On the final night of the Republican National Convention, vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin attacked Democrat Barack Obama’s apparent disdain for small town values. Two days later, the Washington Times’s Web site ran a story that showed small town residents so angry about media coverage that they were all but carrying pitchforks. Joining the Republican ticket for the “McCain Street USA” tour in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, the Times’s Joseph Curl reported: “Hundreds of angry people in this small town outside Milwaukee taunted reporters and TV crews traveling with Sen. John McCain on Friday, chanting “Be fair!” and pointing fingers at a pack of journalists as they booed loudly.”
The intense media scrutiny of Palin, who was almost entirely unknown outside Alaska before McCain tapped her for VP two weeks ago, has prompted a renewed debate about the media’s “liberal bias.” Time’s Mark Halperin went so far as to publish a graphic suggesting that “Anti-Republican, liberal media bias” contributed to a “feeding frenzy” in which the press becomes a shark pursuing a saintly Sarah Palin. Glenn Greenwald of Salon in turn took Halperin to task, arguing that “to attribute the media scrutiny of Sarah Palin to this mythical ‘anti-Republican bias’ is absurd beyond description.” He cited archival news reports portraying the Alaska governor in many of the same terms by which she is being portrayed today.
It is no accident that Halperin pictures Palin with her hands clasped as if in prayer. Coverage of the Alaska governor’s religion—she is an evangelical Christian raised in an Assembly of God church who now belongs to a non-denominational congregation—has given some ammunition to those alleging bias on conservative people of faith. Juan Cole’s story in today’s Salon provocatively appropriates a joke Palin made in her acceptance speech last week to ask, “What’s the difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist? Lipstick.” Cole writes: “On censorship, the teaching of creationism in schools, reproductive rights, attributing government policy to God’s will and climate change, Palin agrees with Hamas and Saudi Arabia rather than supporting tolerance and democratic precepts.”
While many Americans will be troubled by her beliefs in these areas, it seems a considerable leap to compare her unsuccessful efforts to remove books from a public library to the actions of fundamentalist regimes that actually succeed in limiting free speech, denying women drivers licenses, and curtailing a host of other civil liberties.
Though the New Yorker’s humorous “Shouts and Murmurs” section does not mention Palin, the disdain for evangelical Christians that it exhibits this week takes on a decidedly political cast against the backdrop of her nomination. Paul Rudnick imagines a Christian fitness center, whose proprietors are anti-Semitic, secret philandering child molesters, and obsessed with a simple mindedly puritanical attitude towards sex. In publishing this piece, the magazine lives up to the caricature of the “elite media” much more successfully than most Christians live up to the stereotypes Rudnick evokes.
But obviously over-the-top discussions of faith are outliers. The greatest challenge for the press is that language about religion in politics sounds very different on different sides of the ideological divide. On Sunday, The New York Times published a story headlined, “In Palin’s Life and Politics, Goal to Follow God’s Will.” Many people of faith might scratch their heads and wonder why such a statement was worthy of a news story at all—reporting that an observant Christian strives to do God’s will is like reporting that a running back strives to score touchdowns.
Though a few paragraphs mention her church’s social conservatism, the Times article is mostly apolitical, basically reporting that Palin is serious about her faith: “Interviews with the two pastors she has been most closely associated with here in her hometown … and with friends and acquaintances who have worshipped with her point to a firm conclusion: her foundation and source of guidance is the Bible, and with it has come a conviction to be God’s servant.” Why is that news?
In an interview with CJR, Kristen Fyfe, of the conservative Media Research Center’s Culture and Media Institute, suggests this story implies that the “fact that [Palin] prays for God’s will to be done [is] a problem” to the Times’ supposedly liberal readership. She says “mainstream Christians” could read that headline and “be like, ‘Cool, awesome!’” But to the Times’s supposedly liberal readership, she says, “that headline is like waving a red flag in front of a bull . People who want to make the point that conservatives are out to make a theocracy, which is a fun liberal talking point on Daily Kos and other blogs, they’re going to be like, ‘See, that’s what we’re talking about.’”