For a quick lesson in the upside-down morality of the national media, consider the January cases of John Ashcroft and Jesse Jackson, two political leaders identified with their religious faith. But Ashcroft's faith has been presented repeatedly as an obstacle to high office, while Jackson's low sexual behavior has been reported with deep sympathy and pleas for him to remain in "public ministry."
Ashcroft's faith is being projected as a scary one, a demonstrative Pentecostal religion that requires rules that enlightened media liberals can't fathom. "Ashcroft is the son of a fundamentalist minister who doesn't drink or dance," reported NBC's Lisa Myers. Accurate? Sure. But where is the newsworthiness, other than to define Ashcroft's faith as controversial or outside the mainstream?
One wonders how Ashcroft would have been presented were he Jewish. Would Myers find it newsworthy that he eschewed eating ham and abided by strict rules observing the Sabbath? Most would ignore that. A few might report it - correctly - as a sign of his devotion.
The problem with Ashcroft was not his faith. It was his Christian faith, and his devotion to it.
Tony Mauro, a longtime Supreme Court reporter for USA Today, wrote an op-ed for that newspaper actually insisting that Ashcroft's Christianity should be disqualifying. Ashcroft has proclaimed that America has "no king but Jesus," and Mauro warned that vision "counts out millions of Americans of other faiths or no faith....If Ashcroft's view leads him to think that ours is a Christian nation, or that only Christians have the right answers to the nation's problems, then indeed his vision is too narrow to take the job of Attorney General." A master of sophistry, Mauro asked the Senate to prod into Ashcroft's religious beliefs before allowing his appointment. If Ashcroft were Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist, Mauro would look like a bigot for making that suggestion. That's what he is.
Then the National Enquirer revealed that Jesse Jackson has a 20-month-old daughter with Karin Stanford, the former head of the Rainbow Coalition's Washington Office. Once Jackson had a DNA test done on the girl, the New York Post noted he quickly had a financial arrangement and a confidentiality agreement drawn up. The Rainbow Coalition suddenly found at least $35,000 in "moving expenses" to send Stanford to Los Angeles, where she now lives in a $365,000 home once owned by TV star D.L. Hughley. Almost no one in the press found this problematic, a disqualifier from the highest mountains of liberal leadership. Reporters couldn't find time or space for condemning his behavior or questioning his behind-the-scenes financial scheming. The only question worth asking was: "When will the liberals get back their hero?"
When The Washington Post put the story on the front page, reporters Peter Slevin and William Claiborne weren't interested in hypocrisy or hush money, but only in reassuring liberals. Jackson's admission "adds a new chapter of controversy to the history that has made Jackson a polarizing figure in American politics, and array of politicians and commentators said yesterday. But they said the news is unlikely to do long-term damage to his influence as one of the Democratic Party's leading figures." Saving Jesse's stature, not exposing his scheming ways, was the most newsworthy story at the Post.
The sympathy dripped from the airwaves at the networks Thursday morning, with reports stuffed with snippets from Jackson's prepared statement. NBC's Ann Curry somberly relayed that "the Reverend Jesse Jackson is taking some time off from his public ministry after admitting this morning that he fathered a child outside of marriage." After reporter Anne Thompson read from Jackson's statement, Curry sympathetically concluded: "A tough time for his family." Perhaps it was too early for NBC to know that the family had known about this little secret for two years. At ABC, Diane Sawyer advised the audience: "This is, of course, a political story, but also a family story, and everybody has to be very concerned for the Jackson family."
But where was "everybody" and where was all that "concern" when the hypocrites were conservative Christians? In 1987 and 1988, when televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker were revealed as adulterers, there were no media sympathizers. These men became part of a repetitive tape loop about the falsity and hypocrisy of the religious right. In 1989, Sawyer insisted: "You have to wonder whether this season of revealed hypocrisy is taking any toll or not on the [TV evangelism] business...will the buyers beware?"
The buyers of Jesse Jackson's empire were not asked to beware Jackson, but rather beware how Jackson's enemies would seek to profit from "tragedy." As we learned from Monicagate, the national media have no problem with infidelity, dishonesty, or moral or financial corruption. The only disqualifying sin in politics is conservatism. And conservative Christianity is strictly verboten.