What should I be doing instead of this?
Home · Articles · Columns · On Second Thought · Mitt, Newt and Covering Religion in Politics

Mitt, Newt and Covering Religion in Politics

By Ben L. Kaufman · January 11th, 2012 · On Second Thought
Religion continues to bedevil politics reporting. News media prefer the simplicity of characterizing elections as horse races until there is a winner. Religion beyond clichés complicates politics. If voters are to appreciate the implications of campaign thrust and parry, it’s time to yoke religious and political reporters for the duration.

This disconnect was bizarrely evident even in the poll by the international Religion Newswriters Association, a group to which I have belonged for decades and once headed.

With the exception of Rick Perry in RNA’s top five offerings for person of the year in 2011 religion news, political figures didn’t figure. So I wrote in my first two choices: Mitt and Newt.

No. 1. Mitt, like dad George, reminds us that many Americans accept a Mormon as a candidate for a major party’s presidential nomination. That another millionaire GOP presidential aspirant, Jon Huntsman, is a Mormon goes almost unremarked.

After all, who remembers the Utah/Mormon war? Who obsesses about polygamy unless it’s a weird splinter group, a Broadway play or TV sitcom? Who cares now that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn’t ordain blacks to the priesthood until 1978?

Mormons have woven themselves into the American fabric through enterprise, public service and models of traditional family life. They’re the largest worldwide religion founded in this nation. Mexican-born (!) George Romney was the first Mormon candidate with a shot at the GOP nomination. Half a century later, his son, Mitt, is a Republican frontrunner. I’m waiting to see if Mitt’s status forces American news media to learn about a major religious group for the third time in the past half-century.

Many journalists had to face their own ignorance and fear of reactionary Roman Catholicism when JFK ran in 1960. Remember, that was before Pope John XXIII began opening that church to winds of change. JFK didn’t convince many Protestant pastors to whom he spoke about church-state separation.

Rick Santorum, however, an unapologetic traditional Catholic, draws much of his support from white, conservative Protestant heirs of JFK’s Dallas audience. This enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend is typical of our culture wars. Santorum is white, conservative, anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage and those voters are white, conservative, anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage.

When Democrat Jimmy Carter won the nomination in 1976, he dragged Manhattan-based newspaper and TV reporters into an alien world that they knew only through stereotypes: white Protestant evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity. Lured by the Southern Baptist peanut farmer and Sunday School teacher seeking the presidency, these Midwestern and Southern voters re-embraced political activism not seen since the humiliations of the Scopes “monkey” trial in 1925. They abandoned their long-held “in the world but not of the world” credo and are inescapable in national politics and coverage.

This year, the news media are struggling to go beyond saying Mitt has a “Mormon issue” or reducing his religion to young Mormon missionaries at the door.

Mitt’s campaign — and the reactions to it — offers our news media a chance to address our religions. Luckily for Mitt, his JFK moment came early: A Texas evangelical mega-church pastor assured the faithful that Mitt is no Christian and Mormons are a cult. Such antipathy apart, political reporters continue to ignore or downplay the millions of Americans who say that only someone affirming their brand of Christianity is fit to govern. 

No. 2. Newt polls well among voters who distrust once-married Mitt and proclaim “family values” as a litmus test for GOP presidential candidates.

Political writers recount the many un-Republican things Newt said and did in Congress, but he has a gay sister, he’s thrice married with two divorces and he’s a serial adulterer.

Newt’s been a Lutheran and a Southern Baptist. Now, he’s a Roman Catholic. If his brides were baptized and his first two marriages weren’t annulled, his current marriage could be a problem for the Catholic Church. His model of fidelity, though, may be perfect for the GOP’s evangelical Protestant base with its contraception, abortions, divorces and gay family members. Newt’s exposure of their hypocrisy makes him my second candidate for newsperson of the year in religion.

I wasn’t alone in my 2011 religion newsmaker picks. RNA found no clear choice and named no religion newsperson of the year after an online poll of more than 300 journalists. Top vote getters were Harold Camping (the “world is going to end” pseudo-prophet) and Pope Benedict XVI, who were separated by one vote, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, less than one vote back.

