Religion on TV News:

Secular Orthodoxy Still Reigns

Magazine/Interview Programs

To round out this portrait of network news coverage of religion, MRC analysts also reviewed prime-time magazine programs (ABC’s Primetime Live and 20/20, CBS’s 60 Minutes, 60 Minutes Wednesday, and 48 Hours, and NBC’s Dateline), ABC’s Nightline in late night, and the Sunday interview shows (ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS’s Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press). Since the segments are much longer than the average evening news story and there are almost no anchor briefs, the magazine shows offer the most in-depth coverage of religion news and issues.

textbox0328_2Nightline, Primetime, and Dateline devoted entire programs to religious topics. In those cases, segments were determined by commercial breaks. Hour-long shows counted as five segments, half-hour Nightline programs as three segments. ABC led with 57 segments, far ahead of NBC with 20, and CBS with 12. Last year, ABC also led with 43 segments, compared to 31 for NBC and just eight on CBS. Among individual programs, Nightline aired 24, Dateline had 19, and all by himself, Peter Jennings did 15 segments in his three-hour special Jesus and Paul: The Word and The Witness. Several of the segments in the count were repeats: thanks to a rebroadcast of 2003's DaVinci Code special, Primetime had 13 segments.

All three Sunday-morning shows aired religion segments in the study period, compared to only ABC last year. CBS’s Face the Nation reported on the Pope and interviewed Zbigniew Brzezinski about his personal meetings and conversations with the Pope on February 27. On November 28, both ABC and NBC featured balanced panels of conservative and liberal religious leaders to discuss the trends set in religion and politics by the election returns.

While ABC had a balanced and sober panel — evangelical Gary Bauer and Catholic George Weigel on the right, and former Democratic congressman and minister Floyd Flake and Tony Campolo on the left — NBC aimed more for fireworks by including controversial figures and tested TV battlers Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton (as well as Richard Land on the right and Jim Wallis on the left). 

Not only did NBC start with a Crossfire-style formula, but Russert threw his typically tough paragraph-length chunks of quotations at Falwell and Land, using dated comments that were widely attacked, such as Falwell’s declaration two days after 9/11 that gays and lesbians and feminists brought an attack from the Almighty. But Russert asked about nothing controversial from his liberal guests. He quoted Wallis’s newspaper ads back to him. He replayed no controversial quotes from the Sharpton playbook, not even his remarks at the 2003 NARAL dinner, proclaiming that the “Christian Right” ought to meet the “right Christians” who favor abortion.

In past MRC studies, magazine and interview programs had the most variation in their focus on denominations. For example, while the top three topics in last year’s study were 16 segments on the Catholic church, 15 on The Passion of the Christ, and 14 on evangelical or Protestant churches, this year, only five magazine or interview segments focused on Catholics. The largest category was generic Christianity with a total of 36 segments, beginning with the 15 parts in ABC’s three-hour special on the apostle Paul.

Magazine shows did focus on sexual abuse in faiths other than Catholicism during the study period. ABC’s PrimeTime and Dateline NBC each focused on sexual abuse in Amish communities. On CBS’s 60 Minutes, Christiane Amanpour reported on sexual abuse in a Muslim community on the outskirts of Paris. In all these cases, reporters highlighted how young women could be raped, even by family members, and then be shunned if they tried to hold anyone accountable for it.