The news media - and the networks in particular - have a problem. The candidate they strongly backed in 2008 is facing a difficult re-election campaign in 2012. With a tough economy, high unemployment and skyrocketing debt, the election is shaping up as a referendum on President Barack Obama's policies.
Without much to work with, journalists have changed the subject to targeting his potential opponents - by using, the GOP candidates' religion against them.
Despite the fact that 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians and 93 percent profess a belief in God, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, ABC, CBS and NBC deem the Republican candidates' religion as very newsworthy. That's a complete turnaround from their 2008 treatment of the Democratic primary candidates.
From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2011, network stories mentioned the GOP primary candidates' faith more than seven times as often (143 stories to 19 stories) than they had for Democratic hopefuls between those dates in 2007 - leading up to the 2008 election cycle.
The networks rarely praised the Republicans for their faith. They were 13 times more likely to be critical of it than they were of Democrats' religion just four years earlier. These critical instances involved asking Michele Bachmann, "[D]id God tell you he wanted you to run for the Minnesota State Senate or something like that?" as CBS's Bob Scheiffer did. In another instance, ABC turned to liberal, secular People for the American Way for comment on Rick Perry's "controversial" prayer meeting; other networks exploited controversial remarks about Mormonism and parsed Bachmann's biblical "submissiveness" to her husband.
On the other hand, in 2007, there were just six instances where stories challenged or negatively highlighted the liberal candidates' faiths. An uncritical media ignored legitimate questions about Obama's upbringing and 20-year attendance of a radical Chicago church. Audiences were assured that Hillary Clinton's faith had seen her through her husband's infidelities, but specifics were lacking. And "Catholic" primary candidates Joe Biden and Chris Dodd were never asked about their distinctly un-Catholic support for abortion.
The MRC's Culture and Media Institute studied ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news and nightly news programs to compare how the networks treated the religious beliefs of this year's field of conservative GOP primary candidates to liberal Democrat candidates' faith during the same time period in 2007.
The double standard CMI found in coverage of conservative versus liberal candidates' faith is the consequence of an effort to portray President Obama's potential opponents as religious zealots and outside the mainstream.
Obama vs. "Apocalyptic" Zealots
Given the state of the economy and the government's massive fiscal problems, the media - not least the networks - have decided that the best way they can help President Obama is to insinuate that his would-be successors are religious zealots.
Conservatives have noticed. National Review columnist Mark Steyn told radio host Hugh Hewett that the religious focus is an attempt to embarrass the candidates. "Nobody is really interested in any serious, meaningful theological discussion. The point is to raise the subject to tell secular independents or post-Christian members of the Congregational Church and the Episcopalian Church that these people are slightly freaky-deaky, way out of your comfort zone on this subject. And so it's about hanging a label around them."
For proof, look no further than Bill Keller of The New York Times, who dripped condescension when he compared religious belief to belief in space aliens and worried "if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed." Here's a typical sentence from his Aug. 25, 2011, Times Magazine piece:
''Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity - and Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism - which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.''
Keller and others fear Bachmann and Perry are in the thrall of "Dominionists," who believe all earthly institutions should be run by Christians. Also in the Times, Washington State Univ. History Professor Matthew Avory Sutton claimed "apocalyptic beliefs guide the religious right."
So the networks were concerned that Michele Bachmann may believe God told her to run for the Minnesota legislature and were concerned that Rick Perry would publicly lead "a giant prayer for this nation."
That's why in covering Rick Perry's prayer rally network reporters sought comment from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the secular, left-wing People for the American Way.
In 2011, the networks' reporting contained a steady drumbeat references to GOP candidates' religious beliefs, and more than half of those were critical or challenging. But, the networks also share the broader liberal agenda of portraying religious conservative candidates as "outside your comfort zone."
With Conservatives in the Race, Networks Get Religion
What a difference four years and a political party make. ABC, CBS and NBC coverage of the Democratic primaries from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2007, shows that network audiences would be hard pressed to name the religious denominations of Obama, Clinton, John Edwards, Biden and the rest of the pack of Democratic challengers. Combined, ABC, CBS and NBC mentioned religion in conjunction with the liberal candidates just 19 times.
