CAB MINUTES: December 2010
CAB meeting, 12/16/10
Held at Jerome L. Greene Space, New York, NY.
Joyce Lannert, CAB, committee chair
Sarah Barrington Gordon
Fr. Joe La Mar
The meeting, which was in the form of a panel discussion, ran from approximately 7:15PM-8:50PM. The topic was “Media Coverage of Religious Influence in Politics.” Minutes taken by Ilene Richman.
Approximately 1 dozen CAB members were in attendance, including:
Shavonne R. Johnson
Michelle K. Reed
A few members of the general public were also in attendance.
Basya Mandel began the meeting: Good evening. Welcome to this evening’s forum on media coverage on religious influence on politics. My name is Basya Mandel. I’m chair of NY Public Radio’s community advisory board. The CAB’s role is to advise the board of trustees with respect to whether the station is meeting the specialized needs of the community it serves.
To that end, we’d like to extend our gratitude to our esteemed panelists for participating in tonight’s forum and giving us the opportunity to discuss this topic in order to make better recommendations to the board of trustees. Also on behalf of the board, I’d like to thank the committee responsible for organizing this excellent panel. Joyce Lannert, Michael Bauman, Renee Cherow-O’Leary. Another member, Matt Bancroft, was unable to make it tonight, but he has been wonderful in editing and posting the video recordings of our meetings, and you can find them at our Facebook page. I urge all of you, if you haven’t already, to “like” us. (Laughter) I’d also like to thank David Tereschuk, who arranged for our video recorder, Michael Jones. Lastly, our board of trustees, David Caplan, Ellen Polaner, have been wonderfully helpful, and I’d like to offer them an additional thanks for helping us with some very last minute arrangements.
The agenda for this evening will include a question/comment period for the CAB members and the members of the public and I would ask that we hold our questions or comments for that time. I’d like to introduce the committee’s chair, Joyce Lannert, who will be moderating tonight. Joyce Lannert is the retired commissioner for planning of Westchester county. Prior to that experience, she worked abroad for 16 years due to her career with Unicef. While in the Middle East, she worked as a consultant on a USAID project, and after moving to Jordan, performed consultant work throughout the region for UN agencies. Without further ado, Joyce.
JL: Good evening. I’ll introduce the panel briefly, and then we have a series of questions that we had sent to them in advance, so we’ll start going through those, and then as Basya said, please hold the questions till the end so we can get through this. On my immediate left is Sarah Barrington Gordon, professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Gordon was most recently a commentator on the PBS series “God in America” with Leslie Stahl. We have Alice Fisher, who’s a legislative aide to state senator Liz Krueger. She’s also the director of community outreach for the senator, which often puts her at the crossroads of politics and religion. And Father Joe La Mar. He’s a Marinole priest who’s a member of the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility, ICCR, whose aim is to integrate social values into corporate actions. He came to the priesthood after retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force. And from time to time, he does play Santa. (Laughter) Jim Naureckas is the editor of “Extra.” It’s the bimonthly journal of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and he’s the co-author of Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Terror.
JL: Oh I’m sorry. I had to say it twice and I still got it wrong.
As Basya explained, the purpose of the panel tonight and the forum, and we’ll get right to it. We’re seeing a growing political influence in the political sphere, in ways that we thought were not possible under the Constitution, so I’m going to ask each of them for some examples under their own experience. Sarah, would you like to start?
SBG: Sure, although we got it as a question – are we seeing, not we are seeing.
JL: My bias is showing.
SBG: Well, one of the things I wanted to say was that, from my own work as a scholar of law and religion and history, it’s certainly fair to say that we’re seeing a changing religious influence in politics. The actors are different – the National Council of Churches is not so much anymore – and others taking different places as well. So one of the things to say is that we have different actors, and I don’t think that’s necessarily an increase, but it’s certainly a change. And the other thing we see is different strategies, so that instead of working behind the scenes, being more in front of the camera. I think that may not be unique to political influence. I think all kinds of religious groups are becoming far more public. I guess, from my own experience, the way I see increases for example is in targeted litigation. I’m thinking of a case, I don’t know if you’ve seen it in the news, just the past couple of days, brought by an astrophysicist against the University of Kentucky, which is just about to go to trial – Martin Gaskell against the University of Kentucky. And the question was, if he has intelligent designish sympathies, because he’s not really a creationist, but he has some sympathies, which are questions about biology, does that mean he’s ineligible for a job as director of an astronomical observatory. Apparently that’s what the Univ of Kentucky thought, and the Alliance for Law and Justice, which is a conservative organization, is funding the litigation. They’ve been looking for just – this is the right case. The Dover creationism case was the wrong case. This is a much more sympathetic case. And this is really targeted litigation. I see a lot of that. I see a lot of work on school textbooks, for example, and I also see a lot of work constructing alternative educational institutions, sometimes complete alternative educational systems. These are all things that we see happening a lot now, and in which the influence of religion on politics and political life is deeply effective, but it’s conducted through other institutions: law, education, and so on. Those are the ones I see.
JL: Thank you. Alice?
