For years now, I assumed the ignorant, tone deaf and often vicious reporting on religion you see in the mainstream media was the predictable result of creeping secularism. By all accounts, there are more “un-churched” individuals around than ever before, and such people tend to cluster into “educated,” “liberal” professions like journalism.
The time is long past when even a privately godless reporter was expected to be more or less Biblically literate, and maybe even know that the word “Episcopalian” is a noun, not an adjective.
Now evidence has surfaced that comically stupid journalists have been imposing their stupidity upon unsuspecting readers since at least the 1950s. When such media malpractice plays a role in influencing the outcome of a Presidential election, I’d say that was pretty important.
All my life, I’ve heard that Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s (nominal) Catholicism was considered a Very Big Deal by millions of ignorant, bigoted ordinary voters, especially those slackjawed yokels and banjo picking extras from Deliverance in West Virginia. One academic now claims that reporters covering the 1960 campaign, along with their editors, were among the ignorant, bigoted ones:
…a political historian at West Virginia Wesleyan says the religious issue was “exaggerated” by the national media.
In fact, professor Robert Rupp says, when the boyishly handsome Kennedy swept into the mountains out of Massachusetts, the real issue of the day was the economy.
Yet for all of the misery prevalent in the Mountain State five decades ago, the national media riveted its attention almost exclusively on where Kennedy worshipped.
“It’s obvious that it was exaggerated in terms of the degree of prejudice in the state,” Rupp said in an interview.
“Facts don’t matter. Perceptions. You could make the point that the national press made this into a religious referendum. The way a lot of the newspapers reported it, that was the only angle.”
Rupp pointed to the coverage of a New York Times political correspondent, Bill Lawrence, that implied “a bigot behind every bush” in West Virginia.
Each time he covered a speech by the two Democratic heavyweights, Rupp says, the correspondent “went out and found some bigot that said, ‘I’m not gong to vote some Catholic.’ It was almost bordering on a joke.”
It gets better. Much, much better. By which I mean, of course, worse:
More fuel was thrown on the fire when the late humorist Jim Comstock, editor of The Hillbilly, produced a satirical account on the front page of his publication with the headline, “Pa Ain’t Voting For No Catholic.” And the story contained this line, “If a Catholic comes to the White House, Pa says it will have holy water.”
To anyone familiar with Comstock and his novel sense of humor, the article’s intent was obvious — a funny look at the primary.
Yet, the outside media weren’t laughing, Rupp noted, and two national newspapers actually reported Comstock’s story as fact.
Next time you read an article about the Pope and the sex abuse scandals, you might just want to keep the professor’s findings in mind.