For my column this week, I turned my posts about two recent scandals involving Orthodox Jews into a rumination about Orthodox-bashing and double standards. It includes this aside on religion and the press:
Despite the best efforts of the New Atheists, the most potent charge you can level at believers is not that they are irrational or intolerant, but that they are hypocritical. Conservatives get it wrong when they call the “liberal” media anti-religious for the salacious way they cover religious scandals. In fact, religion usually becomes a front page, top-of-the-hour story when the reporter can explore the gap between the ideal and the real. “Troubling news tonight, Jim,” says the reporter, standing in front of St. Whatever. “A priest who pledged to uphold the word of God is instead in custody for….”
In other words, the media is never so happy than when they can play the role of defender of the faith. But a good friend in Israel, a TV reporter, disagrees:
you have this all wrong, as surveys of journalists have shown over and over. the general liberal media IS anti-religion. in your example, they are not defending the faith, they are portraying the supposed irony, which is superb for tv.
I disagree, and if anything, I find mainstream media extremely solicitous to religion. I’ll explain why. There are a limited number of religion stories in the media:
1/ religious denomination struggles with some issue (homosexuality, ordaining women, retaining an old custom);
2/ religious group prepares for holidays;
3/ secular group challenges religious group on church-state;
4/ religious practice leads to law enforcement issue, and
5/ religious leader gets caught with his pants down (often literally).
Of these, only the last two can be construed as “anti-” religious, but on closer inspection that’s hardly the case. Stories number 4 and 5 always contain a disclaimer by a denominational “moderate” who explains that the crazies or crooks do not speak for the entire faith. The stories also presume that whatever bad things happen, the religion as a whole cannot be blamed. (Take a look, for example, at the treatment of radical Islam. There is almost always the “While the majority of Muslims do not believe in terrorism ….” trope).
The assumption of all these stories is that religion is either neutral or a force for good. If the media were truly anti-religious, you would see more sentences or sentiments like this: “As might be expected in a faith that draws its values from a book written by desert tribes in the pre-modern era, and has been engaged in a series of violent conflicts ever since, members of the religion carried out a horrific act of violence in defense of their deity.”
Instead, the normative narrative is, “Ignoring the messages of peace and love in their holy book, extremists today took part in an act of violence that was denounced by a few other members of the same faith.”