AF: Well, I would also say, American religion is constantly evolving, so it would make sense that the players would change as the focus of religion and what that means in America is constantly changing. The hard part for us as legislators, being in the legislature arena, is when we find that there are people in powerful places that are creationists. We were just talking at dinner and I said that it’s unbelievable to me that somebody can say, that somebody in position of leadership, can say, “We don’t have to worry about global warming because Noah promised God he would not destroy the earth again.” Those kinds of comments that come out from political leaders make us question who is really in charge and what is the agenda that we’re not seeing. I’ve also done a ton of interfaith work and work specifically with members of the Muslim community, and I have to say that the sound bites that are picked up and then made into stories are sometimes incredible, incredulous to me. So I have watched people’s reputations, people that I know, that are good people, be totally destroyed because of a media sound bite, and that is really disturbing. The people that I have in mind is the Islamic school in Brooklyn, that Debbie Almontaser, who was a good friend of all of ours, gave I would say 5 years of her life to nurture that idea, to work with the Gates Foundation, to make that dream come true. And then from one sound bite, she eventually was forced to resign. I’m not quite sure how we can protect that from happening. Is it really religious influence, or are people using religion as a way of defending their political – which comes first? The religious influence on politics, or the political influence on religion?
JLM: I’d pick up on that, what is influencing what, does the politics influence church, or church influence politics? Probably a little bit of both, and a lot of both in all situations. What we’re hearing from the tv programs and so forth that might be religious-based, seem to set up a fundamentalist approach into understanding God and God’s presence in our lives, or non-presence in our lives. My feeling would be, let’s get off of that kick, and let’s get on to the kick of media pushing more an understanding of the problems that we have with immigration, of understanding the problems we have with famine around the world, of understanding the problems of not understanding the various churches. I think we need a good dose of understanding Islam. Again, the sound bites are so horrific. I have a lot of retired military friends, and they think I’m still on the same side of the fence as them. I can’t believe how they can pick up an obvious sound bite out there, and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and pretty soon it’s a big story and I just wonder how long I can continue friendships with the people when I would disagree with them. So I think the media is just mutating to this, and that’s ok, it’s what it’s about, but it’s too narrow. The media has got to move on into what I would call investigative reporting. Let’s talk about these millions of people who don’t have anything to eat. Let’s talk about the immigrants who come here as we generated this place, this country, and see the benefits that come to us. One sound bite was, “Let’s get everybody who immigrated here out of here.” Well ok, let’s get down to the Native Americans, let’s try that. How far do you go? I think there’s a lot of issues that need to be presented that many churches work on, but they don’t get a hearing. The kind of hearing they get is pedophilia, the kind of hearing they get is same sex marriage and things of that sort. I don’t want to go where my own church is. I have difficulty with them and what they’re saying. We need to get into an educational mode in the media.
JL: Thank you. Jim?
JN: First of all, I would say that the separation of church and state is not the same thing as the exclusion of religion from politics. I think religion has always been a part of American politics and ought to be. It is largely the way that we speak about our values, and our deep assumptions about what kind of society we want to have. And I think that’s something that our media system doesn’t deal well with because the idea of objectivity is basically that we all share the same assumptions, and so we can all speak about the facts neutrally because we’re all coming from the same place. And we’re not coming from the same place. We have different values, we have different ideas about what our priorities should be. And I think part of the problem of media dealing with religion, reporting on religion, is that some of those values fit in more with the journalistic model than others. There are people who feel that fairness is a key value in how we discuss things, how we deal with things, and that fits in with the journalistic model in a way that the value of, say, loyalty, which to some people is a superior value to fairness. And the mosque issue in lower Manhattan is one where you had people coming from entirely different perspectives and talking past each other in a way that was really unhelpful. And I think that the media need to be better at talking about what our assumptions are, what our values are, and looking at religion is one way of doing that. I think there is an emphasis on one brand of religion, one style of religion. When religion comes up in the media, it generally is a conservative form of religion, a fundamentalist form of religion that sees gay issues and abortion and the social issues as more central to religion than the issues of who’s being fed and who’s getting health care. Those are not seen as typical religious issues, but they are. To many people’s religious sense, those are much more core to what it means to lead a good life than the definition, the attempts to conform sexuality to a certain model or whatever. Part of the reason that the media have this model of religion as conservative religion is that the conservative religions have much more a media voice themselves. They have a very extensive network of radio and also television to promote their kind of religion as religion and their values as values. In part, because the conservative brand of religion that sees Christianity as sort of endorsing a lifestyle of enriching yourself, it’s much more compatible with the fundraising model of religious broadcasting than a more progressive school of religion. You would be unlikely to see a progressive evangelist going on tv to tell people to send him money because that would make them successful in their lives but that is the fundraising model of right-wing religion. So they’ve been able to brand religion in a way that that secular media have picked up on and are now transmitting.
JL: One of the things we do assume in this country is that separation of church and state is necessary, we talk about as a basic value in our society. I’d like to hear from the panel whether this is considered absolutely necessary for the functioning of a democracy as diverse as ours considering that some European countries have state churches, England, the Scandinavian countries, I think maybe Germany still has an official state religion. So to what extent are we getting exercised over something that may not be an issue? Let’s switch up the order. You’re writing in your notes, I can see. Joe, why don’t we start with you?
