Religious Right Gets More Than Its 15 Minutes

WASHINGTON - Conservative religious figures are mentioned in the major U.S. news media as many as 2.8 times as often as progressive religious figures, says a new study released Tuesday in Washington.

The report, "Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media", analysed the number of times conservative and progressive religious leaders were quoted, mentioned and interviewed in newspaper and television media outlets.

Conservative religious leaders were found to be interviewed, on average, 2.8 times more often than progressives, 3.8 times more often on the television news networks, and 2.7 times as often in the major newspapers.

"The overwhelming presence in the news media of conservative religious voices leads to the false implication that to be religious is to be conservative, and worse, that to be progressive is to lack faith or even to be against faith," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism. "People of faith have long been, and will continue to be, active leaders on progressive causes for justice. Our faith compels it."

The report, released by Media Matters for America, a press watchdog group, challenges the presentation of religion in the major media as a politically divisive force.

The major media presents the U.S. religious spectrum as divided between cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs and secular liberals who simply don't participate in the debate, says the report.

It is important to note that the main study purposefully did not take into account religious leaders whose celebrity and influence make them political figures and newsmakers in their own right. These leaders include James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton.

The study was carried out in response to the media's coverage of the 2004 election in which "values voters" -- ostensibly those who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage -- were said to have largely impacted the outcome of the presidential election process.

It covers the period following election day, Nov. 2, 2004, through the end of 2006.

Media Matters argues that this assessment is inaccurate and the media's portrayal of "values voters" is misleading in that it suggests that centrist or progressive voters do not care about values in the national political arena.

Recent polls have confirmed that the prevalent moral issues are those which are of greatest concern to moderate and progressive voters.

A 2006 Zogby International exit poll found that the moral issue most cited by voters was the war in Iraq. More than twice as many voters said greed and materialism or poverty and economic justice were the "most urgent moral crisis in American culture" compared to the number who cited abortion and same-sex marriage.

Ninety-percent of U.S. citizens identified themselves as religious, according to a report by the Centre for American Values in Public Life, but only 32 percent identified themselves as conservative.

The disparity between the media's portrayal of right-wing, religious citizens and the reality of moderate and progressive religious citizens, pointed out by a number of religious leaders present at the release of the Media Matters report, is due to both the media's biases and the way the moderate and progressive religious communities present themselves to the media.

The religious right is known for short answers that fit in a sound bite, while "...most of (the moderate or progressive religious community's) answers are 10, 15, or 20-minute sermons," said Reverend Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ at the release of the report. "Christianity may be monotheistic but it is not monolithic."

The religious progressives' and moderates' tendency to see the gray areas of a problem and the nuances of ethical and moral questions is one of the movement's greatest strengths as well as one of the reasons it does not receive as much media play, said several of the religious leaders at the report's release.

"This report clearly indicates what we've always suspected -- that the media prefers to see the world through a simple lens, a casualty of which is that the right and the conservative voice can often take control of the conversation," said Rev. Dr. Jim Forbes, host of the Air America programme "The Time Is Now". "So what do we do now? Those of us who call ourselves progressives need to speak out and be heard."

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

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