Part II: A journalistic blind spot

The U.S. State Department churns out many newsworthy reports, a few of which make news while the rest vanish into circular files.

In July, the state department finally released its first report on religious persecution in 78 nations. A spokesperson reminded reporters that it was Congress that mandated the 56- page document's emphasis on the persecution of Christians. The state department, stressed John Shattuck, doesn't view this "as more important than other topics involving religious freedom."

On Capitol Hill, critics noted that the report was six months overdue and came weeks after pivotal congressional votes on Most Favored Nation status for China. It created a few media ripples, then vanished. The Religion Newswriters Association did name the state department report as its eighth most important news story of 1997.

On Nov. 16, there was another newsworthy event -- a global day of prayer on behalf of the persecuted church. About 8 million Americans in 50,000 Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations took part, pledging themselves to keep praying and to seek changes that would help persecuted believers.

This event received even less news coverage than the state department report. The end-of-the-year ballot mailed to religion-news specialists didn't even mention it.

"That's astonishing. It's quite depressing, actually," said retired New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal. "That state department report was nothing -- it was a non-story. It was patched together out of old information and then they delayed it as long as possible to minimize its impact. The only reason that report even existed was because of the movement against religious persecution and all of the pressure it has been putting on Congress. That's the story."

The day of prayer was even perfectly timed to justify major news coverage. It fell shortly after Chinese President Jiang Zemin's controversial U.S. visit and, that very weekend, the press gave major coverage to Beijing's release of Wei Jingsheng.

"The release of one famous political dissident should have heightened, not blacked out, the news value of a story that millions of Americans were paying devoted attention to other dissidents still imprisoned," wrote Rosenthal, in a recent New York Times column. "The stories might have mentioned Peter Xu, the Protestant leader recently sentenced to 10 years -- or the Roman Catholic Bishops Su Zhemin, An Shuxin and Zeng Jingmu, in their cells, somewhere."

There is more to this glitch than the usual journalistic bias of listening to beltway bureaucrats more than to people in pews.

Human-rights activist Stephen Rickard is convinced that many journalists are suffering "cognitive dissonance" when faced with Amnesty International and Christian Coalition leaders sitting side by side on Capitol Hill. Others seem to think it's wrong for Christians to rally on behalf of their own sisters and brothers.

"People laboring in the human rights vineyard know that this argument is both wrong and self-defeating," argued the director of Amnesty International's Washington, D.C., office, writing in the Washington Times. "It seems obvious to me that someone who has been touched by the suffering of one victim is forever more sensitive to the suffering of all victims. Do I hope that the communities now galvanized on religious persecution will stay engaged and fight for other victims with equal fervor? You bet. Do I think their current efforts deserve to be mocked or denigrated? No way."

Clearly, political prejudices have something to do with all of this, said Rosenthal. Yet, for journalists, this should not cancel out the fact that the movement against religious persecution is based on events and facts that are worthy of coverage.

"You don't need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it," he said. "So why are journalists missing this?... I am inclined to believe that they just can't grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people -- especially conservatives -- is simply too strong for them to see what is happening."