JLM: As you were talking about other countries, I’m just thinking about Germany, where after WWII and after the Marshall Plan, they wanted to repay, or do a kind of a Marshall Plan, and their own outreach. They taxed the churches to gather this money, then they gave it to the Catholic bishops to dispense, a program called A Beniot and the other one is Miserio. It was tied with Advent, Christmas-time, and Miserio tied with Lent, Lenten-time. This was an ok thing in the country. The Protestants were saying, we’re not organized to do this, and went to the Catholic bishops and said OK. Now here’s religious organizations getting a rather large sum of money to basically go into Latin America, they were sort of aiming at that. I myself went on about $300,000 from Germany for the constructing of chapels where I work in Guatemala. And it worked, it worked well. Everybody seemed to be happy about it. It was being generated out of a sense of “We were helped, let us help now.” Can you imagine what that would be like in the United States, to ask for funds to do that? I’m not suggesting that we do, but just the attitudes of how you handle that. I’m on the board of IIIG, it’s called the International Interfaith Investment Group. It was called together by Prince Phillip in England to bring these 10 major groups – Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Sikhs, Christians, Jewish, and so forth, to bring them together to help gather the momentum of the wealth that the churches have basically in the world. They talk something like 6 to 8 trillion dollars of wealth. To use that in various ways to help the sustainability of the world. The church of Norway, the church of Sweden got together and they have a program in Mozambique for reforestation. I’ve been asking for a big effort on water. But here you have these major groups – they may disagree in other ways – but it’s fun sitting down at a table with a bearded rabbi, everybody in their different outfits, wow, this is incredible! Islam has a certain way of investing. Judaism has a certain way of investing. My investment advisor, I invited her over to this thing, and she was showing how both of them could invest in the same product, and one could take their legal, ritualistic money out this way, and the other could do it the other way. They could be investing together. And you say, how do you bring Jews and Islam together like that? That kind of stuff, it’s combining church and state in many ways. We chose to be independent because of how we started our nation. We’re not going to be run by any one group. We’re not going to be a theocracy. We’re going to be a democracy, and we can blend in our feelings, our morality, what have you into the collective entity that elects government. It can be done, it depends on the attitude. It’s terrible – I’m not sure if I’m on the subject right now or not – but it’s terrible to see Islam being crucified because they’re Islam. 95% of the world doesn’t want war, 95% of the world wants peace. That 5% live off of the violence of church against church, and the 95% just sit there and watch it. Why don’t they say something about it? Why don’t they do something about it? In my own church, we worry about abortion, we worry about homosexuality, we worry about those things, but where is the worry about famine? Where is the worry about corporate social responsibility? Where is the effort to reach out and realize in a positive way there are moral structures to be offered to the people?
JL: That’s one where the line doesn’t need to be as strict as some of us think it should be. Do we have an opposite point of view about why keeping the line between church and state is necessary?
SBG: I do. It’s an awkward phrase, separation of church and state. It does not appear in the Constitution, one Tea Party candidate was right, although she wasn’t sure, and it is an awkward phrase. There’s a great story of the first George Bush, who was a candidate in 1988, and was asked how he felt being marooned out at sea, lying for days on the floor of this boat. He said, “Well, I thought about things that matter, like God and country” and he was going on, and then he finally said, “Oh, and course, separation of church and state!” (Laughter) You couldn’t talk that way without talking about separation of church and state, and honestly it is an awkward phrase, and it is not in our founding documents. But religious liberty is a deeply-held and widely-admired element of our society, and the two travel together – the separation of church and state on the one hand and respect for religious exercise on the other. They really are mutually dependent. And separation of church and state has come to mean an awkward and doctrinaire secularism, and that’s recent. The phrase at is has long been understood and frequently acted upon is a distinction between who has secular authority and who has religious authority. It does not mean that neither voice may be heard in the other realm, and I take the point about constructing chapels. There was some difficulty, for example, re-building churches after Katrina. Could federal money go to help reconstructing? It got worked out eventually but yeah, some things are made harder. But the vibrant and creative religious life we see in this country is in part dependent on the difference between church and state and the well-understood difference. That creates what economists would call low barriers to entry. Meaning that it is much easier to start a church, to start any religious organization in a country with separation of church and state than it is without one. And that goes not only for most of Western Europe but South Africa and beyond. This is the vibrant, the creative, the alive diverse country. It’s remarkable. We are the most deeply religious of all the developed countries in the world. You pay a price for that, but it’s also an enormous benefit. So I am grateful, if not for the phrase, separation of church and state, for the idea, that there’s a distinction.
JN: I agree. I think there’s something very inspiring about the idea of a country that guarantees religious liberty to the extent that you have a prohibition against the government taking religious positions, and I think it does protect religion as well as, it protects non-religious people from having religion imposed upon them. It also protects even a religious majority from having their religion be sort of colonized by the state. And I think the faith-based initiative that George Bush introduced, it should be worrisome to people that are involved in religious organizations, that this is a way for the government to make religious institutions dependent on them. The idea that you need to have secular justification for any legislation, which is in large part what the establishment of religion clause means in judicial practice, I think is really a helpful thing to a pluralistic society, something that we would abandon at our peril. I think the secular media really fall down on the job in defending this vision and the example that looms large for me, a few years back when the pledge of allegiance was being challenged because of the “under God” phrase. I wrote about this for Extra. The response of pundits to this challenge was almost universally hostile. The idea of having as the official oath of the United States the phrase “under God,” which was put in there by Eisenhower, specifically to brand us as a religious nation in opposition to godless communism, in the pundit class, this was almost universally seen as a frivolous lawsuit, a pernicious lawsuit that’s only going to raise trouble. On the one hand, this phrase meant nothing, and on the other hand, if you took it out, you’d have a war. I find it hard to believe in both those positions at the same time, but that was basically the position of the media, let’s not talk about that. The penny says “In God we trust,” let’s just ignore that, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s dangerous to not pay attention to these things and act as if they’re beneath notice. I think it is a bad thing that the penny says “In God we trust” and that school children are saying we’re a nation under God, and I think that for both believers and non-believers we’d be better off sticking to separation of church and state.
