PBS overloads on Christian programming?

The AppalachiansThe second item in the ombudsman column Monday by the Public Broadcasting System’s Michael Getler deals with complaints from viewers who believe the publicly funded PBS carries too many Christian-oriented programs.

This is not a new complaint to the nation’s two public media organizations. Back in August we commented on a similar column written by National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. These complaints seem to be of the same vein.

According to Getler, most of the complaints dealt with specific programs. In thorough fashion, Getler dispatches with the complainers who were “very concerned about the amount of Christian-related content oozing onto PBS.” The horror!

I found most of the complaints cited by Getler ridiculous. As a journalist I receive my fair share of kooky comments, along with an equal number of solid questions and informed statements of opinion. I wonder, where are the informed, intelligent complaints about the coverage of religion on PBS?

And where are the complaints about separation of church and state? I guess/hope we’ve moved beyond that for public broadcasting. As long as the news or feature value of the shows’ content was valid — which they appear to be — how can one complain?

Here’s my favorite complaint:

It seems each show, whether it’s historical, scientific or documentary in nature[,] is flush with some sort of Christian angle. In this age of growing multi-ethnicity in the U.S., and increased conflict and tension between cultures of religion around the world, I find this bias highly disturbing and worse — validating the new Right Wing Evangelical perspective that has become oppressive in this country.” This viewer mentioned recent, high profile and high viewership series such as “Walking the Bible” and “Country Boys” and an earlier documentary on “The Appalachians.”

Where to start? Christianity is not exclusive to the right-wing evangelicals, ignoring a religion will not help subside conflicts and tensions and a relatively heavy load of religion programming does not implicate bias. Disclaimer: I have not seen any of these shows so I cannot judge their quality of slant.

Here is Getler’s explanation for the rise in Christian-related programming:

We have, of course, just passed the Christmas season. And we are also at a time, in mid-January, when the three-part documentary “Walking the Bible” is airing around the country. This series is based on the best-selling book by author Bruce Feiler, who also hosts the series and takes viewers on a 10,000-mile journey based on a retracing of the routes contained in the first five books of the Bible. This series drew above average viewership nationwide, and, according to the producers, the “vast majority” of the responses sent directly to them were positive. I got some of those as well. But the majority of people who wrote to me complained. “The show is simply religious propaganda wrapped in pseudo-history and dubious legend,” wrote a Baltimore viewer. A resident of Omaha, Neb., said, “The schools and governments are prohibited from promulgating superstitious dogma. How is it that PBS can even consider such as ‘Walking the Bible’?”

The “Walking the Bible” miniseries also roughly coincided in January with the airing of “Country Boys,” a three-part, six-hour documentary presented by PBS’s highly respected “Frontline” program and produced by widely-acclaimed producer David Sutherland. This was a very powerful program. The mail to me was overwhelming positive, and I’m the guy to whom people are supposed to complain. This painstakingly documented portrait of two teenagers struggling to escape poverty in a small Kentucky town also achieved solid viewership around the country, although not as high on average as the Bible series. But “Country Boys” also had a sizeable dose of religion throughout.

On the other hand, religion is a big part of life in those communities, and that’s just the way it is and it needs to be reported and reflected. I didn’t see “The Appalachians,” which aired well before I got to PBS, but it is the same region. Indeed, Christianity, and religion generally, have always been a very big part of American life and it is only natural that portraits of who we are as a country will contain this as one aspect.

Yet, I found this collection of messages from viewers around the country to be important and worthy of attention and discussion within PBS and its vast network of independent member stations. Is religious content being elevated these days? If so, why is that happening? Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Getler’s three questions are something of a copout, but not one I can be too hard on him for taking. They are tough questions and deserve some serious debate.

Q. Is religious content being elevated these days?

Q. Why is that happening?

Q. Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Tmatt believes that PBS could be attempting to attract viewers in a country that is about 40 percent evangelical Protestant and another 85-90 percent self-identifying as “Christian.” Taxpayers are also the base of much of PBS’ funding, and taking on subjects that involve its viewers’ lives might be a smart move. If the country were 30 percent Islamic, I’m sure the network would air more shows on Islam.

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Robertson will skip NRB gig

robertsonFor those of you who are still maintaining the Pat Robertson watch, here is the latest from the omnipresent Julia Duin of the Washington Times (who, it seems, has been able to cover a dozen stories in the past week or so). It seems that the leaders of the National Religious Broadcasters have had second thoughts about Robertson’s upcoming address:

Although the evangelist was not told to step down, he did release a statement citing demands on his time. A spokeswoman for Mr. Robertson did not return a call requesting comment. An NRB statement said the speaker switch was a result of “scheduling complexities.”

By the way, let me offer a compliment with a kick.