Oddly, the networks' silence on religion came despite a minor narrative that campaign season about the "God Gap." That gap described the traditional affinity of "religious" voters for the Republican Party over the Democrats. In June 2007, NBC reporter Ron Allen noted that in 2004, "Among voters who attended church weekly, President Bush beat John Kerry [58 percent to 41 percent]. The margin grew [to 64 percent to 35 percent] among voters who went to church more often."
Twice during the primaries, Democrats were asked as a group about faith. During an Iowa debate, they heard a voter's question (submitted via YouTube) about whether through "the power of prayer disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened?" Also, at a June 2007 event, the liberal candidates answered questions about their faith to an evangelical audience in Hampton, Va., spurring several hopeful stories by the networks that in 2008 Democrats might close the gap by appealing to evangelical Christians. Whether or not that was the case, the networks asked no more questions about Democrats' religious views.
2007 also brought the first major candidate with some connection to Islam, a man who had lived in an Islamic country as a child. Obama was also the first serious presidential contender with links to radical "black liberation theology," so network reporters had openings to engage 2008's liberal candidates about religion, but chose not to.
Four years later, those same networks got religion. Between January and October, they mentioned the faith of the Republican candidates more than seven times more frequently (143) than for the Democrats during the previous election.
Their audiences, however, have not shared in the revival.
As of Sept. 15, 2011, 39 percent of voters told Gallup that unemployment was "the most important problem facing the country today." For 28 percent, it was the "economy in general." In fact, just one issue associated with religion and a related social issue was included Gallup's findings: 3 percent put "ethical/moral decline" at the top of the nation's issues.
Cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage that often divide the religious from the secular public are of secondary importance to voters in this election. But the networks continued to focus on religion in order to attack conservatives.
From noting Gov. Mitt Romney's Mormonism 36 times without prompting by news or events, to creating a controversy over Bachmann's understanding of "wifely submission," the networks refused to let their audience forget that the conservative candidates were devoutly religious. When he entered in June, Jon Huntsman turned the race into "a field that now has two Mormons." When Perry entered the race in August, ABC's David Kerley was careful to introduce him as having "conservative Christian" views.
Confront, Criticize, Question Conservative Faith
According to National Review's Steyn, conservative candidates come in for so much more criticism over faith because the media fear conservatives actually believe what they profess.
He reminded Hewett that, when asked for his definition of sin, Obama said it was "being out of alignment with my values." Steyn said, "In other words, Barack Obama worships at the first church of himself. And that's a stupid answer, but nobody even worries about that because nobody is trying to hang around his neck a label saying 'this guy is outside your comfort zone' on these matters."
Indeed, in 2011, the networks challenged or criticized the GOP candidates' faith nearly 13 times more often than they did with the Democrats in 2007 (77 stories to 6 stories). The networks just weren't interested in asking those questions of Democrats.
Take for example, a lengthy 2007 CBS interview on "The Early Show" with author Carl Bernstein on his biography of Hillary Clinton, "A Woman in Charge." Anchor Harry Smith allowed Bernstein to assert that "Faith has always been a huge part of her life," without asking about church attendance or professed religion. Instead, Bernstein went on in fawning praise of Clinton's dynamic life.
"She is a whole person, a fascinating person who's never really been seen in the whole until I was able to do this book," Bernstein said. "And once you see the picture of this epic life, this great American life, you say 'Oh this is the best-known world-woman in the world and I knew nothing really about who she was … and you find out about her religion.'"
Bachmann should have been so lucky in 2011. Her faith was scrutinized, challenged and criticized nearly two-thirds of the time (15 stories of 23 stories) it was mentioned on the networks.
Led by ABC, the networks buzzed about "secret video tape" made inside the clinic her husband runs. "Operating out of suburban Minneapolis, Dr. Bachmann runs a Christian counseling firm, co-owned with his wife Michele, ABC's Brian Ross told "Nightline" viewers on July 11, "that at times, according to former patients, has tried to convert gay men into heterosexuals through Christian prayer."
In other words, men with what the clinic terms "unwanted homosexual feelings" are counseled to pray for their cessation. It's derisively termed "praying away the gay" by liberals. The networks breathlessly reported it.
NBC's national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff on "Today" in July was typical: "In a recent fundraising letter, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann touted her role, helping to run a family counseling center. But a secret video tape, which raises questions about how the center treats patients who might be gay, is creating new controversy for Bachmann."
Like Bachmann, Perry has been public with his evangelical faith, and paid the price for it when he threw his hat into the 2012 primary ring in August. The networks were critical of his religious views 63 percent of the time.