AF: I agree with you, and I can tell you that there’s not a legislative session, at the Federal or the state level, that doesn’t start with a prayer. That prayer usually has the word God in it – I’m trying to think if ever I heard one that didn’t. We go in there as part of a progressive caucus, we’re like “Woah, what is that doing there?” We are very conscious of those things that existed. I remember being in school when they changed “under God” into the pledge of allegiance. I want to comment on something that Joe was talking about. The media, I really believe, makes too much of religion as something that separates us from each other. When I sit on an interfaith panel, when there’s one of every flavor of us, it’s not our religions that bring us together, it is our world outlook. I may have more in common with Joe, sitting at the same table, than someone from my own faith practice. And I think that that concept that we’re separated by our religious denominations is totally, very often, brought up in the media. Nobody ever talks about what these 5 people have in common, that they all want to get rid of hunger, or they all want to help the poor, or corporate responsibility. Nobody shows that connection, they only show that religion divides us. I think that’s not a good thing, and is also something that the media has to pay more attention of. And yes, the shadow side of religion is fundamentalism, and that’s what scares everybody. For instance, I do think that Muslims are getting a bad rap, not because they’re Muslim, but because everybody’s nervous that they’re fundamentalists. And that goes for all fundamentalists, regardless of what group they come from. I think the issue of fundamentalism is a much bigger issue than the issue of different, pluralistic religions.
JL: We’ve talked a lot about how religions and government may play an intertwined role without crossing a bad line, in a cooperative way, but there’s also been a strong argument made for why it’s very good to have that line, like we haven’t had before. As one panelist said, it’s better to distinguish between the work of church and state, but not necessarily that they must be separate, to distinguish the work they do. It also guarantees against the state taking a religious position. What we haven’t really grappled with is, have the media done an adequate job of explaining these distinctions to the public, and informing them about this so that they have a more sophisticated, rather than a knee-jerk, reaction, that we’re all talking about – fundamentalists are bad, they do this, Muslims are bad, they do that – what’s the role of the media in drawing these distinctions, and are they doing an adequate job, what each role may be, where they could criss-cross, in social action etc. What’s the media role, I think that’s the heart of what we want to talk about. Is the media doing an adequate job and how might they do better? Jim?
JN: The media could clarify these issues in a much more helpful way. One example I think is an issue that doesn’t have the salience that it used to is prayer in schools. You hear that the first amendment prohibits prayer in schools, and should we allow it. Prayer has never been prohibited in schools. Kids are allowed to pray in schools. That’s one of the things guaranteed by the First Amendment. What is prohibited is government-led prayer in schools. Which is a slightly longer phrase, but a much more accurate one. If people were asked how they feel about government-led prayer in school, I think you’d get different results. When you spell out these issues, and clarify them, the people would better understand the importance, or the argument, for keeping these sphere’s separate.
JL: Your answer’s only as good as your questions are phrased.
JLM: Recently, a group of 6 of us have been challenging the major banks and financial systems about addressing this collapse in the systems. It was on the front page of the Times and the Washington Post, then the picture got out everyplace. We were walking into Goldman Sachs to do a response to the resolution that we put on their proxie. What came out was “Nuns and Priests Against Wall Street.” Nuns and priests. It’s an attractive headline, I would assume, but the ICCR is made up of 256 organizations, and they work together, Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic. We would like to have Islam there but we can’t, there’s a difference in how they invest, but we’re open to that. It wasn’t nuns and Catholics. The ICCR is interfaith religious groups, and then a finger is pointed directly at us nuns and priests to challenge Wall Street. In the same token, when we present a resolution and get a 10% vote, all the newspapers can say is “They lost overwhelmingly.” If they understood the system, a 10% vote is an overwhelming positive vote. When we challenged Bank of America, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Chase, and Citigroup, we averaged 34% positive vote from the people. One third of the shareholders of these co’s were supporting our issues. Well we lost. We didn’t lose. 34%, that blew the heads off of people. Going to a meeting with Goldman Sachs, we rarely would see a chairman or a CEO sitting with us. Here’s Lloyd Blankfine was sitting with us when we were doing our thing with GS. That’s an incredible vote, but not being presented to the people. 3%, you can repeat your resolution. Next time 6%. Over 10% you can repeat it till you go back down again. 34% in a very staid financial industry. You’re lucky to get 3%. No education for the people at all as to the magnificence of that vote, and moving from that to the issue of what we represented. The issue affected millions of people. We go and talk about the social era of the banks, in one case, “Well father, it’s so exciting to give a loan to Pfizer. And they come along with this drug, and it helps thousands of people.” Well sir, that’s your job. You make loans to these companies. But you’re missing the point, on the social responsibility you have as a financial institution. Look what’s out there now. Millions of people without jobs, mortgages have collapsed. How would you like to find out that you’re out of your home? And then when we hit bonuses, what came out, I couldn’t believe it. “I’ll tell you about bonuses. I think we’re getting a raw deal on that. We work hard for that, and we anticipate that.” Yeah but you failed. “That’s beside the point. We’ve worked hard for that.” Then he has the nerve to say, “Look, in two years, my multi-million dollar house was paid for. I don’t understand why these people have 25 and 30 year mortgages.” (Laughter) They don’t get it. They don’t understand what poverty is. And there’s where the media has to pick it up. The church groups, our whole argument is it’s faith-based. We’re looking for justice in the whole area of drug and drug pricing. We’re looking to get rid of the militarism that surrounds us and says, let’s charge off and beat the hell out of whoever. People aren’t educated about that.
