A new study finds that with the presidential election less than a year away, the media is treating President Obama's potential opponents a lot differently than they treated him in 2007 and 2008. The Culture and Media Institute has looked at news reports covering religion and found that while ABC, CBS and NBC had virtually no interest in the connection between Barack Obama and controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright, they have suddenly gotten religion when it comes to the GOP field of candidates.
CMI concludes that the mainstream media has used religion in primarily two ways, as a means of painting the republican field of candidates as some sort of "God squad' of scary religious zealots, or as a means of scrutinizing differences in the candidate's faith.
The media has spent an inordinate amount of news coverage looking at whether Mormonism is a cult or observing that Congresswoman Michele Bachman believes God told her to run for President. In general CMI found that the television networks discussed the Republican candidate's religion 143 times in the first ten months of this year. By contrast, stories of Democratic candidates' faith were brought up only in 19 times in the same time period of the 2008 election cycle.
What is more interesting is not that the media is covering religion seven times more often now than then, but their treatment of the issue. In 2007 the media generally accepted at face value liberal candidates' statements about religion. (For example, no one in the mainstream media questioned Sen. Obama's ludicrous claim that Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount justified his support for homosexual unions.) This year, the networks are 13 times more likely to question a conservative candidate's religious claims than they were of liberals then. Additionally, according to CMI, more than half of all the news stories this year mentioning a candidate's faith have sought to create or exploit controversy.
Networks covered Michele Bachmann's beliefs, her husband's Christian-based therapy practice and her interpretation of wifely "submission" 15 times. Journalists found Rick Perry's unapologetically public faith worth noting 10 times and asked most of the candidates what they thought of Mormonism. In fact, the three networks brought up Mormonism more than 100 times in 10 months. In several stories they often wondered if conservative Christians would vote for them.
The networks had plenty of opportunities to question Democrats about their beliefs during the 2008 election cycle. Several candidates were Roman Catholics whose voting records on abortion were at odds with their church. None of the three networks mentioned that contradiction. Questions about Barack Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his black liberation theology surfaced in early in March 2007 and were covered on Fox News and in newspapers, but it took an entire year for any of the networks to even mention Wright. Out of 11 mentions of Obama's religion, not one challenged, criticized or took his statements at anything other than face value.
Religion is important and worthy of news coverage when done the right way. CMI's executive summary makes a profound observation from this study concluding that:
"According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, more than 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians of one denomination or another, and 93 percent say they believe in God. But too often network reporters covering religious conservatives sound as though they're reporting back from an encounter with remote, primitive tribes. In vast swaths of the United States, people attend church regularly, pray publicly and don't find expressions of faith uncomfortable or alarming. Those people are news consumers too.
A candidate's religious convictions - or lack of them - are worth reporting on, as long as it's done even-handedly. Obama listened to radical, racist sermons at Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ for more than two decades. Joe Biden's support for abortion rights is fundamentally at odds with his professed Catholicism. These examples are at least as compelling as an evangelical pastor's opinions on Mormonism or who Rick Perry prays with."