“Faith-Based” Journalism

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

The growing power and reach of the conservative Christian media is a story that has been largely ignored by the media for years. Led by the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which has more than 1,000 employees and offices in three U.S. cities as well as Ukraine, the Philippines, India, and Israel, the conservative media is reaching more and more homes every day, slamming liberals while praising conservative politicians and causes. Yet, somehow this never comes up in discussion of media bias.

According to Mariah Blake’s piece in the new issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, the growing (and largely ignored) faith-based media in the United States is a serious issue, and deserves some looking in to. Blake’s story lays bare a massive conservative media landscape that pumps far-right messages into millions of homes each night. The role they played in the 2004 presidential election, while referred to in a vague sense by most major newspapers, was actually more hands-on than many—including myself—previously understood. Blake writes that while most evangelical networks were careful about endorsing far-right candidates by name, they made few bones about pushing their ideology. "During his last pre-election broadcast," Blake writes, "host Hal Lindsey told audiences that liberals were determined to "bring about our literal annihilation," and that "a vote for the conservative cause … is a vote to … reverse America’s decline and restore her to the path of morality, conscience, and strength of character."

Stations that once offered nonpolitical Christian entertainment programming have, since 2000, been actively diving into the realm of political reporting as well. In the months before the elections of 2004, FamilyNet, the television wing of the Southern Baptist Convention’s media empire, added a political talk show to its scheduling lineup and established a news department, whose reports were stacked with pro-Bush commentary. This is no small matter, as the network reaches about 30 million homes nationwide.

Other right-wing Christian networks also ran live election coverage for the first time this past cycle, Blake reports; and much of it carried a clear bias. She notes a USA Radio Network segment, dressed up to sound like a news report that claimed that "Osama bin Laden spent years laying plans to destroy America, only to have them thwarted by a tough-talking Texan. He never planned on running into a president with the strength, character, and conviction of George W. Bush," [CIA analyst] Simmons said. "If George W. Bush wins the presidency, his fate – meaning Osama bin Laden’s fate – is sealed. If John Kerry wins, he’ll go back to business as usual because he knows he’ll have another administration in there where he did nothing and let them plan attacks on us."

Granted, it sounds a lot like Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly, but the difference is everybody knows about them. In total, conservative evangelicals presently control at least six national television networks, and more than 2,000 religious radio stations. By the start of 2005, religious stations outnumbered every other radio format except country music and news-talk. And when was the last time you heard a right-winger admit that they played any role in fixing the center of media political gravity?

And their influence has begun to extend into the "secular" media, as well. Despite the fact that in 2000, the FCC issued specific guidelines barring religious broadcasters from taking over frequencies designated for educational programming, the powerful National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) organization lobbied Congress hard to throw out the rule, which it eventually did, giving the increasingly wealthy religious broadcasters carte blanche to move into educational broadcasting. And Rupert Murdoch has gotten into the game, as well. In 2002, Murdoch met with NRB leaders to get them to lean on the FCC to oppose to the planned EchoStar-DirecTV merger, which they agreed to do. Rupert’s plan worked, and the FCC killed the deal. The religious broadcasters’ reward? After Murdoch’s News Corporation stepped in to buy DirecTV, he gave the NRB a channel on it.

Increasingly, the power of these networks is allowing politicized right-wing Christians to speak in the media for all Christians, as liberals and moderates struggle to be heard and make their views known to the faithful. Politico-religious plurality took another body blow this week when Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, editor of moderately liberal America magazine, "resigned" in the wake of extreme pressure from the office of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Reporters have determined that the order to send Reese packing was originally issued back in mid-March when it fell under the purview of a man who has since ascended up the church ladder to its apex, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. According to the National Catholic Reporter, the Vatican had raised objections to editorial decisions at America deriving from Reese’s ecumenical style of editorship, including not only essays that adhered to Vatican orthodoxy—of which there were many—but also articles exploring moral arguments for the approval of condoms to combat the spread of AIDS; an editorial criticizing what the magazine called a lack of due process in the procedures for the investigation of theologians; an essay about homosexual priests; and a guest essay from U.S. Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, challenging suggestions that the church should refuse Communion to Catholic politicians who do not vote as a number of bishops believe they should.

Reese’s dismissal sends a chilling message to those who seek to expand the debate over the church’s teachings. It also puts Catholic scholars—as well as the laity—on notice that unless their views are sufficiently orthodox, they might as well keep their mouths shut. Actions like this one are one reason so much of the mainstream media has gained the false impression that to be a "good Catholic" and a "liberal" are now somehow in conflict, despite the fact that so much of the social Gospel, as well as Church positions on crucial issues like the death penalty and the war in Iraq, fall quite unambiguously on the "liberal" side of the argument. It’s why, for instance, in his representative ignorance, Wolf Blitzer, who is Jewish, told Paul Begala, a devout Catholic, that he did not think of him as a "good Catholic" on CNN. Blitzer may not work for a right-wing Christian broadcasting network, but if he did, his misinterpretation of the multiplicity of views of American Catholics, and indeed, most Christians, would fit right in.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.




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Eric Alterman

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