Religion on TV News:

Secular Orthodoxy Still Reigns

Morning News Programs

textbox0328_1For this study, the network morning shows are on a slightly uneven playing field. NBC’s Today is the air-time champion, airing seven days a week, three hours on weekdays, and generally two hours on Saturday and one hour on Sunday. CBS airs The Early Show for two hours from Monday to Saturday, and also airs the 90-minute show Sunday Morning. ABC’s Good Morning America aired only from Monday to Friday in the study period, until they unveiled weekend editions on September 4.

The morning show total of 320 was divided into 216 reporter-based stories or interviews to 104 short anchor briefs. Perhaps due to its time advantage, NBC led with 82 full stories and 38 briefs (120 in total), compared to CBS with 64 and 38 (102), and ABC in third with 70 and 28 (98). NBC’s total was up from 2003-04, while CBS and ABC both declined. In last year’s study, CBS was first with 118 reports (76 stories/interviews, 42 anchor briefs). ABC was strongest on weekdays with 109 segments (76 and 33). Despite its extra air time, NBC was third last year with 104 (62 and 42).

Without the numbers-boosting month of February, all three networks would have been in a more noticeable decline, with NBC posting 85 total stories, CBS with 84, and ABC with 80. As in the case of the evening shows, the larger number should be put in context — the networks are each still averaging little more than two morning segments a week in seven days of programs.

The Catholic Church led the morning coverage with 122 stories (72 reporter-based stories/interviews and 50 anchor briefs), down from last year’s total of 145 stories (78 reporter-based stories or interview segments, and 67 anchor briefs). The Catholic sexual abuse story drew almost the same amount of morning coverage in last year’s study, with 14 out of 72 full stories, or a little more than a sixth of the coverage. Abuse angles carried only 13 of the 78 morning show full reports on Catholics last year.

The second largest group of stories are those dealing with generic Christianity, including controversies over a tacky Nativity scene at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London, and new trends like Nelson Publishing’s “Bible-zines” that present the Bible in glossy, illustrated magazine packaging. Church-state questions, including controversies over teaching “intelligent design” theories in addition to evolution in schools, came in third with 19 full stories and eight anchor briefs.

An Atheist Moment

Atheists were represented in an NBC interview with comedian George Carlin, who was promoting his book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? Lauer joked: “Let’s say right off the bat, anything offensive here is not my idea, it’s all your idea, okay?” Carlin said of the title: “I realized about a week later, and it might have been my brother who pointed it out, that it offends all three major religions, plus the vegetarians. So there’s a bonus in there.”

When Lauer said it was safe to say “you don’t hold organized religion in the highest regard,” Carlin added, “No, I think religion has been one of the biggest, unfortunate things done to mankind in the history of this....It’s produced more death and wars than any other political purpose, land grabbing or anything. It’s always been about my God and your God and the fight of religion against other religions, or religion against no religion. The thing I don’t like about it in particular is it has given people largely a sense of powerlessness, and guilt, and shame, and fear. These things are brought about by religion.”