Why journalists love Pat Robertson

Earlier this week, our friends over at the ethics and diversity office at Poynter.org published a column that I wrote pleading for journalists to drop the Rev. Pat Robertson from their list of “usual suspects” that they call to speak for the world of conservative Christians and other moral traditionalists. I thought the headline was pushy, but appropriate: “Excommunicating Pat Robertson.

Here’s the key idea I asked journalists who read that site to ponder. If another hurricane heads toward New Orleans, and you were one of the dozens of viewers who turned on MSNBC (OK, I wasn’t that snarky) and saw Pat Robertson’s face, would you be happy or sad? Would you be (a) happy or (b) sad because you knew that he was going to say something off the wall about why God was about to pour out his wrath once again on such a sinful city? patrobertson 01

If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn’t think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.

In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson’s face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian. And they may sincerely believe that he remains a powerful leader among American evangelicals, someone who provides an appropriate “conservative” voice during coverage of controversial events.

I ended with a list of names, and hyperlinks, to a variety of traditional Christians that I wish reporters (and especially television producers) would call instead of Robertson. Check out the list and let me know who you think I should add. I also realize that we need lists of new voices on the religious left and in other traditions. This column was about Robertson, so I went with traditional Christians.

Apparently, Heritage Foundation pundit Joe Loconte was thinking along some very similar lines about the time that I was. He wrote a column arguing that Robertson is the perfect symbol for the authority problems that religious leaders, in general, are having in public debates right now.

Like who? Where do we start?

The Catholic Church still struggles to overcome its crisis of sexually abusive priests.

Liberal Protestant churches, mimicking the secular cant of political activists, have bled themselves dry in membership and prestige.

Though growing in numbers and political influence, evangelicals are among the most feared demographic group in the country, according to a recent Pew Forum poll. Here’s one reason: An evangelical figure with Robertson’s clout talks like a hit man from the Sopranos — and what do his religious brethren do about it? Not much.

Yes, some traditional Christians dissected Robertson’s remarks, but others ducked into their ministry foxholes. Loconte notes that a faithful few continue to respond to each new blast from Virginia Beach by opening up their checkbooks and sending Robertson more cash for his niche TV work.

Another excellent question: How did Robertson’s latest remarks affect the safety of missionaries in Venezuela? But in a way, argued Loconte, this is almost beside the point. Robertson has been quoted and quoted and quoted saying this kind of stuff for 20-something years.

Yes, his words are news. But for whom does he actually speak? How should people respond when he erupts once again?

Loconte has some suggestions. Anyone who digs into this will have a news story.

. . . (Evangelical) leaders would be wise to marginalize Robertson and his media empire — publicly and decisively. They should editorialize against his excesses, refuse to appear on his television program and deny him advertising space in their magazines. Board members should threaten to resign unless he steps down from his public platform.

Is anyone doing that?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Terry, I agree with much of what you and Joe are saying, but when I read the summary of evangelical leaders’ comments at CT’s weblog, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/134/33.0.html, I’m not sure who’s missing. The World Evangelical Alliance–check. SBC–check. World Magazine–check. American Family Association–check. Ted Haggard of the NAE (and, as a charismatic, temperamentally much closer to Robertson than most “evangelicals”)–check, though with caveats about “free speech” that surely could have been left unsaid. Christianity Today itself–check.

    So who didn’t comment? According to Laurie Goodstein’s piece, “Other conservative Christian organizations remained silent, with leaders at the Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Council, and the Christian Coalition saying they were too busy to comment.” Okay, those are arguably the three most politicized entities named so far, and to them it’s like a game–if a player on your team commits a foul and your team gets a penalty of ten yards, you don’t go agreeing with the ref even if you know your teammate was wrong. They’re just not going to comment because they are playing the game and Robertson is, most or all of the time, on their side.

    So (relatively) depoliticized evangelical leaders commented publicly, and politicized leaders did not. That to me is the more telling story.

  • Scipio

    Yes, Robertson & Falwell overexposure slows down the progress of cultural conservatism, and the MSM knows it, and want them on TV as much as possible, but Michael Newdow more than makes up for any lost momentum.

  • tmatt

    I think that much of these anger is focusing on the OTHER evangelical alpha males — the Dobson, Southern Baptist, etc., level. Colson even. What have they said?

    (tmatt in a meeting in Chicago)

  • http://www.christianengineer.org Joe

    I suggest Gegrapha make a public statement on Robertson’s comments and its opinion of his credibility.