Someone at the Washington Times online division needs to create a website that makes it easier to find all of the many, many stories linked to religion, morality and culture (even pop culture) produced by Duin and others. Yes, they need a site that is even broader than the “Culture, etc.” page. That would make it easier to contrast Times coverage with the Godbeat offerings over at the Washington Post. This would be good for people who care about religion news, in Washington and beyond.

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God and the AP top 10 list

20060120 164648 27434While I was out on the road, our friends at Poynter.org ran the latest of my columns in the “Journalism With a Difference” series on ethics and diversity. This one is entitled “Religion in (or Out) of the News” and focuses on the religion ghosts hidden — or dancing right out in the open — in the Associated Press list of the top 10 stories of 2005. The column flashes back to an interview with the late George Cornell, who, for many decades, was the AP’s only Godbeat specialist for planet earth.

Cornell saw religion all over the place (and so does Martin Marty).

“Look at every major flash point in the world. There’s almost always a religious element involved — and it’s almost always a powerful one,” Cornell told me. That was back in the early 1980s, when I was researching my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The same thing is going on in the human-rights struggles around the world,” he said. “People just don’t see where the hammer is falling — where the vital brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it.”

In fact, Cornell said he could not remember a year in which the Associated Press list did not have at least five stories that included a strong news hook linked to debates about religion, ethics or morality. Often, the number was higher than that.

This was certainly one of those years. I scored it as seven or eight out of 10. Check it out and let me know the GetReligion score you would have assigned this list.

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America’s pastor?

rickwarrenHas Rick Warren become a media darling or what? The man certainly knows how to communicate a message and apparently has no trouble using the mainstream media to do so. And reporters are eating up this guy and all the wonderful things he does, including his “reverse tithing,” in which he says he keeps 10 percent of his income and gives the rest away ($14 million in 2004).

In a glowing Washington Post story Saturday, reporter Paul Nussbaum gives us an update on what the sandal-wearing, goatee-sporting, Hawaiian shirt-clad Rick is up to these days:

“One of my goals is to take evangelicals back a century, to the 19th century,” said Warren, 51, shifting painfully in his chair because of a back sprain suffered during an all-terrain-vehicle romp with his 20-year-old son, Matthew. “That was a time of muscular Christianity that cared about every aspect of life.”

Not just personal salvation, but social action. Abolishing slavery. Ending child labor. Winning the right for women to vote.

It’s time for modern evangelicals to trade words for deeds and get similarly involved, Warren contends.

Warren was tagged as the next Billy Graham a long time ago, but I think many reporters miss a critical distinction between the two. Graham was an evangelist unassociated with a church or a denomination. Warren is a fourth generation Baptist preacher and his church is Southern Baptist.

By all accounts, Warren is on the brink of becoming the most influential evangelical Christian in the United States. And this Washington Post story is dripping with The Message that Warren preaches.

At the end of his second sermon on that recent Sunday, he reminded his largely affluent Orange County audience: “Life is not about having more and getting more. It’s about serving God and serving others.”

That, simply put, is his message: Give your life to God, help others, spread the word. It is the same message that Christians have been preaching for 2,000 years. Warren has updated the language, added catchphrases and five-step guides, but he readily admits that “there is not a new idea in that book.”

Well is that the same message Christians have been spreading for 2,000 years? Did Warren say that, or is that the reporter helping us readers along? Cite the source, Mr. Nussbaum.

PurposeOther than that small beef, I am having difficulty finding something to pick at in this story, except that it may have been too positive. The muscular Christianity theme worked well — for Warren — and there was little a negative word to say about the guy.

Warren “is able to cast the Christian story so people can hear it in fresh ways,” said Donald E. Miller, director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

“The Gen X-ers are sick and tired of flash and hype and marketing,” Miller said. “The soft sell of a Rick Warren is far more attractive to them than a highly stylized TV presentation of the Christian message.”

Among evangelicals, Warren is more influential than better-known and more divisive figures such as religious broadcasters Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell or radio psychologist James Dobson, and he is often seen as the heir to the Rev. Billy Graham as “America’s pastor.”

This could all easily backfire on Warren. He is human and he will make mistakes. And with the increasing public scrutiny, any mistake will be blown sky high. Just ask Peyton Manning.

Warren is riding high, but as I’m sure he is aware, many popular American preachers have been taken down tragically. And the media will not hold back in trashing him, even if all he does is trip up a bit. Perhaps Warren’s connection with a church structure will help keep him straight. He answers to other humans in a formal way, unlike most independent television evangelists.

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Altar of sport

footballSo Seahawks and Steelers, eh? Should be a good Superbowl, I think, after watching all of the Broncos-Steelers game and a bit of the lesser conference game. I am an expatriate of Broncos Nation, which means many of my Sundays after church have been spent in front of the television.

