For at least the last ten years, Pat Robertson has been a confounding, mystifying, and troublesome public figure for journalists to contend with. On the one hand, Robertson is given to such crazy talk so often and has been disowned by so many other evangelical leaders, that it’s hard to take him seriously as a representative of Christian conservatives. But on the other hand, he is the most well-known of evangelicals, did once stage a formidable bid for the presidency (coming in second in Iowa), and has a large megaphone through his Christian Broadcasting Network (reaching an estimated 900,000 people). Editors need to balance these two readings of Robertson anytime he says or does something with his usual flair for publicity.
Robertson’s endorsement yesterday of Rudy Giuliani was so out of left field that most of the articles about it today register the journalists’ own bewilderment at the news. But it also once again put these reporters and their editors in the odd position of having to gauge Robertson’s significance and relevance in order to figure out how big to play the story.
Predictably, most of them found a way to hedge. The New York Times provided the most telling example. Though the story made the front page, it was filled with caveats and qualifiers. My personal favorite was this one:
Mr. Robertson’s habit in recent years of making public statements as a mouthpiece for God may have sapped some of the value of his endorsement.
Examining the coverage of evangelicals a few years ago, I found much resentment, among evangelicals themselves, that Robertson is allowed to speak for this diverse community in the mainstream media. I’m sure this resentment is still out there, especially given that the number of his gaffes and inappropriate statements have only increased. What most frustrated evangelical leaders I spoke to was that Robertson’s flamboyance distracted from any real examination of their religious beliefs and the range of opinion that exists in their community.
The story today made me wonder why, if there is so much evidence — in the body of the story itself - that points to Robertson’s diminishing power and influence among conservative Christians, was this news given such prominent placement? And are newspapers like the Times willing to take responsibility for sustaining the notion that Robertson is an important cultural bellwether, when he might actually be representative of only one constituency: the voices in his head?