For an aging agnostic, the title of the lecture was irresistible: “Prodigal Press: Confronting the Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media.”
After all, I have worked with and around professional journalists for most of my adult life. Moreover, for the first third of my life I attended church three times a week. I taught Sunday school. I preached on alternate Sundays for a couple of years.
You would think that if anti-Christian bias prevailed in the press, I would have noticed. But I haven’t. Journalists I have known have ranged from open atheists to dedicated Christians and just about every imaginable gradation in between.
At worst, Christianity gets better press coverage in America than other major religions. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and even Rastafarians could all reasonably claim they are treated worse in the press than mainstream Christians.
The most compelling case of anti-religious bias I have seen in the press remains the time I went on a preseason Southwest Conference football tour, back when there was still a Southwest Conference.
Lots of players in those innocent days attributed their athletic prowess to the Almighty, but few of those quotes ever made it into sports reporters’ stories. An athlete could have attributed his success to his high school coach, his demanding father, his rigorous workout routine or alien intervention from the planet Xantu and it would have made the papers. But not God.
So I went with considerable curiosity to Friday night’s lecture at the Holiday Inn Grand Montana, sponsored by the Big Sky Worldview Forum. The speaker was Warren Cole Smith, vice president of World magazine and co-author of a book of the same title as the lecture.
What was he able to explain that I had been missing? Not much. Of course, he said that journalists deny they are anti-Christian, so my cluelessness perhaps demonstrates his point.
But examples of actual bias were sparse in his lecture. He showed a few pictures of Newsweek and Time magazine covers that made Barack Obama look good and Mitt Romney look bad, but those could just as easily have been characterized as anti-Mormon rather than anti-Christians in general.
A few inflammatory quotes were screened from Ed Schultz, Thomas Friedman and Joseph Nocera. But Schultz is a talking head who has never pretended to be an objective journalist. Friedman and Nocera have reporting backgrounds but are primarily columnists now. In the quotes cited, both were criticizing the Tea Party, not Christianity.
Instead of examples, Mr. Smith focused on a handful of studies that have found bias in the media: an influential but somewhat outdated study by S. Robert Lichter and others, an interesting but limited 2002 study by Jim Kuypers of Virginia Tech, a study by the American Enterprise Institute (which has biases of its own) and a study by George Mason University.
Trouble is, all of the studies were about liberal bias in the news media, not about anti-Christian bias. In fact, Mr. Oates seemed to use “conservative” and “Christian” interchangeably throughout the talk.
I asked him about that afterward, and he acknowledged that they aren’t the same thing. But he still defended his use of the terms, arguing that if one accepts the Judeo-Christian basis of American culture, then any departure from that basis abandons both Christianity and conservatism. In his view, liberal and anti-Christian bias go hand in hand, if not in lockstep.
Well. I do not dispute that journalists in general are a bit more liberal than the average American. But popular imagination exaggerates both the extent and importance of that bias.
If journalists are skeptical about religion, it may just be because reporters who spend their working week vetting sources and digging up facts have trouble on Sunday fixing their eyes on things that are eternal and unseen. As the old journalists’ saw has it, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Mr. Oates himself noted, “Journalism is a craft, a vocation, that tends to attract the contrarian.” Journalists may want to battle for truth, he said, but without scripture they lack a basis for understanding truth.
For the 75 or so people who attended Friday night’s forum, all of whom seemed to accept the notion of anti-Christian bias in the news media as a given, the real challenge may be to understand that biases about Christianity are not exclusive to journalists.
For instance, before Mr. Oates spoke, Lisa Russell of the Montana Family Foundation made a pitch for her organization’s campaign against a proposed Billings ordinance that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Missoula has passed a similar ordinance, and Butte passed one just last week.
Among other things, the foundation argues that the ordinance would “pave the way for lawsuits against businesses, churches and Christian schools who, because of their faith, refuse to hire homosexual or transgender individuals.”
Whatever penalties homosexuals may face in the afterlife, if Jesus ever said that they have no right to earn a living while here on this planet, then I missed it. Does the foundation have sincere religious objections to hiring homosexuals, or is it just using the Bible as an excuse to enforce its own biases?
When it comes to religion, journalists aren’t the only ones who may have motes in their eyes.