by David Kopel
Aug. 2, 2003, Rocky Mountain News
A continuing theme of letters I receive is media bias about religion. One type of letter accuses the media of anti-religious bias, especially anti-Catholic bias. A second type of letter accuses the media of pro-religious bias, especially pro-Catholic bias. The answer, I'd suggest, is neither: Media treatment of religion tends to be hostile when religions defy politically correct dogma, and supportive when religion supports PC dogma.
For example, the sexual conservatism of the Catholic church and of some Protestant denominations is anathema to PC values. While the scandal of Catholic bishops protecting pederast priests is very newsworthy, some news articles work extra hard to point a finger of sexual guilt at certain sects.
Early last month, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California could not retroactively eliminate the statute of limitations on sex crimes. The ruling benefited about 800 accused criminals. Of those 800, only a tiny fraction were religious leaders, but in the Associated Press article that appeared in the Rocky Mountain News(July 4), two of the seven defendants identified were priests, and a third was a Baptist minister.
On the other hand, the Newshas been loaded with stories about Juan Diego, the Mexican Indian who was reported to have seen a series of miraculous visions of the Virgin Mary near Mexico City during the winter solstice in 1531. The number of words the Newshas dedicated to Juan Diego during the last year has come close to the volume he's gotten in the Denver Catholic Register. Last summer at a ceremony in Mexico, the pope canonized Juan Diego as a saint, to which the Newsdevoted 15 stories.
Crypto-Catholicism on the part of the News? No, just good business sense. General circulation newspapers are working very hard to expand their readership beyond their most reliable core (middle-age white males), so Juan Diego offered the Newsan opportunity to showcase itself to the many Coloradans of Mexican descent.
More recently, both Denver dailies have been laden with stories about three women who vandalized a missile silo. Since the vandals were nuns who were espousing a far-left cause, media coverage of their alleged sanctity was fawning.
A long front-page story in The Sunday Denver Post(July 20) announced in two headlines that "God's work" was facing "Man's judgment." But it was mere speculation that vandalizing defense facilities actually is "God's work." Catholic doctrine has accepted the concept of "just war" for many centuries, and statements from the Vatican and from the American bishops have both acknowledged the legitimacy of the possession (but not use) of nuclear weapons.
Even if mainstream Catholic doctrine agreed with the vandals that the United States is comparable to Nazi Germany, a secular newspaper has no business declaring that somebody's criminal acts constitute "God's work."
Of course the vandals sincerely believe that they are doing God's work and the text of the story accurately described that belief - without taking a position on whether the crimes actually were divinely ordained.
The Newsannounced in its early July 26 edition that the nuns had been sentenced "for protesting for peace." As a letter writer (July 29) pointed out [and the Newsclarified in later editions of the July 26 paper], the sentencing was for breaking into a defense facility and damaging property. It's perfectly possible to carry out protests near defense facilities without perpetrating crimes, as the July 26 demonstrations at Colorado missile bases proved.
Three articles in the Newsthis spring described the vandals' group, Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares II, as "a national movement." But running the group's name through Google revealed that the signers of the statement for this "national movement" consist of the three vandals, plus one other person. Certainly the broader Plowshares movement, founded in 1980 by the radical ex-priest Philip Berrigan, is a national movement, but the Newswas too credulous in accepting the vandals' claim that their micro-cell was a "national movement."
Postlegal reporter Howard Pankratz's well-informed coverage of the legal issues in the case was far superior to the generally perfunctory analysis provided by the News.
Local columnists Mike Littwin, Diane Carman (three) and Jim Spencer weighed in on the nuns' tale, and as usual, their views were nearly indistinguishable.
As usual, Postcolumnist Spencer wrote the most mean-spirited column, using childish and implausible invective; he called U.S. Attorney John Suthers "brain dead," with "too little on his plate and not much more in his head." Suthers graduated magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame, and whatever his flaws, stupidity is certainly not one of them.
There have been 20 news stories about the vandals in the News so far in 2003. To the extent that the stories quoted attorneys, they presented a fair mix of statements from the defense lawyers and the prosecutors. Many of the stories also included comments from supporters of the vandals. Not one of these stories included a single word from any ordinary citizen who was critical of the vandals or their actions in any way.
In contrast, the Post's"God's work" article had a few sentences acknowledging that some people "scorn" the vandals' attitudes and methods, and quoted criticism from the national chair of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
Coverage of the religious issues was weak all around. Except for a Newsopinion column by Mike Rosen, which briefly cited traditional Catholic theologian Michael Novak, the vandals' eccentric theological claims were never challenged.