Shortly before announcing for president, Perry held a rally in Houston called "The Response." It was "a giant prayer for this country," in the words of ABC anchor David Muir. Network reporters questioned the timing of a large event appealing to evangelicals so close to entering the race. And with story titles like "Prayer & Politics; Perry's Campaign Kickoff?" and "Is Perry Going Too Far?; Governor Leads Prayer Rally," they also were quick to note, as ABC correspondent Aaron Katersky did, "Perry's open mix of faith and politics risks alienating even some Christian voters."
Katersky interviewed Rev. Barry Lynn of the left-wing Americans United for Separation of Church and State to underscore the idea of a threat. "My simple message to him is don't mess with the Constitution," Lynn said.
The networks tried to make Perry look out of step with mainstream social and religious attitudes. "The sponsor of Perry's rally," Katersky said, "the American Family Association, opposes homosexuality, women's rights and religious diversity." For emphasis, Katersky turned to Molly Ball of the liberal news outlet Politico, who asserted "Rick Perry's gonna have to answer some questions about the people that he's on stage with at this event."
Without including any defense of Perry or the American Family Association, Katersky closed the report saying, "Perry claims his tent is open to all. But it's Perry's affiliation with today's event that could hurt his broader appeal."
In a subsequent ABC report aired on "Good Morning America" Aug. 6, correspondent David Kerley claimed, "Even some mainstream Christians are concerned about the event." Yet the next clip was Kerley interviewing Drew Courtney of the secular liberal group, People for the American Way, before turning to Politico's Molly Ball. Again, Perry's side was unheard.
The same day, CBS did let a spokesman for "The Response" defend the event and Perry. CBS "Early Show" host Nancy Cordes called the event's speakers "kind of a motley crew," and noted that "one of the people who is sharing the stage with him today has called Oprah Winfrey 'a pastor of the harlot of Babylon.'" Cordes' guest, Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater, explained that Perry was "sending a dog whistle saying, 'I`m one of you to these Christian conservatives,' who will be crucial [to his campaign]."
Networks Create more than 100 'Mormon Moments'
The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints is the fourth largest religious denomination in America, and it's growing. Mormons have been successful in business, entertainment and national politics for decades, and are largely political conservatives.
Yet network reporters clearly think having two Mormon candidates (Romney and Huntsman) of the nine in the race is very newsworthy. Before an Oct. 8 public comment by a Perry supporter actually made Romney's faith legitimate news, they mentioned the candidates' Mormonism 61 times. Thirteen of those times, journalists wondered if conservative Christians would vote for a Mormon. Separately, Romney's Mormonism was brought up 36 times, even though he was well-known as a Mormon from his failed 2008 run for the GOP nomination. The faith of Huntsman, who was usually introduced as one of the two "relatively moderate Mormon former governors" (Nancy Cordes, CBS), "The other Mormon candidate in the race," (Jan Crawford, CBS), or Romney's "fellow Mormon millionaire" (George Stephanopoulos, ABC), was talked about 21 times.
The Romney and Huntsman candidacies and the success of an (insulting) Broadway musical called "The Book of Mormon," and TV shows like TLC's "Sister Wives," led Newsweek to dub this "The Mormon Moment," and the networks picked up on the name.
At CBS, Priya David Clemens said, "According to a recent poll, just 45 percent of the nation's voters have a positive view of Mormons. Only atheists and Muslims rate lower."
To his credit, ABC's Jonathan Karl called TV shows focusing on polygamist situations, "a twisted and distorted view of the religion. Polygamy was banned in the late 19th century and is practiced today by only a handful of extremists with no official ties to The Church of Latter-day Saints."
But Karl's balance wasn't typical. Indeed, the networks were eager to sensationalize and stir up controversy when it came to Mormonism.
When Robert Jeffress, a Dallas Baptist pastor, introduced Perry at the Values Voters' Summit in Washington, D.C. Oct 8, he said, "Mitt Romney is a good, moral person, but he's not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity."
The networks pounced on Jeffress' comment, running 40 stories mentioning it between from Oct. 9 through Oct. 31. It fed a storyline that they'd been stoking for months: Although Romney was considered a front-runner, evangelical Christians wouldn't vote for someone who belonged to what some Christians called the "cult" of Mormonism.