There were a few things this season that reminded me of the religious significance of football. One was that when 49ers linebacker Thomas Herrion died after a game, his casket was draped not with a baptismal pall but a 49ers blanket. The second was that when Hurricane Katrina hit, Mayor Nagin directed stranded people to find sanctuary in the Superdome.

But every football game (and the sport in general) has religious significance, as Denver Post religion reporter Eric Gorski deftly points out in his fun and yet smart and respectful piece in Sunday’s paper, “O Come, All Ye Faithful“:

If the Broncos are a religion, these are the High Holidays.

The cathedral is a glimmering oval of steel along the interstate. . . .

Services start at 1 p.m. sharp today. In the end, someone will probably kneel down.

Scholars and clergy will tell you there are legitimate parallels between sport and religion. Both are steeped in ritual, help forge identity and unite people from different walks of life in a common cause. . . .

These same scholars and clergy will tell you there are risks to blurring football and faith: of potential idolatry, or misplaced prayers and priorities.

It’s a great piece that covers a broad range of religions and treats them all respectfully — even a priest who wore orange vestments the first time the Broncos made it to the Superbowl.

The conceit behind the piece could have resulted in knee-jerk collection of quotes from various clergy, but the author really educates the reader about various religious views. Too bad my Broncos didn’t do as well as Gorski.

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An issue of integrity

reporterFrom my previous post “Race and the Catholic Church” commenter Andy Chamberlain raised an issue that I want to put to rest on this blog. I know tmatt has dealt with this issue throughout his long career as a religion reporter, and it is important because it is critical for those in religion to GetJournalism, just as it is important for those in media to GetReligion.

Here is what Chamberlain, who is a pastor in the United Kingdom, had to say in his first comment:

Maybe I’m being a cynic here, but media people are not there to be fair. The Post, like any other media outlet, doesn’t want to present the truth, it wants to sell a story; the two are different. Like most other media outlets the Post will skew a story to emphasize some things and ignore others, and to give it as much shock factor as possible. The fact that people are hurt, or the issues are misrepresented is not something that many parts of the media care about.

My perception (and this is a data set of one, and there is nothing implied personally at anyone in the media) is that journalists will deliberately misrepresent the truth to sell their output, and for me that amounts to lying. I am guessing that many other people will feel the same way. In fact, my ‘default setting’ for media stories about religion is that the journalist is lying, and will have no qualms about damaging the people, misrepresenting the facts, and using the dreaded “quote marks” to rubbish someone or something, if it suits them.

NotebookPenI obviously cannot speak for all journalists, especially journalists outside of the modern journalistic tradition established in the United States, but I do know from growing up in a journalism-oriented family, four years of studying journalism in college and nearly two years as a professional that the primary goal of a journalist is to be fair and accurate.

Skewing, misrepresenting and lying are forbidden in the minds of most American journalists. Non-journalists must remember that we are human and we do make mistakes and misinterpret things, but very rarely is that ever intentional (think Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass).

There is another view of journalism that people on both sides of the religious divide take part in, and that is the practice of “directed reporting” or journalism for a cause. It was practiced a great deal in the United States until the 1920s and is still practiced in Europe on a large scale. This type of journalism can involve leaving out key facts, or embellishing others to make a point. We here at GetReligion do not believe there is a place for that type of journalism in the United States and would hope that most Americans would agree.

The argument that journalists are out there deliberately distorting the truth or omitting facts from the story to “heighten the shock value and sell copy” fails because integrity and the reader’s trust are the only asset a news organization has. Without trust established by an honest effort for truth and fairness, a mainstream media organization will sink, fast.

A personal example involves an article about my home church here in Washington, Grace D.C., published by one of the local newspapers. The reporter, who knows the religion beat as well as anyone, described the congregation as “yuppie” and that was not appreciated by the pastor or many of the members. But the fact remains, and most attending the church would admit this, that the church does come off as “yuppie.” So is this a case of a reporter deliberately misinterpreting the facts on the ground, or more of a case a new church in a large city sensitive to media coverage that it never asked for?

It is true that the public’s trust in the media is down.That has more to do with ethical scandals at leading news organizations and the stupid mistakes reporters like myself unfortunately make from time to time, such as misspelling a name or getting a fact wrong, rather than intentional wrongdoing. And there’s always disappointment when the media says the “king has no clothes on.” People may not like it, but it’s often the truth, as it was in my church’s case.

The media can be a pastor’s greatest asset. While there should be more Christians in the American media, how much is that the fault of the media organizations more than the fault of Christian colleges and churches?

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Pray for Jill Carroll

214 jillcarrollWhat can anyone say right now?