Curmudgeon notes:

• Sunday’s Enquirer page 1 affirms the triumph of Republican conservative compassion. Hungry Ohioans are finding ways to eat without dependency on government money.  Major delays may leave people hungry, but they’re not starving.

Applications for food stamps are weeks or months behind in Hamilton County. Coincidental with a doubling of food stamp applications, GOP state and county budget cuts halved the number of people handling applications, according to Brian Gregg, spokesman for the welfare department and a former Enquirer reporter. 

• I hope you read Cady Short-Thompson’s analyses of New Hampshire campaign speeches by GOP presidential aspirants in The Enquirer.

If you didn’t, go back and read them. Short-Thompson is dean of UC’s Blue Ash campus but in this role, she returns to her academic specialty of political speech. It’s not policy that intrigues her; rather, it’s Speech 101:  Introductions, body language, speech content and delivery, and interaction with audiences. I’m only sorry that Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann dropped out before Short-Thompson got to them.

• OK. The Enquirer is undergoing yet another redesign.  The most obvious is the type in its news stories. Big deal. The emphasis on large photos is not new. They’ve been compensating for lack of staff-generated content. At least the designers haven’t returned to the short-lived practice of rounding the corners of photos to look more like TV screens. Maybe that’s because today’s competition — computers — has sharp screen corners.

• A friend’s offhand remark about the depleted daily Enquirer got me thinking: Is the Monday paper so thin that it lacks weight to reach the lawn? That was my friend’s assertion. So I began to watch. This isn’t a delivery failing; The Times has heft. On some Mondays, however, The Enquirer lies on the sidewalk or maybe on the first step.

• U.S. District Judge Richard L. Young said a former columnist’s age discrimination suit against The Indianapolis Star and owner Gannett can go to trial. Susan J. Guyett said she was 59 when she was fired and replaced by a much younger employee. The judge called editor Dennis Ryerson’s explanations contradictory and said there is enough evidence to go to trial, according the Poynter Online’s Julie Moos. Guyett was fired during one of Gannett’s profit-buoying purges.  Gannett dailies include The Enquirer and USA Today. In Cincinnati, at least two journalists, Joe Fenton and Cathy Reutter, are suing Gannett saying their age was a factor when The Enquirer fired them during recent staff reductions.

NPR’s David Folkenflik did a fine job of demolishing the obsessions of some experienced politics reporters for whom no trivia is too trivial. As he put it, most readers/listeners/viewers are visitors to this Obsession Land where reporters are permanent residents and we have broader needs for information. He’s right, of course, but I’d go a step further: Reporters have to report something to justify the expense of keeping them on the road and/or to prove their expertise. It’s up to editors to take a deep breath and say, “If you have nothing to report, take a break or dig deeper until you find it. Then tell us.”

• Not to belabor political reporters, but reporters often develop obsessions with insider information. We become captives of our subjects.  I’ve been there. Which bishops voted which way on a proposed policy at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops? How much concrete and rip-rap is too much for a healthy Mill Creek? Why does UC want to replace independent local businesses on the south side of campus with instantly recognizable national chains? Do court documents with tax protester defendants’ names in ALL-CAPITAL LETTERS really identify a different person than the defendant who writes his name only with the first Letters Capitalized? Other than a few bishops, environmentalists, UC officials or defendants, who cares (other than reporters)?

• For years, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has run a TV sitcom, Little Mosque on the Prairie, about modern Muslims in a small, imaginary Saskatchewan city.  I’ve never seen it but during fishing trips in Ontario, we listen to CBC news, cultural discussions and call-in shows.  I cannot remember any self-proclaimed Christian attacks on the series because of its benign characterization of Muslims in western Canada. Little Mosque on the Prairie does not rely on commercial sponsors. But the U.S. home supplies chain, Lowe’s, groveled before the small Christian Florida Family Association and withdrew its sponsorship of TLC’s new reality TV show, All-American Muslim. Too positive, critics said.

