When it comes to covering religion news, the mainstream American press is a vast right-wing conspiracy that consistently commits sins of omission against religious liberals.
No, wait, honest. Stop laughing.
The leaders of a liberal advocacy group called Media Matters for America recently released a study entitled "Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media" that says journalists consistently dedicate more ink to covering conservative leaders than to those on the left side of the spectrum.
"Coverage of religion not only over represents some voices and under represents others, it does so in a way that is consistently advantageous to conservatives," according to the study. "Religion is often depicted in the news media as a politically divisive force, with two sides roughly paralleling the broader political divide: On one side are cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs; and on the other side are secular liberals, who have opted out of debates that center on religious-based values."
The bottom line, according to Media Matters, is that religious conservatives were "quoted, mentioned or interviewed" 2.8 times more often than liberals. The study focused on coverage between the 2004 election -- the "values voters" earthquake -- and the end of 2006. It focused on coverage in major secular newspapers, the three major broadcast television networks, major cable news channels and PBS.
With a few exceptions, the study contrasted the coverage of a small circle of evangelical Protestants with the coverage of a more complex list of liberal mainline Protestants, progressive evangelicals and others.
The 10 conservatives included James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship, Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the late Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.
The 10 liberals and "progressives" included Robert Edgar of the National Council of Churches of Christ, C. Weldon Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow Coalition and Jim Wallis of Sojourners.
Were these lists fair representations of a spectrum of beliefs on either the left or the right? The conservative list does not, for example, include a representative or two drawn from the ranks of Roman Catholic clergy, Jewish rabbis or doctrinally conservative mainline Protestants. The list on the left is better, but there are glaring omissions -- such as Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
It is certainly true that leaders on the religious right have drawn more than their share of news coverage during recent decades of American political life. However this raises a crucial question, which is whether religious movements should be judged by the political maneuvers of a handful of outspoken leaders. Should politics always trump doctrine?
Meanwhile, many conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers and others have to cringe whenever they see themselves represented in the national media by more quotes from Dobson or Robertson. Who are the leaders on the religious left who make other liberals cringe whenever they open their mouths?
So why have a few religious conservatives dominated the news, while religious liberals have been left in the shadows?
For starters, conservative groups have been growing in size and power, while liberal groups -- especially mainline Protestant churches -- have lost millions of members. Journalists pay special attention to groups that they believe are gaining power.
Journalists also focus on trends that they consider strange, bizarre and even disturbing. Certainly, one of the hottest news stories in the past quarter century of American life has been the rise of the religious right and its political union with the Republican Party. For many elite journalists, this story has resembled the vandals arriving to sack Rome.
One of the nation's top religion writers heard an even more cynical theory to explain this evidence that journalists seem eager to quote conservatives more than liberals when covering religion news.
"Personally, I think there's much truth to what the study claims," said Gary Stern of the Journal News in Westchester, N.Y., in a weblog post. "But why? Some progressive religious leaders have told me one theory: that media people are anti-religion, so they trot out angry, self-righteous, conservative voices who make all religion look bad."