of news reports so inaccurate and off-key that they comprised a kind of impromptu “Gong Show.”

In the not so distant past, the installation of the first-ever pontiff from the Americas would have been hailed in the press -- and not only by Catholic reporters -- as a momentous breakthrough. There was some of that coverage when Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio ascended to the papacy last month. There was also this: a Huffington Post headline blasting the new pope’s opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and contraception -- longtime Catholic doctrine, in other words -- accompanied by this kicker: “Accused of Conspiring with Murderous Junta in Priest Kidnapping.”

In the new media environment, a sole source who alleges that Pope Francis was too cozy with the murderous generals who controlled Argentina in the 1970s gets equal billing with persecuted priests who were actually aided by that future pope and a Human Rights Watch report dismissing the allegation against him as untrue.

These days, even when the best news organizations attempt to cover religion insightfully and sensitively, Bible illiteracy taints the effort. On Easter, “CBS Sunday Morning” aired a deeply respectful 7½-minute segment on the Virgin Mary. But that report was marred by the erroneous declaration by the reporter that John the Baptist was present at Jesus’ crucifixion.

Easter Sunday was also flummoxing editors at the New York Times. In its coverage of Francis’ first papal address, the Times wrote the following paragraph:

Easter is the celebration of the resurrection into heaven of Jesus, three days after he was crucified, the premise for the Christian belief in an everlasting life. In urging peace, Francis called on Jesus to “change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace.”

The first sentence, perhaps added by an editor in the home office, is wrong, as numerous readers pointed out. If three major theological errors in a 27-word sentence isn’t a record, it ought to be. And in its ensuing correction, the Times’ corrected only one of them, thus opening itself to ridicule.

The correction reads as follows: “An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the Christian holiday of Easter. It is the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, not his resurrection into heaven.”)

Well, no. First of all, Christians believe that Jesus “ascended” into heaven, not “was resurrected” into heaven. Secondly, the Gospels tell us that this happened 40 days after Easter, not three days after the crucifixion. Finally, many Christian scholars would quibble with the idea that everlasting life was an unfamiliar concept in Israel at the time Jesus preached there.

They would point to the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, chapter 26, verse 19 (“Your dead will come back to life; your corpses will rise up . . .”) or to Daniel 12:2 (“Many of those who sleep in the dusty ground will awake -- some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting abhorrence . . .”)

And in the Book of Acts, Paul is found telling the Israelites that Jesus’ triumph over the grave has fulfilled the promise of the 16th Psalm -- a way of connecting Christ’s ministry to the ancient promise of their own traditions.

The Times’ uncertain grasp prompted the religion-themed website Patheos to post one wag’s spoof of the paper’s correction:

In last Thursday’s story,“Americans excited to visit ‘ball parks,’” the sport of baseball was repeatedly spelled bayspall. The number of “bases” was given as five; the correct number is three. “Home plate” is a marker embedded in the ground, not a trophy awarded to the winner of the World Series. “Babe” Ruth was the popular nickname of George Herman Ruth Jr. (1895–1948), generally regarded the greatest baseballer of the early twentieth century, and not the African-American mistress of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter F. O’Malley, as stated in the article. The Times regrets the errors.

Inadvertently providing his own comic relief, a couple of days later radio host Don Imus claimed in an exchange with liberal columnist Kirsten Powers that “hundreds of gospels” were written, including one by Judas. “There’s an indication there,” Imus added, “that Jesus may have been gay.”

Imus’ oddball theories were passed along by an unskeptical Huffington Post -- notwithstanding the fact that the two theologians it consulted dismissed the notion. HuffPo also identified Powers as a “conservative,” apparently on the basis of her part-time gig as a Fox News commentator.

A minor mistake, to be sure. Or was it? In the days ahead, Kirsten Powers would be at the heart of an intramural fight in journalism, one that would reveal the limitations of our secularism. This was a heated debate over the coverage -- or dearth of coverage -- of the murder trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell. And this time the stakes were life and death.

Tomorrow: Abortion, the News Business’ Most Sacred Cow 

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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