JL: You want to weigh in, about how the media is functioning, in drawing out the nuances and really giving the public an education as compared to coming up with flashy headlines like Nuns and Priests? Where’s the information?
SBG: It’s always good to have nuns & priests. My own experience, at least as an interviewee, is that most journalists try really hard to get things, and to dig down. What I think is difficult is that religious life is escaping denominational boundaries, and the traditional institutions don’t mean what they did even 15 or 20 years ago. The ways that people are experiencing spirituality are more fluid, less tied to one particular institution. We were talking about this at dinner. Peoples’ spiritual voyages from place to place, even across a single life-time, are so vast, it’s like migrating birds, across the globe, they’re going so far, and changing so much. It’s really difficult for a reporter to catch on to that kind of mobility. It’s much easier to say, “Modern Orthodox Jews do x,” or “The nuns & the priests are doing y.” That’s a difficult problem for journalists. Religious organizations have to do a better job at helping journalists. It’s very difficult to keep track of the fast pace, the number of really successful interdenominational orgs that have no names, they’re existing in informal spaces, are very hard to pin down, it’s an enormous challenge. Another thing, on the schedule for us, we had the pulpit freedom churches question, can a minister or rabbi preach a political position and still keep his or her religious organization exempt from taxation. Those cases started with anti-Iraq war sermons. It’s far too easy to think of this as uni-dimensional – almost all the stories are more complicated. That’s really hard for journalists to hear. As an academic, when someone calls me, and I say, “Ok, it’s a much more complicated question than you think.” Yeah. Understandably. It’s hard. People in my position have to be more accessible, but we have to remember, you don’t just ask someone from, say, the Episcopal church, what’s happening right now, because many of them don’t have their fingers on the pulse.
JL: In terms of the media not going a good job, whose fault is it, our not explaining it to them, or them not explaining it to us?
AF: The thing that comes to mind, I do believe the concept of separation of church and state is important in a pluralistic society like ours. How it’s interpreted and how it’s used is another thing. The thing that comes to mind is how we are so afraid to teach about religion in our schools. Not teaching religion, not proselytizing, but children are sitting next to each other, especially here in NYC, from all different faith practices, and come with all kinds of stereotypes and prejudices, but aren’t given the opportunity to learn about the student that’s sitting next to them, and what that means. In that case, the separation of church and state, the fear – there have been so many people who have tried, have introduced different kinds of curriculums, that the teachers would stick to, that the teachers would be teaching about all the world’s religions, about all the children sitting in the class with them - that’s a place where I feel that concept of church and state is maybe being misinterpreted, and is preventing, letting those walls grow that make us feel we’re divided by our religions rather than drawn together by our world outlook.
JLM: From your mouth to God’s ears. But I think the problem isn’t media there, but the various religions. That’s the sad part. You’re not going to teach our religion correctly, so don’t teach it at all.
JN: There’s a big difference between a bible as literature class taught by someone who in their own mind sees different spiritual paths as leading to the same goal, vs. someone who really believes that people who don’t follow their particular spiritual path are damned. And if that is your view of your world, and you’re teaching a world religion class, it’s like you’re offering plates of cookies to your students, but some of them are poison. That’s a tough thing to ask someone to do. There are some people who would like the media to be describing all the plates of cookies, and others who are concerned that the media are pointing to poison and telling people that it’s a tasty treat.
JL: One thing we haven’t talked about is whether the media is doing an adequate job of discussing religion in lobbying, the extent to which religious groups lobby. We talk about what other groups lobby and where their money is spent and who gets it but I haven’t seen much coverage of religious groups. Is the media gunshy, or the information’s not available? Why do you think they’re holding back?
AF: I think in general it’s not available. If you did investigative reporting, you probably could dig it up, but it’s not as available as, say, lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry, or by the banking industry. That’s something we hear about all the time, we know it goes on, it’s out there. I don’t know that all of the lobbying by religious organizations, if we’re going to continue to have lobbying, and I won’t go there, is necessarily a bad thing because a lot of the lobbying is for funds for social justice issues. The other agendas, the things that the culture wars are being built on – abortion, gay marriage rights, etc – those make the headlines, but the other struggles don’t. I won’t name the banks either, but we had meetings with the banks because we had people in our district that were losing their homes, and they were, most of them were older adults. Their attitude was just like the attitude you got, very arrogant. I asked one bank, a lot of older seniors are asking for reverse mortgages on their coops –
JL: I think we’re getting a little off topic.
AF: Anyway, the hubris is amazing.
JL: But why is no one touching the issue of money? Is it really true, you can’t get hold of the figures?