The worry that Mormons couldn't be elected was the other half of the obsession with Romney and Huntsman's religion.
On May 31, ABC's Jamie Gangel said, "Romney has to answer critics who say he isn't a true conservative, that he won't energize the party base, including Christian evangelicals concerned because he is a Mormon."
Three weeks later, on June 21, CBS's Joel Brown cited a Gallup poll in which "one in five Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon for president." NBC's Ann Curry mentioned the same poll the next day in an interview with Huntsman. A few days later on ABC, Karl referenced a Pew poll that put the figure at one in four.
But Brown didn't mention that Gallup's June 2011 poll found 80 percent of Republicans willing to vote for a Mormon candidate, while only 71 percent of Democrats would. It also said that 77 percent of voters of all Christian denominations would pull the lever for a Mormon. The May 30, 2011, Pew poll Karl cited said 64 percent of white evangelicals viewed a candidate's Mormonism as inconsequential or even as a positive.
In short, liberal Democrats have a bigger problem voting for a Mormon candidate than do Christian conservatives. It's an attitude that was summed up by Jacob Weisberg on left-leaning Slate.com in 2006, as he was contemplating Romney's first campaign for president. "If he gets anywhere in the primaries, Romney's religion will become an issue with moderate and secular voters- and rightly so," wrote Weisberg. He "wouldn't vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism," which he called "a transparent and recent fraud."
But in more than 100 mentions of Romney's and Huntsman's religion in the first ten months of 2011, no network story dealt with liberal dislike for Mormonism.
Kid Gloves for 2008 Dems on Abortion
"I'm very proud to be Catholic. It's part of my spirituality, part of my identity. When John Kennedy ran for president, I remember being so proud that he was Catholic," -Then Sen. Joe Biden in The News Journal of Delaware in 2005.
Joe Biden likes to talk of his working-class Irish Catholic upbringing in Scranton, Pa. Two other 2007 Democratic presidential candidates were also Catholic, including Sen. Chris Dodd, and former New Mexico Gov. and Rep. Bill Richardson. Despite Catholic doctrine's clear opposition to abortion, Biden and Dodd were reliable pro-abortion votes in the U.S. Senate, as was Richardson as a congressman.
If Bachmann's understanding of her faith is a matter of interest to voters, if it matters that Perry led "one giant prayer for this country," surely it's worth noting that three Democratic presidential candidates actively flout their church's teaching on one of the most divisive moral issues of our times. Not to the networks.
Biden's Right to Life voting score in the senate was zero. Of Dodd, National Right to Life political director Karen Cross said in 2008 that, "His [pro-abortion] position is so extreme that he voted every chance he got - 11 times - to keep the barbaric partial-birth abortion procedure legal."
Richardson had only an 8 percent pro-life voting record, according to National Right to Life. In 2007 he bragged that "I believe my platform is the strongest pro-women's [ie. pro-abortion] platform," and explained his Supreme Court nominating philosophy if elected president: "I would say, 'Do you believe that Roe v. Wade is settled law?' If they say yes, they have a good chance of being picked. If they say no, I will not pick them."
None of this was worthy of mention during election coverage in 2007. The networks never brought up Biden's religion, nor Richardson's. Dodd's got a single mention.
Ignoring Obama's Church Trouble
The most glaring example of the networks giving a liberal candidate a pass on religion was Obama. His faith was mentioned 11 times between Jan.1 and Oct. 31, 2007, but never challenged or criticized. When the Clinton campaign leaked a rumor that Obama had studied in a madrassa as a boy in Indonesia, ABC's Jake Tapper visited the Muslim country and disproved the claim in the only network story done about it.
But as network neglect was most blatant when it came to Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright, pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ was Obama's minister for two decades, marrying him and Michelle and later baptizing their two daughters.
Less than a month after Obama first announced for the Democratic nomination, March 1, 2007, Wright appeared on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" to explain Obama comments about Trinity's "black value system," which turned into a contentious back-and-forth over radical "black liberation theology."
It then came out that Obama had disinvited Wright from giving the invocation at Obama's official campaign kick-off on Feb. 10, and ABC's Tapper mentioned the controversy in passing on the Feb. 11, 2007, "World News Sunday." "[Wright's] foreign-policy views are just one target for Obama's critics, who have questions for the senator about any number of issues, including whether his church here on Chicago's South Side, which expresses a message of black power, is too militant for mainstream America to accept."