• Another reason to avoid Wikipedia. A major British lobbying/PR firm is cleansing clients’ Wikipedia entries. London’s Independent said Bell Pottinger admitted that its digital team used a number of accounts to edit Wikipedia articles, although it stressed it had never done anything “illegal.” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told The Independent: "I am astonished at the ethical blindness of Bell Pottinger's reaction. That their strongest true response is they didn't break the law tells a lot about their view of the world, I'm afraid.  The company committed the cardinal sin of a PR and lobbying company of having their own bad behaviour bring bad headlines to their clients, [and] did so in a fashion that brought no corresponding benefits.” The Independent said it and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism saw evidence that “shows the company made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about its clients in the last year. Some of the changes added favourable comments while others removed negative content. Several Wikipedia accounts have been suspended pending an investigation by Mr. Wales.”

Two uniquely English adjectives describe Scotland Yard’s handling of investigations into phone hacking by the now-defunct News of the World (NOTW).  The Yard, also known as The Met or Metropolitan Police, is gormless and cackhanded. The closest Americanism to gormless is clueless. For cackhanded, inept will do.

• Gormless and cackhanded fit the Met’s recent announcement that News of the World journalists might not have deleted messages from a missing teenager’s cell phone and hampered the investigation as police originally suggested. Rather, it appears the telephone system deletes old messages automatically.  That doesn’t affect the fact that NOTW journalists and hired detectives hacked the youngster’s phone before her dead body was found. But “the Met” is backing off some claims that hacking impeded its search for the youngster. Meanwhile, another high-level NOTW aide was arrested in connection with the hacking.

• Relatives of some 9/11 victims are waiting for our Justice Department to tell them if their phones were hacked, according to The New York Times. Prompted by News of the World hacking in Britain, they asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. if their names or numbers were among those found by Scotland Yard. No word yet, The Times said.

Rupert Murdoch owned NOTW before closing it as the British scandal warmed up.  Some of the hacking went back a decade or more. Coincidentally, his American company owns his British papers. He owned Fox News and The New York Post where his hybrid Australian/British brand of aggressive tabloid journalism flourishes. Murdoch’s legal problems could worsen if British evidence points to American hacking or complicity in British hacking.  There, it involved payments to Met officers and former Met officers for information and that might be construed as a violation of anti-bribery laws governing American firms.

• I’m waiting for some brave national reporter to challenge GOP presidential aspirants’ attacks on the federal judiciary for what they say is elitism, activism, liberalism, etc. A good start would be to demand explanations of what those clichés or words mean. Then they could ask how this squares with the fact that many, if not most, active and senior federal district (trial) judges and circuit court (appellate) judges were named by Republicans.

• Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard argues that Obama is the victor in the GOP televised debates among presidential aspirants. Instead of attacking Obama and the Democrats, the Republicans are picking on each other.

Barnes also makes less partisan but equally important paired points: Being the best or worst debater has nothing to do with being president and the debates are no place to explain substantive policies and goals. And he’s right when he complains that it’s too easy for reporters to focus on tit-for-tat debates instead of slogging through the candidates’ platforms, plans, records, etc.

• A Merry Christmas ad urging a visit next year to the Islamic nation (and early cradle of Christianity) Turkey. Sponsored by Turkish Airlines, the ad was on the back page of the A section of the Dec. 24 New York Times. That’s expensive real estate. It showed a Turkish statue of St. Nicholas, who lived and was buried in what became modern Turkey, and recounted the legend of his secret gift giving.

• Spitting into the wind department: Christianity Today, the best Protestant news magazine in this country, explores “how to be political without losing your soul.” 

• Fox just can’t get it right. Its Latin America network polled viewers about who is responsible for the death of Christ.  Online choices were Pontius Pilate, the Jewish People, or High Priests.  The poll was on a Facebook page promoting the National Geographic Channel’s Christmas special. Given that Latin America is a predominantly Roman Catholic region, the option “Jewish People” contradicted repeated modern Vatican rejection of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ execution.

• Bill Sloat's Daily Bellwether blogs points out a hole in The Enquirer's Monday page 1 story about fracking/earthquakes around Youngstown: Fracking upstream also may be compromising water which Cincinnatians drink. The problem is bromides, a carcinogen, leaking into the Ohio River. The Cincinnati-based Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) has this pollutant on its agenda for the regular February meeting. Among the many traditional beats The Enquirer has discarded amid cutbacks is the environment. ORSANCO hasn’t issued any press releases about the bromides, but an environment reporter would have spotted news from communities, monitors and media upstream.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



comments powered by Disqus