Media and Christianity: Do They Just Not Mix? Panelists Grapple with Religion, Politics

Article excerpt

Can the men and women who cover the nation's politics ever understand the strongest yearnings of most of the rest of us?

Maybe not, a panel of prominent journalists has concluded.

"We have a nation that is mostly religious and Christian, and a press that is not religious and Christian," said Michael Barone, an editor at Reader's Digest and co-author of the Almanac of American Politics, told the panel, which met in Washington last week. As a result, political reporting by the national media was caught off guard by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who spurred conservative Protestants, and Pope John Paul II, who galvanized pro-life Catholics.

Mark Silk, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer and now director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, said that while the "media elite" may be secular, the general staff in newsrooms mirrors the public.

Newspapers and clergy have clashed since colonial times, he said, but "the wholesale indictment of the media by religion is fairly recent, about 20 years."

The panel forum, "Changing Press Coverage of Religion and Politics," was hosted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and drew about 35 working journalists.

Since the 1920s, Mr. Silk said, American political reporting has emphasized "tolerance" when religion and politics mingled.

Thus, the New York Times in the 1980s editorialized that Mr. Falwell had every right to participate in politics. But in news reports, he was portrayed as holding intolerant positions.

"What's tolerant and what's not is the question," Mr. Silk said.

Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said political reporters he has met over seven years of electioneering are generally naive about the variety of religious beliefs motivating voters.

"The only calls I get are about abortion and us allegedly taking over the Republican Party," he said. Political reporters "have very little - and usually no - theological understanding."

On the other hand, he added, religion reporters who know such distinctions don't know politics or never cover stories in which religion and politics meet. He called this the "compartmentalizing of knowledge" at news operations, but added that "I think things are getting better, not worse."

Mr. Barone said there is a liberal bias in American newsrooms, and that's why widespread conservative religion in society in not covered that seriously. …