Got news? Partisan, partisan, partisan

What we have here is a highly partisan op-ed page piece — it’s written by Jim Towey, a George W. Bush staffer — on an openly conservative editorial page that bluntly protests a situation in the mainstream press that certainly looks painfully partisan.

Thus, this is precisely the kind of thing that your GetReligionistas try to avoid, because it’s a partisan, partisan, partisan thing. Ick.

But there’s a problem.

At the heart of this partisan op-ed is a valid faith-based news story that isn’t getting any mainstream ink.

Now, sadly, this is one of those Wall Street Journal pieces where you need a digital subscription in order to read the whole thing. However, in this case the first few paragraphs will do just fine:

I was George W. Bush’s director of faith-based initiatives. Imagine what would have happened had I proposed that he use that office to urge thousands of religious leaders to become “validators” of the Iraq War?

I can tell you two things that would have happened immediately. First, President Bush would have fired me — and rightly so — for trying to politicize his faith-based office. Second, the American media would have chased me into the foxhole Saddam Hussein had vacated.

Yet … President Obama and his director of faith-based initiatives convened exactly such a meeting to try to control political damage from the unpopular health-care law. “Get out there and spread the word,” reported the president as saying on a conference call with leaders of faith-based and community groups. “I think all of you can be really important validators and trusted resources for friends and neighbors, to help explain what’s now available to them.”

Since then, there’s been nary a peep from the press.

That certainly seems to be true, looking at this Google News search built on a few logical terms.

There was this completely one-sided press release at, but I hesitate to point readers toward it because it does not contain a single voice expressing concern about this use of the faith-based project. It’s so PR pitch-perfect that it could be a satire of some kind. Ick.

All of this is rather sad, since it provides more fuel for the people who — with good cause, from time to Time — see the mainstream press as a nakedly partisan force on the side of moral and cultural progressives and in opposition to traditional forms of faith.

Regular GetReligion readers know that I think that complaint is simplistic, most of the time. Unfortunately, it’s easier to make that case on moral and cultural issues than on basic political issues, as candid mainstream journalists have admitted from time (click here) to time (then click here).

Now, I know that some of you are thinking: What does this have to do with the health-care debate? Wasn’t that a high-stakes battle over politics, pure and simple? What’s so controversial about religious leaders getting involved in lobbying for or against health-care reform? I don’t know. Let’s ask Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) about that question.

Anyway, all of this is helping to fuel a high tide of anti-MSM acid out there in Middle America, according to some new data from the folks at Gallup. Here’s the top of the organization’s announcement:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the fourth straight year, the majority of Americans say they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. The 57% now saying this is a record high by one percentage point. … The 43% of Americans who, in Gallup’s annual Governance poll, conducted Sept. 13-16, 2010, express a great deal or fair amount of trust ties the record low, and is far worse than three prior Gallup readings on this measure from the 1970s.

Trust in the media is now slightly higher than the record-low trust in the legislative branch but lower than trust in the executive and judicial branches of government, even though trust in all three branches is down sharply this year. These findings also further confirm a separate Gallup poll that found little confidence in newspapers and television specifically.

Nearly half of Americans (48%) say the media are too liberal, tying the high end of the narrow 44% to 48% range recorded over the past decade. One-third say the media are just about right while 15% say they are too conservative. Overall, perceptions of bias have remained quite steady over this tumultuous period of change for the media, marked by the growth of cable and Internet news sources.

So, that 48 percent number is pretty high — but it’s not a majority. Then the people who think the press is doing fine, plus the folks who think that the MSM lean to the right? That adds up to about 48 percent or a tick higher.

Sounds like a pretty divided, partisan situation to me. Sad. Sad. Sad.

What to do? Well, for starters, if anyone sees a fine, balanced mainstream news report focusing on that tax-payer-funded, faith-based campaign to back Obamacare, a news report that takes both sides of the debate seriously, please let me know. I am always looking for solid, non-partisan news reporting on tough issues that are rooted in religion. We need more of that, as I am sure the Gallup pollsters would agree.

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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.

  • Jerry

    “Obamacare” is a word used by republicans in their attack on the health care law. The law was, for better or worse, written by Congress as a result of what happened to the last attempt to write a decent law during President Clinton’s administration. So to use that word is to make a partisan statement.

    And the Politico report was about a single conference call which you expanded to be a “taxpayer funded” campaign.

    Unless there is more evidence, you’re engaged in a fishing expedition which is fine for investigative journalism, of course. But to assume that one person speaking for the Bush administration was 100% accurate about a firewall between religion and politics is a leap of faith.

  • tmatt


    The conference call was part of a larger effort across a wide range of supporters. That’s the taxpayer funded effort.

    However, surely you cannot deny that a Bush effort to do the same call would have created a media meltdown?

    Follow the Google searches: Religious strings were pulled.

  • tmatt

    Oh, and if you find a balanced story on the topic PLEASE DO alert me to it.

    What did you think of the CNN piece?

  • Mollie

    I wrote about this issue a year ago for the WSJ — the use of that office for straight politicking is pretty amazing.

  • Art


    Correct me if I am wrong, but Jim Towey is not some partisan Republican hack. If I am not mistaken, he served Fla. governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, as well as Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, a moderate Republican, before he worked in the Bush administration. I write this in case someone has the crazy idea to label Towey a political hack.

  • Jeffrey

    The CNN story seems like the kind of stories that are done detailing what the president does on a day-to-day basis. That doesn’t always require a call to critics for a quote, does it? I can see where a larger story where the usual critics are allowed to chime in would be appropriate as a follow-up.

    In terms of Towey, I guess political hack is in the eye of the beholder. He’s on a fairly constant trip to rehabilitate Bush’s legacy and shows up on the op-ed pages to criticize the Obama health plan fairly regularly. That the WSJ opinion pages picked him to carry this talking-point isn’t surprising.

    I guess I’m still confused about the tax payers. Beyond the tax money spent to run the phones and pay the people for the time they were talking to the people on the conference call, I’m not seeing this as a tax-payer funded effort. At least not compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars Towey and his office funneled to faith-based groups during the Bush administration by way of HHS and HUD

  • Jerry

    Terry, such things happened during the Bush administration as well. With 30 seconds of searching, I found:

    President George W. Bush met privately with Focus on the Family Founder and Chairman James Dobson and approximately a dozen Christian right leaders last week to rally support for his policies on Iraq, Iran and the so-called “war on terror.”

    So if President Obama is guilty of using his office to try to raise support for his policies amongst religious leaders, so was President Bush.

  • Stephen

    It sounds like President Obama was interested in getting out information about the Health Care plan. I am pretty sure President Bush used his office of faith-based initiatives to distribute information as well, to say nothing of using it to rally his base in various ways.

  • Mollie

    This is a very late addition to these comments but President Bush kept a separate political office for political outreach to religious groups — it was called the “liaison” to religious groups and was based in the political unit of the WH. The Faith-based office was reserved for policymaking and the like. There were claims that it was used politically — but in complicated and less overt ways, according to those who made that claim.