SBG: It’s far more diffuse, religious lobbying, than, say, by the pharmas. It’s much more scattered, and far less professionalized.
AF: Is it Clearview that’s the religious radio stations? Clearchannel maybe? Clearchannel. They don’t have to lobby as a religious organization. They can lobby as a radio station, for whatever they’re looking for. It’s diffuse, that’s the word I was looking for. It’s just not out there the way a pharma lobby is, in the form of PAC’s that are contributing money to campaigns. It could be voter guides being put in pews, that tell people which candidates are going to make them go to hell or not.
JL: If they cross that line, if they are actually lobbying in pulpits, do you think they’d ever lose their tax-exempt status, or is this so embedded that churches are good guys –
SBG: Politicians love it – they have a huge stake in it.
AF: Totally. Even the issue of the community center down here. That was totally politically motivated. We had one politician in particular in NY, but if you look at that story completely, a lot of it didn’t even come from NY. It came from across the country. They latched on to this, this concept, I mean even the fact that it went from the Cordoba Community Center to the 9/11 Mosque, it was amazing how the name of the initiative changed in 2 seconds. That was probably more politically motivated, it was during a campaign season. People looked at their constituency and said, “Ah, I can make this into an issue that will get me elected.” So in that respect, I don’t know if that was something that was portrayed in the media, or if you had to figure that out for yourself.
JL: I don’t remember media actually saying, this is pure politics. They just reported the numbers, how many came down – nobody took that on, or informed the public as to why so and so might be happy to carry that flag… love to see them say, “We hate Muslims.”
JLM: If I understand it correctly, Muslims were wanting to build a mosque in Staten Island, and there was such an uproar about that. They had this property in NY, and they figured they’d do it there. Then the political arguments were, well you can build it someplace, but not there. Why doesn’t the press just say, “But you said that when it was SI. Why don’t we just face it and say this is what’s going on? We don’t want them here?” I remember the idea was to throw out the Islams. We just finished apologizing to the Japanese for what we did to them in WWII. Now we’re going to set this thing up to apologize to the Muslims? What came back to me was, “Well, I understand the Japanese thing, but I wouldn’t hold that to the Islam.” I thought, my god, you preach the gospel?
JL: We have an audience here and I’m sure they’d like to ask questions. I’d like to close for now and open it up to questions for the audience. John?
John DeWitt: I’ve been sitting here sort of amazed. Btw, I’m a member of the CAB. I think it was Alice who first mentioned the term soundbites. I know that many stations live off of soundbites, but let’s not think (unintelligible) except the word “the media.” What the hell is “the media?” There are television stations, radio stations, public radio stations, commercial radio stations, there are cable stations with political ends. Our function in the CAB is to give some idea of whether a public station such as WNYC is doing an adequate job of representing how religion affects our political and social landscape. I don’t think Fox and WNYC can be called “the media.” They’re part of the media, but not “the media.” I’d like your reaction to whether or not stations like WNYC, or in the Philadelphia area, WHYY, it doesn’t matter where you are, there are lots of public radio stations, which I think, by and large, do a pretty good job of not being caught in the trap of the 15 second sound bite.
JN: At FAIR, we’ve not looked a great deal at local public radio, but we have looked at NPR, repeatedly, and we’re struck by the similarity of the source selection used by NPR to the source selection used by commercial media. The sense I get from NPR leadership is they aspire to be as good as the best of corporate media. The New York Times, for example. If they could be the NY Times on the air, they would consider themselves to be doing a terrific job. They are “the media” in the sense, the mainstream corporate media, our country, it does have a set of values that are broadly shared across a variety of outlets and different platforms. I think Fox News is kind of an outlier, trying to (noise) likes to present itself as being in the crowd, but in many ways is doing something different from what NPR and NY Times and CNN and NBC are trying to do. I don’t want to, a lot of what we’re trying to point out here is that there’s not the sort of value-controlled mainstream media and the bad guys on the right. I think you can find points of view in every kind of media, and really impossible to do news without having a point of view. If you don’t have any kind of interpretation of how the world works and what it means, then what you say about it is meaningless. When I have been using the word “media,” I’m talking about the mainstream corporate media.
JD: But we’re here to hear specifically whether WNYC, or stations like WNYC, are adequately representing the way that our religious life influences our political and social life.
SBG: There’s a very good organization called the Religious Newswriters Association, and Barbara Bradley Haggerty, and Margot Adler, are high up in the org, they’re highly respected. I also think Krista Tippett does a great job on her show, On Being. I listen to it every week and never regret it. I actually was thrilled to be on The Takeaway this morning, and had a great time. It was considered to be a really long interview – 7 minutes – (laughter) and so I think there are a lot of people in there trying. I think what is difficult is keeping up. It’s so hard to keep up. It really involves intense effort, and I think a lot of journalists try, and I think it’s difficult. In part, because it’s such a vibrant, creative country in terms of religion. The minute you blink, the world has changed. If I could introduce one last thing, I think a lot of people are afraid of religion and religious voices. Fear of religion is every bit as widespread as admiration of religion, and of course pandering to fear is what lots of us do all the time, either in our own heads, or in print, or in radio, or anywhere else. Getting yourself above the fray and still being interesting is difficult. One of the great questions that Joyce asked us was whether there was too much coverage of the threatened burning of the Koran in Florida. We all know, a circus is a very tempting target. At some point, it is a good idea to stop bashing the journalists and trying to start helping them, and also to help, to make stories newsworthy instead of just saying there’s poverty here or something. To try to make a story out of it is the job of people who feel that they’re not getting enough attention. I know a lot more people on the religious left – I’m one of the few surviving liberal Protestants – they’re constantly complaining that no one pays any attention to them. Part of it that they do a terrible job explaining themselves. I think it’s good not just to examine WNYC or any other public radio station but also to ask the people who would be attended to to please try to do a better job.