But for almost a year after that report, Wright disappeared from the networks, if not from other media. (In Jan. 2008, The Washington Post's Richard Cohen brought attention to an article in Trinity's magazine that praised anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. Although Obama had nothing to do with the article, and he publicly repudiated it, the networks didn't notice.)
It wasn't until the primaries were all but over in Feb. 2008, that the networks began to cover Wright again; ABC played the first controversial sound bites of his sermons in mid-March. These sermons, available on DVD from Trinity, featured such infamous statements as "white America. U.S. of K.K.K.A.!" "Not God Bless America, God damn America," and Wright claiming Sept. 11 showed that "America's chickens are coming home to roost!"
Obama had a 20-year personal and spiritual relationship with an anti-American racist who regularly preached hate in his presence. Wright was obviously a loose cannon whose caustic brand of militant, black liberation Christianity was every bit as controversial as anything the American Family Association espouses and Perry may or may not agree with. Yet the Wright story was met with network silence for a full year, until Obama had sewn up the Democratic nomination.
In a Sept. 21, 2011, Washington Post "On Faith" blog post, The Daily Beast's Lisa Miller attacked the public prayers of some conservative politicians, saying they "seem less like expressions of personal faith than plain old politics." Besides, "Prayer talk further divides a divided nation, creating an 'us and them' mentality, which - if successful - drives 'us' to the polls to vote against 'them.'"
To Miller and the Post, it was clear that religious conservatives were "them," and the networks agreed.
It's also clear that painting conservatives as "out of your comfort zone," is a conscious decision by the Obama campaign. In August 2011, expecting Mitt Romney to be the Republican nominee, operatives around the Obama campaign and the White House started using the word "weird" to describe Romney. Democrats, including a "senior Obama adviser" confirmed to Politico Aug. 9 that they were laying the groundwork for the general election by characterizing Romney as weird.
The Democrats pointed to Romney's "innate phoniness" and "personal awkwardness," but even the left-wing Politico speculated that his Mormonism was in the "weirdness" mix.
"None of the Obama advisers interviewed made any suggestion that Romney's personal qualities would be connected to his minority Mormon faith," the article read, "but the step from casting Romney as a bit off to raising questions about religion may not be a large step for some of the incumbent's supporters."
Nor for the networks; there is no other reason for them to mention Romney's Mormonism more than 100 times in just 10 months. There is no other reason to discuss the religion of the GOP candidates nearly seven times more than they did for Democrats during 2008 primary campaign.
Polling shows that independents who voted for Obama in 2008 are unimpressed with his first term, and could stray to the GOP in 2012. To the media, what better way to corral them than making sure they understand that Obama's opponent subscribes to odd or strident religious views that may influence his or her governing style? The media are betting that most centrists will be reluctant to support a candidate who is, in Steyn's words, "slightly freaky-deaky."
The result is an ugly exhibition of blatant journalistic bias and the secular elite's disdain for people of faith.
CMI analyzed transcripts of the ABC, CBS and NBC evening and morning news broadcasts, along with their news magazine shows, from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2011, not including Sunday "roundtable" opinion shows.
Staff searched for the candidates' names in combination with such words as "faith," "belief," "religion" and "church," as well as words specific to the candidates' denominations.
CMI then performed the same analysis of network transcripts covering Democratic primary contenders from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2007 - the same period in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Tell the Story That's There: The 2011 elections are likely to be decided on economic issues - unemployment, inflation, regulation, public debt and the housing market. They impact and interest religious voters every bit as much as secular ones. Reporters should refrain from injecting religion where it doesn't belong.
Don't be Foreign Correspondents: According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, more than 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians of one denomination or another and 93 percent say they believe in God. But too often network reporters covering religious conservatives sound as though they're reporting back from an encounter with remote, primitive tribes. In vast swaths of the United States, people attend church regularly, pray publicly and don't find expressions of faith uncomfortable or alarming. Those people are news consumers too.
Democrats' Faith Matters Too: A candidate's religious convictions - or lack of them - are worth questioning and reporting, as long as it's done even-handedly. Obama listened to radical, racist sermons at Rev. Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ for more than two decades. Joe Biden's support for abortion rights is fundamentally at odds with his professed Catholicism. These examples are at least as compelling as an evangelical pastor's opinions on Mormonism or with whom Gov. Rick Perry prays.