  • Roberto Rivera

    Andy, I agree with you: the real story is the dog that didn’t bark. Not a single “A list” Evangelical leader said a thing about Robertson. Ditto for organizations like FRC which, when contacted by the Chicago Tribune, had “no comment.” “Why is this so?” should be the question enterprising reporters ask and attempt to answer. “Why does there seem to be a code of silence, a kind of omerta, in place?”

    If they REALLY want to make Christians look bad, answer that question. It’s easy to write off Robertson as a kook and outlier because, well, he is. But the deafening silence is a symptom of a much deeper malady that might merit Michael Kinsley’s favorite epithet: hypocrite. That, more than a has-been ordering a hit on a head of government most Americans have never heard of, would go a long way towards discrediting the “Christian Right.”

  • http://axegrinder.blogspot.com Jason Kranzusch

    The list of potential evangelical media contacts is excellent. Thank you.

    Would it be appropriate to include someone from the Institute for Religion and Democracy? Who has taken up the mantle of Diane Knippers since her death?

    Also, Methodist theologian Thomas Oden needs to be more widely known in the media.

  • http://showard1.blogspot.com Samuel J. Howard

    Like Chuck Klosterman points out in “Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” much of who you see on TV/read comments by in the papers is who will get back with a comment promptly. If people are worried about the influence of Pat Robertson, the best thing they can probably do is to be prompt, available, and (as Bill O’Reilley would say) “pithy” on command for the media.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    As far as I’m aware, Robertson is still a highly-influential televangelist whom millions of US Christians turn to for guidance on what to think about a range of issues. OK, so he’s not the be-all and end-all, but I don’t see why he should be ignored just because millions of other US Christians think he’s an embarrassment.

  • VaAnglican

    How about Thomas Oden, Luke Timothy Johnson, Al Mohler, Mark D. Roberts, John Piper, Mark Noll, John Stott, R.C. Sproul, Paul Zahl, Alister Begg, John MacArthur, just for starters?

  • Michael

    I also wonder if the other reason the Evangelical elite is afraid of criticizing Robertson is that it was Robertson who mobilized the first wave of religious conservatives to become involved in elective politics. The Robertson presidential campaign was a watershed among religiuos conservatives, and the elites owe his a debt.

  • http://japery.newpantagruel.com +G.J.

    Andy, your name is missing from the list! Has Culture-Makers denounced Robertson? It seems not. Scandalous! If a Gegrapha statement is forthcoming, I am sure it will bring ol’ Pat to his knees amid tears of repentance.

    Some questions:

    I don’t recall this much fuss after Ted Haggard made racist and anti-catholic remarks about Latin Americans. Why is that?

    Why does Robertson merit such heavy response, rather than being ignored?

    Why do VaAnglican and Terry’s lists of “representative Evangelicals” include non-Protestants, protestants who do and do not think “Fundamentalist” is a bad word, protestant mainliners, and reformed protestants who do not really regard themselves as evangelicals?

    (Al Mohler?!)

    Pat Robertson really is closer to the pews, barring the entry of Rick Warren or Bill Hybels into the fray. Why weren’t they mentioned? Jim Wallis? Brian McLaren?

    The boycott idea is intriguing, but what supposedly “more representative” evangelical media carries 700 Club ads, &c.? Maybe I just block it out, but I can’t recall seeing much Roberston stuff in allegedly “Evangelical” magazines.

    As for the substance of Robertson’s remarks, what was so offensive? The principle or the particular application? If he had said the same thing about Saddam Hussein, would it have been just as bad?

    Don’t you think most evangelicals (and most Americans) would agree that assasination may be preferable to invasion and conventional warfare in some instances? What “evangelical leaders” are really equipped to discuss this sort of thing intelligently?

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  • http://japery.newpantagruel.com +G.J.

    Speaking of tails wagging dogs, what is an “outsider” bound to conclude if they read Terry’s Poynter article, the names of commenters here, and Terry’s various long-term affiliations? It all reduces to competing factions of different evangelicals and evangelical allies vying for center stage. Or more fundamentally, the question is who speaks for evangelicalism–and the church. And what is the church?

  • http://shushan37.blogspot.com/ Salar

    I think the choice of Roberston is deliberate. These articles are good, but there’s more to consider imho.

    I’ve also written on it at::


    Hope this blesses you