Male audience member: Hi. My name is Joel. I enjoyed the panel here. I have a background in anchoring, reporting, including formerly with WNYC a couple of years ago. The reason I mention all that, I’m wondering what you all think about the difference between normal, everyday stories that come out where perhaps people in religion may not understand that reporters are under a lot of pressure to sell their stories. It’s not so much WNYC’s structure, WNYC lets people go and talk longer, if you listen to Brian Lehrer, Leonard Lopate, they can talk in a longer form, but most reporters, deep down, their thought process is, you’re going to lose this audience if the person’s going on too long, you’re too monotone, too much detail. No offense, they’re almost think like this panel here tonight, we’re getting the information, but it’s too long and too in depth. They’re thinking, we need a small soundbite, and we will need to keep the news director happy, the advertisers, the listeners’ attentions… How can somebody in religion be more media savvy – I think Joel (Osteen?) is very media savvy. Al Sharpton, whether you like him or hate him, he understands how to use the media. Robin (?) How do you know how to – I think you all know what I’m asking – how do you get the information out but keep the audience’s attention? A minute of talking without interruption, it’s why so many hosts modulate their voice like I’m doing now, because after a minute, people start to wander in their minds, especially in their cars. If you don’t get interrupted in another minute or 90 seconds or so, people start to think about changing the channel, what they had for breakfast, all these thoughts. I don’t know that people in religion understand that they’re not keeping the attention of their audience.
JN: I want you to know that this panel has one one-millionth of the metropolitan area watching right now. (Laughter) I think you grab people’s attention by relating to their lives. Religion is something that is relevant to people. You see a lot of religion covers on news magazines, when there used to be news magazines, because people buy them. What was Jesus really like? People buy those covers because religion means something to them and they want to hear about it. At the same time, to deal honestly with religion can be very divisive because people have different ideas about what is the proper way to examine religion? A lot of people will be turned off if you use the standard journalistic approach to religious questions. If you’re doing this ethically, and so there’s a tendency to bland out religious coverage. Relating to the idea of religion being right wing religion, I think those folks are the most likely to be offended, and therefore those you’re most likely to treat with kid gloves. It’s not a recipe for riveting television or radio if you’re worried about, being very careful about.
Joel: I know more about priest pedophilia than I do about what the actual religion believes. What do they believe, what are they doing, how are they helping? We hear scandals, all sorts of nonsense (hard to hear).
JLM: I don’t know if we can make the statement that we get excited about stories that bring something down, especially a treasured religious organization. But those stories, people want to hear. What is it that we can do, looking at ourselves, what can the church do to make other stories more exciting, that build up?
JL, interrupting: SBG has to get back to Pennsylvania, so she’s rushing for a change. Thank you.
SBG: Thank you so much.
JLM: To use the word, “the media,” perhaps they can do something as well, in developing programs, articles, etc that instruct more. It’s a good question, to ask what can we do.
AF: Sarah mentioned Krista Tippet’s program. Look when it’s on. It’s on when only people that were absolutely dedicated to listening would turn on the radio, what is it, 7AM on Sunday morning? That’s not mainstream, that’s not putting it in front of the general public to be educated. Yes, there’s a group of us that know that that’s there, and we don’t have to get up at 7AM any more, we can go to our computers and see what she said when we’re awake. Other than the sensational stories, it is just something that is not in the mainstream news, very little. And when it is, it is about fundamentalism. The news in general tends to be. Not so much on NPR, but the news in general tends to be about bad things. We don’t have a newspaper that prints the good things in this week. It’s all about conflict, war, all kinds of negative happenings around the world. Very rarely do you see an article about something good. For a lot of people, their religion, I don’t know what religion means any more – as Sarah said, it’s very fluid, but it is the basis for a lot of people for their morality. And there is an American morality that makes religion here in the US American. But it doesn’t get the airtime at all.
JL: Going forward, what do you see as some of the topics that would be on the horizon for religion/politics intersection? We’re talking about the religious right, we’re talking about the media dealing with Islam and how they distort that for political reasons, but where in the future may you see a lot of intersection, for good or for bad?
JN: There is the prospect, as Sarah was saying, of challenging the idea that people in the pulpit should not be able to endorse candidates directly, and take a more direct role in politics. A lot of people on the right do challenge the idea of separation of church and state. They think it’s a myth, and a pernicious one. The battle over whether the religious movement will be a part of politics in the same way that the NRA is could transform our political system. I don’t think the coverage of the NRA is great, but it is possible to examine the policies of the NRA in a more neutral way than it is to examine the Mormon church, where you are dealing with things that are not susceptible to secular analysis. You really can’t look at the motivations behind religious movement, you can’t discuss it in the same terms as a secular, political movement. The secular media have more difficulty in examining those motivations. It does pose a question of how do you deal with a kind of merger of religion and politics in a way that we have not?