Religion-beat writer Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times has openly said what many — even in MSM newsrooms — wish they could stand up and say right now. And what Falsani could not say herself, she has let an anonymous journalist at the Christian Science Monitor say for her.

This anonymous colleague of Jill Carroll has not, Falsani said, written precisely what she would have written.

But that is almost beside the point, as the clock ticks down.

… (The) heart of what the writer is saying is what I’d want to say were I in his or her shoes.

Do not lose hope. Do not despair. Believe that change can happen. Pray.

For Jill. For her family. For her colleagues. For her captors. For mercy.

For all of us.

Read it all. Then pray for a fellow journalist.

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Those media-bias ships sail on

Porthole panel21In reaction to my latest post about media bias, Dallas Morning News editorial writer Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher posted a short item on that newspaper’s editorial page blog in which he asked his colleagues for their reaction to it. The key question: Am I on to something when I insist that the key media-bias issue today is that the vast majority of mainstream journalists are sailing left on moral and cultural issues, as opposed to issues of economics, foreign policy, health care and other similar “political” issues?

Dreher thinks I’m correct about this. Thus, he wrote:

This is a big reason why so much of the public is alienated from the mass media. When people ask me what the orientation of the DMN editorial board is, I usually tell them “business Republican,” which is not the same thing as conservative. That is, we tend to be conservative on economics and foreign affairs, but liberal on social issues. Some call this “progressive conservatism,” which to me sounds like an oxymoron, but it basically means that as an editorial board (as distinct from individuals) we’re pretty libertarian. Do any of you disagree? …

I was just thinking about this, and I think I’m the only member of the editorial board who is a social conservative. Mike probably comes closest to me, but he’s more of a libertarian conservative than a social conservative. Most everybody else is a social moderate or liberal, right? Help me out here.

So far, the only editorial board member to respond is Michael Landauer, who confessed:

I’d say that’s a fair assessment. I personally, away from politics, am pretty socially conservative, I think. But when it comes to government on social issues, I probably am more libertarian or, some would say, even liberal.

The important point that Dreher makes is that the most explosive issues in media-bias research are not linked to fights between Democrats and Republicans. It may appear that way, but if you dig deeper you find lots of mainstream journalists are Republicans, but they are “business Republicans” who are pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights and take similar stances on other issues that, in this day and age, dominate the headlines about religion, politics and religion in politics. You can find evidence of this gap in a wide variety of studies, not all of them by researchers on the right.

A 2004 study over at the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism led to an infamous column by Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post in which he directly addressed this “religious” side of the media-bias wars. Here is a piece of what I wrote about that at the time:

“The survey confirmed that national journalists are to the left of the public on social issues,” wrote Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. “Nine in 10 say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral (40 percent of the public thinks this way). As might have been inferred from the upbeat coverage of gay marriage in Massachusetts, 88 percent of national journalists say society should accept homosexuality; only about half the public agrees.”

There’s more. Only 31 percent of national journalists still have confidence in the public’s election choices, as compared with 52 percent under Clinton. For Kurtz, the implication was clear that “many media people feel superior to their customers.”

Bingo. This is why GetReligion keeps returning to this topic over and over.

The main purpose of this blog is to lobby for improved coverage of serious religion news in serious American newspapers. Yes, that is not a left vs. right matter. However, it is clear that this social issues gap is an important one, especially in an era dominated by religion headlines about abortion, homosexuality, religion in public schools, euthanasia and a whole host of other hot-button topics. This gap is important in an era in which newspaper sales are on the decline. You see, your friends here at GetReligion (confession is good for the soul) are in favor of the survival of mainstream, balanced, “American model of the press,” mass-appeal newspapers.

So is Peter Brown of the Orlando Sentinel. He once provided another crucial piece of this puzzle, noting that it appears that many or most mainstream journalists simply lead radically different lives than the people that they cover. They live in different places, read different magazines, live in different kinds of homes, enjoy different movies and, yes, spend their Sunday mornings in radically different places. In fact, Brown said that the biggest gaps between journalists and readers were linked to patterns in family life, religion and the split between cities and suburbs.

In the end, the biggest clashes were linked to religious and cultural issues.

So, how many true cultural conservatives are out there in the marketplace? How many no longer read a mainstream paper? How many are poised to cancel that subscription? How many continue to hang on, avoiding certain sections of the paper because they feel like their most cherished beliefs and values are under attack in stories that they believe are biased or unbalanced or both? Is the number 10 percent? Closer to 50 percent? As Brown once told me:

Any business that doesn’t understand or respect the lives of somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of its potential customers isn’t a business that is very serious about growing or even surviving.

How many editors and publishers are thinking about this? I mean, other than those who have bravely spoken up.

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