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The Trashing Of The Christ

Contrasts In Media Treatment of The DaVinci Code and The Passion

5. While Mel Gibson was attacked and psychoanalyzed for his religious beliefs, DaVinci Code author Dan Brown and filmmakers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer were never personally examined or challenged: about their personal religious beliefs, or their willingness to milk controversy, play fast and loose with facts, and offend Christians with the objective of making millions.

Whenever the networks decided to address fact and fiction in The DaVinci Code, they almost always found it was stuffed with falsehoods. But they never focused on the idea that Brown, Grazer, or Howard should be criticized for being too casual with the truth.

It cannot be said that the network news divisions failed to correct errors and falsehoods in The DaVinci Code – there were plenty of examples of that, even if they largely ignored the ultimate divinity question. But those reporters never seemed to hold the peddlers of false "fact" accountable.

To examine how author Dan Brown was interviewed, you have to rewind back to 2003, outside our study period, and well before the movie began filming. When Brown granted an interview to NBC on June 9, 2003 – well before he vanished from network interviews – he claimed his book divulged a "great historical secret," spurring Matt Lauer to inquire: "How much of this is based on reality in terms of things that actually occurred?" Brown boasted: "Absolutely all of it. Obviously there are – Robert Langdon is fictional, but all of the art, architecture, secret rituals, and secret societies, all of that is historical fact."

The closest Lauer claim to religious objections was this: "Christianity. That can be a mine field for an author. And people take that very seriously. Were you worried about that at all?" Brown said merely he was "very curious," and then added, "I’m happy to say there was just an instant tidal wave of good will and enthusiasm toward the book. There were a handful of people for whom it was a little bit shocking, but the vast majority loved it." (Compare that to Lauer’s pounding on Gibson’s alleged anti-Semitism, referenced earlier in the report in section 2.)

The same song and dance came in an interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson on November 3, 2003, the morning of the big one-hour Primetime special promoting the "legend" in the book. When asked by Gibson "how much of it’s true, how much of it’s not," Brown dodged: "the people who ask me how much is true need to realize this theory about Mary Magdalene has been around for centuries. It’s not my theory."

Gibson asked: "If you were writing it as a nonfiction book, how would it have been different?" Brown replied: "I don’t think it would have." Brown showed his dogmatic fervor for the anti-Christian view: "I began the research for The DaVinci Code as a skeptic. I entirely expected, as I researched this book, to disprove this theory. And after numerous trips to Europe, about two years of research, I really became a believer." (Italics mine.)

Now compare that with how ABC’s Diane Sawyer hounded Mel Gibson about matters of fact a couple of months later on Primetime: "What about the historians who say that the Gospels were written long after Jesus died, and are not merely fact, but political points of views and metaphors? Historians, you know, have argued that in fact it was not written at the time [of Christ]. These [gospel writers] were not eyewitnesses." Gibson protested that there certainly were eyewitnesses, and Sawyer insisted: "But historians have said they don’t think so."

Sawyer pounded Gibson about his addictions, and how they led him to return to his Catholic beginnings. But Sawyer went further than that: on Good Morning America, she interviewed TV pop-psychologist Drew Pinsky about Gibson’s mental problems, with this line of questioning: "We know that spirituality is fundamental to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous]. Is there any rehab program that really says, hey, do it on your own, you don't need that?" And so on: "And you've said that the relationship between the movie, which concentrates on the suffering, the Passion, the suffering of Jesus, and what [Gibson] went through during this darkest time." And so on: "He's talked about intensity of his struggle being reflected in the violence in the movie."

Imagine if Mel Gibson had granted interviews to all three networks instead of just going on ABC, and he received three times the withering interview questions. It’s quite different from how NBC approached their soft, exclusive interviews with DaVinci Code filmmakers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, as each arrived to feed NBC’s hunger with "exclusive clips" of the forthcoming movie.