AF: Excuse the pun, but it’s like a sacred cow. I can have a political argument with you about everything else, but if I start to say something that in anyway is misconstrued to be in any way anti any religion, now that’s like not talking about your finances. I totally agree with Jim that it’s a very hard topic to dissect the way we dissect others.
JLM: With any religion, you can study it to the nth degree, what are its rituals, what are its issues, but until you live the life of that religious faith, you don’t know anything more than an academic way of how things work. Because it’s commitment from within, it’s commitment that shapes your life. That’s not the kind of stuff that needs to be broadcast in understanding churches. You can take courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, as I have, but I’ve realized how touched I am by my own faith belief, and the only way I got to know that is to live it. But the churches in general have a social outlook, and that can be discussed, opened up. Hopefully, more and more that will be. And I hope that will be the future, that we don’t try and convert another to our faith, that’s the job of missionaries, that’s the job of the internal church, but to work together for the social good of the community, of the country, of the world. I’m sure most religious beliefs appreciate the image of a human, and the dignity of that human, and we ought to be working much more strongly toward the social benefits of these people. They’re not dirt, they’re not trash, they are people who will help us become more human as we help them. That’s the kind of area that we should be educating in. I don’t want to convert you, you don’t want to convert me, but we should be working together to convert the sick into healthy people, the imprisoned into free people, the unemployed with jobs, and so forth. That’s where we could be, the question on what’s the media, well, what’s religious influence? You can work on that question as well. It’s just people working for the benefit of all people, and that’s what we should be advertising, that’s what we should be saying to the world.
Elinor Fuchs: I was interested in listening to this discussion because of a particular threat that I’m seeing today, and it hasn’t even come up. I don’t even know how aware people are of it. I’m not sure that approaching it from the perspective of religion is even the way to go about it. I’m talking about a certain kind of Talibanization, if I can say it out loud, that’s going on in various institutions today. One example that has gotten more coverage, though not so much on public radio and television, is the whole C Street, sub-rosa, secret religious society that very highly placed congressional, senatorial people who are involved for instance in promoting this death penalty for gays in Uganda. But there’s a whole other one, it’s highly documented, that there is a kind of religious orthodoxy that’s taking over the Air Force. That we have planes that are bombing in the Middle East that have emblems of Jesus on them, and that soldiers who are speaking out against this are being punished and there is a guy who collects all this evidence and this guy is getting death threats for making public what is happening on a pretty broad scale. I’m sorry that I can’t cite all these documents. I didn’t think that this is what we were going to be talking about tonight. But when we talk about politics and religion, then I think we have to talk about issues that are not being spoken of at all, that are related fundamentally to the fact that we have a population that no longer is educated in our public schools in Enlightenment values in which this country was founded. We no longer have those 18th century values, and people would not understand even what’s the problem with having this kind of preaching going on from highly placed military officials in the Air Force. There are issues much larger than any we’ve been discussing.
JL: Yes, I’m sorry we didn’t get to that. The question is why is there so little coverage by the media of the Fellowship, and we just didn’t get to that.
AF: I don’t know why either. I looked and looked –
JL: Do you have some more information?
AF: There’s very little.
JN: We were just talking about the sacred cow of religion. There is a fear of seeming to be anti-religion. The Fellowship is a strange cult.
MB?: But the Fellowship is a strange cult supported by Democrats and Republicans and every president since Kennedy.
JLM: Since Eisenhower.
JN: National Breakfast. What could be more wholesome than that? Everyone’s for prayer, and everyone’s for breakfast.
AF: Except for the National Prayer Breakfast, try to find anything in the media about them.
MB: Jeff Sharlet wrote a book on it –
AF: The Family. Right, he was interviewed on Lopate, he made the rounds. What is it, 500, 700 pages of densely detailed documentation of it, and the media glaze over. The irony is that NPR does these long stories, and they say they don’t get enough time. I’ll complain to them that they left out some key point in the story, “We didn’t get enough time!” And they’re complaining, because they only get 10 minutes to do a story.
(Everyone agrees that 10 minutes is a long time. JL calls on Renee Cherow-O’Leary.)
RCO: I want to get back to John’s question of what media are we talking about. The issue of 10 minutes and needing soundbites. I think Krista Tippett is an good example of a woman who has used every contemporary medium to the nth degree. She blogs, she speaks in person, there are all kind of ways to connect to her program. I think the future, in religious coverage and in other kinds of coverage, is going to be layered. The station will cover a certain piece, and then ideally, there should be access to whatever else you want to know. A link to that 700 page book, to a talk like ours that was given tonight. Somebody has to compile that. So maybe what’s not happening in public radio is to really (intend?) to how you integrate. One of the issues is there’s no context. Even if you hear a story, you have to go somewhere if you’re concerned enough to really get deeper into the (?). I really respect what Joe said about having to live with faith, but first you have to at least understand something about it, to go deeper as an informed person. And I don’t think there’s enough integration, enough ways of using all the other media out there to explore the depth of something. It’s a commitment. But she, I consider her an incredible 21st century journalist. She has found a way, if you go to her website, it’s brilliant.
JL: And that’s probably the future, the way that technology is affecting media and how it’s going to change I think.
RCO: (Mostly unintelligible.) Digital books for example, you click in. Everything is interpenetrating.
JL: I want to thank the panel very much for your attendance, your insights, and so on.
(General thank yous and applause.)