Why have we heard so little of the voices of reason among American Christians? It turns out they've been talking, but couldn't make themselves heard
"As this study documents, coverage of religion not only overrepresents some voices and underrepresents others, it does so in a way that is consistently advantageous to conservatives. . . .
"Despite the fact most religious Americans are moderate or progressive, in the news media it is overwhelmingly conservative leaders who are presented as the voice of religion. This represents a particularly meaningful distortion since progressive religious leaders tend to focus on different issues and offer an entirely different perspective than their conservative counterparts."
--from the Executive Summary of Media Matters' new report, "Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media"
Whether it's a symptom or a result, one all but inevitable component of the gradual (oh-so-gradual) loosening of the ultra-loony Far Right's six-year-long death grip on the country has been a weakening of the tyranny of the so-called Christian Right--the far-flung network of demagogic megalomaniacs and racketeers who took large segments of the country hostage with what can most charitably be called "junk" religion.
I'm sure it would be a mistake to over-estimate the weakening of this grip, but even some of its hostages seem to have begun to notice the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the right-wing Christigoons. As the surprisingly muted response to the passing of the unspeakable Rev. Jerry Falwell showed, more moderate evangelical leaders are already showing concern to distance themselves from the looniest of the Christigoon patriarchs.
And more and more we're finally hearing voices of honorable religion speaking up in counterpoint to the debased version that dominates the American "religious revival."
In these wars there hasn't been much that those of us on the sidelines--non-observant Jews, for example--could do except wait. I certainly understood that persons of sanity in the ranks of American Christianity felt under siege, especially as the ranks of their followers shrank while the deluded hosts of the junk religionists swelled. Here and there you occasionally heard a lonely voice, but the loneliness of those voices only underscored their isolation.
What I never stopped to consider was that all through this nightmare there have been sensible religionists trying to be heard, but having to fight their way through the same media blackout that voices of reason in all spheres have had to contend with. Of course, once the idea is introduced, the logic is immediately evident.
Now Media Matters has undertaken a study of the subject, and issued a report with the title LEFT BEHIND: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media, which you can either read online or download in PDF form.
I confess that I haven't read the report itself, and it may take me a while to get it. But the Executive Summary provides a pretty good idea. I would encourage you to read it while asking yourself, "Is any of this really a surprise?"
It would surprise few people, conservative or progressive, to learn that coverage of the intersection of religion and politics tends to oversimplify both. If this oversimplification occurred to the benefit or detriment of neither side of the political divide, then the weaknesses in coverage of religion would be of only academic interest. But as this study documents, coverage of religion not only overrepresents some voices and underrepresents others, it does so in a way that is consistently advantageous to conservatives.
As in many areas, the decisions journalists make when deciding which voices to include in their stories have serious consequences. What is the picture of religious opinion? Who is a religious leader? Whose views represent important groups of believers? Every time a journalist writes a story, he or she answers these questions by deciding whom to quote and how to characterize their views.
Religion is often depicted in the news media as a politically divisive force, with two sides roughly paralleling the broader political divide: On one side are cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs; and on the other side are secular liberals, who have opted out of debates that center on religion-based values. The truth, however is far different: close to 90 percent of Americans today self-identify as religious, while only 22 percent belong to traditionalist sects. Yet in the cultural war depicted by news media as existing across religious lines, centrist and progressive voices are marginalized or absent altogether.
In order to begin to assess how the news media paint the picture of religion in America today, this study measured the extent to which religious leaders, both conservative and progressive, are quoted, mentioned, and interviewed in the news media.
Among the study's key findings:
* Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.
* On television news -- the three major television networks, the three major cable new channels, and PBS -- conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed almost 3.8 times as often as progressive leaders.
* In major newspapers, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed 2.7 times as often as progressive leaders.
Despite the fact most religious Americans are moderate or progressive, in the news media it is overwhelmingly conservative leaders who are presented as the voice of religion. This represents a particularly meaningful distortion since progressive religious leaders tend to focus on different issues and offer an entirely different perspective than their conservative counterparts.