On February 8, Couric matched Howard’s nice-guy demeanor with kind questioning. She began by asking if he was nervous about the release, and then asked: "I know it was very important to you to stay true to the book. Why was that so important? Because so many people read it and loved it?" Howard called the book "a great springboard" for a movie.

2006-02-08-NBC-Tday-OpieThen Couric took up religion, softly: "Some have called it an attack on Christianity itself. A Vatican official called for a boycott of it. In taking on the project, were you concerned about that?" Howard quickly insisted, "it’s fiction. Dan Brown acknowledges that, I certainly do as the film’s director," and insisted the movie "can stimulate thought, discussion, and, in a constructive way." Then Couric just asked about movie-making and how "we’re very excited to see the clip" and concluded, "I think the rest of the world, I think, probably, will be seeing the movie."

Couric used several elements of a Newsweek cover story in her interview, but ignored Howard’s explicit endorsement of the book’s explosive anti-Christian contents, promising there would be "no placating. It would be ludicrous to take on this subject and try to take the edges off. We’re doing this movie because we like the book."

Then on March 20, Katie Couric interviewed Howard’s producing partner Brian Grazer. His interview was almost all on controversy, but notice the soft tone of all the questions but maybe one. They underline the notion that serious religious concepts are too taxing for Couric’s intellect.

– First, after listing some of the protests, she asked "So has all this publicity been a blessing, to probably use an inappropriate religious word, or has it been a curse?" Grazer claimed it was positive for both the movie and the book.

– Noting "some people are offended" by the book, Couric asked, "What do you say to them when they say ‘I just don’t think this book is fair to Christianity. I think it’s misleading to people.’ What would your response be? Do you have a standard reply?" Grazer said, "It’s informed fiction." (He said that twice.) "The symbols, they lead to certain clues, that, in some cases, can be proved to be fact. But it’s a thriller."

2006-03-20-NBC-Tday-Grazer– On Opus Dei, Couric merely wondered, "have you considered their complaints or viewpoints?" Grazer claimed improbably that "I think they’ll be happy with the movie, ultimately," and said all of their films have had critics, including Apollo 13 and the rap movie 8 Mile. Grazer didn’t really see any big difference between his secular films and his film suggesting Christianity’s God is a phony.

– Couric protested, "I don’t think you can really compare this to...even Apollo 13, come on." Grazer went back to the line, "We don’t feel it’s factual, it’s not historic, but it’s informed fiction."

– By this point, the Christian critics of the filmmakers would have been exasperated by Couric asking: "Are the criticisms annoying, or actually on some level, interesting and engaging for you and Ron?" Grazer said they were "annoying and engaging," and would lead to some changes, to which Couric interjected, "But you don’t want to be accused of succumbing to pressure, either."

Gibson’s film was accused of "marketing Jesus" by unconventionally building an audience through churches and preview screenings, promoting the film to pastors as part of their evangelism. Sony Pictures was not accused of "marketing Jesus," since it was a conventional studio mega-movie, and was marketed aggressively by the networks, as well as the rest of the major media. The networks did attempt to soften public anger toward the filmmakers with stories on how Christians would "make lemonade" out of the movie. In this case, the stories roughly match: Christian groups used both movies as teaching opportunities, despite the vast difference in the worldview of the films.

But Lauer did turn a skeptical eye on William Donohue, the head of the Catholic League, on the question of greed: "People are skeptical about you, Bill, because in part of the [New York Times] ad, you plug a book that the Catholic League has put out, The DaVinci Deception: One Hundreds Questions About the Facts and the Fiction of The DaVinci Code. Selling it for seven bucks. You’ve admitted you’re going to make about four bucks per book. So is this just a way to make money for the Catholic League, by creating this controversy?" That was especially shameless, since Couric did not play the greed card with either Howard or Grazer, despite the fact that Grazer told Couric he enjoyed the "combustible component" of the book, which means controversy sells tickets.