Who you callin’ a Christian?

The recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court about birth control coverage required by the Affordable Care Act brings up one of the biggest faults the U.S. media have when they cover religion — namely, “Christian” equals “religious right.”

This observation isn’t new. This media habit probably started in the 1990s, during the rise of right-wing media. Still, it’s lazy, it’s judgmental, it’s overly simplistic. And it’s wrong.

Just to refresh: The craft store franchise Hobby Lobby disagrees with the requirement that the health insurance it offers its employees must include contraception for women. Hobby Lobby has stated that providing contraception as part of its health insurance plan is a violation of the company’s “religious freedom.” Hobby Lobby calls itself a “Christian-owned” craft supply chain.

(It’s worthwhile to note that most of Hobby Lobby’s merchandise comes from China, where abortions are provided by the government and religious freedoms are widely restricted. In other words, Hobby Lobby has no problem restricting religious freedom when profits are concerned. Hobby Lobby also has no problem investing in drug companies that manufacture emergency contraceptive medicine like Plan B and devices it claims can cause abortions, like IUDs. But that hypocrisy is another story. As is the whole notion that a corporation can have a religion. But we digress.)

While the media continue to push the meme that the “Christian” point of view is that mandatory insurance coverage of birth control is wrong, you may be surprised to learn that many church groups take the opposite approach. They support the mandate that requires companies to provide birth control coverage, because they see such services as basic to women’s health care. According to Juicy Ecumenism, a blog by the Institute on Religion and Democracy:

“The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, along with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which includes the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC), have endorsed the HHS mandate that requires employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients. So too have the UCC’s president, the Reformed Church in America’s general secretary, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., the president of Union Seminary, the dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, and the president of Episcopal Divinity School, plus the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.”

Well, that’s quite a few Christian groups and churches! All in support of insurance coverage for birth control. Of course, it’s not unanimous. The blog also reports:

“In contrast, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, National Religious Broadcasters, and Council for Christian Colleges & Universities have identified the HHS Obamacare mandate as an assault on religious liberty.”

In 2012, a group of Christian pastors collected more than 80,000 signatures on petitions against Hobby Lobby’s suit. They represented an activist online group called Faithful America and demanded that Hobby Lobby drop the lawsuit. No, not much coverage of that, either, except in far-right media that claimed the whole thing must have been funded by billionaire George Soros.

I bet this is news to most people reading this post. I suspect that in all of the coverage of the Hobby Lobby case, you didn’t read one word that many, many churches support coverage of birth control as being part of basic women’s health care, and many, many didn’t. I would bet that you thought ALL churches must support Hobby Lobby’s position because otherwise, it’s an “assault on religious liberty.” And why? Because the many news reports about the Hobby Lobby case never reported on any split. Anything the religious right proclaims is “Christian”; anything else can get ignored.

The story of Noah takes up only a few chapters in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Yet the movie Noah is “controversial” because “Christian” leaders object to it. (Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the film yet, although the publicity sent me back to read the story in Genesis.) Yes, Noah gets drunk after the ark lands, but the objection that he is portrayed as a drunk who only cares about climate change is beyond silly. The movie has attracted a wide audience so far, and people of different faiths have different opinions about it. Many Christians have different opinions about it. Is there any surprise there? No. Should there be? No.

I’m not talking about movies or TV that give positive or negative portrayals of Christianity, from Bible-beating killers to holier-than-thou types. I’m talking about news media, which should be doing a more thorough job.

One of the pastors at my church recently attended a conference on church youth programs. She said a major problem churches face in engaging young people is that many don’t want to be labeled or seen as a “Christian” because they equate the term with conservative evangelicals. Given the prevalence of the media to paint all Christians with a broad brush, I understand their hesitation.

A recent Pew Research poll showed that the Millennial generation, Americans ages 18-29, are considerably less religious than older Americans. One-quarter are not affiliated with any faith. They are less likely to attend church on a regular basis, even though the poll showed that many have the same basic beliefs as their elders.

Unless there is a more honest portrayal in the media of the differences in the way people believe and worship, I fear this trend will continue. Is that a good or bad thing? I remain agnostic on the issue.

Sex and the single candidate

It’s past time for the media to treat male and female candidates, officials, and politicians the same.

Consider: Janet Yellen is the first female chair of the Federal Reserve. Her credentials are impeccable. She was vice chair for four years. She has degrees from Brown and Yale. She was head of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

So what gets reported about her by male columnists? She wore the same outfit twice in one month.

Wrote Warren Rojas of Roll Call: “Whether Janet Yellen, President Barack Obama’s latest pick to head the Federal Reserve, proves to be the financial genius our sputtering economy so desperately needs, remains to be seen. At least we know her mind won’t be preoccupied with haute couture.”

To Rojas’ credit, when he got some pushback from media groups, he said he had learned his lesson. He posted: “Message received, America. Perhaps I should leave all the fashion policing to the Joan Rivers and Tim Gunns of the world.”

Damn straight he should. Too bad so many others still need to learn the lesson. When Yellen was nominated last October, the conservative website Daily Caller posted this: “Who’s hotter? Janet Yellen or Miley Cyrus?” Sure, let’s equate the accomplishments of one of the most qualified people to ever hold the office of Federal Reserve chair with a former child star now famous for twerking.

A national bipartisan organization called “Name It. Change It.” tracks coverage of how women in public life are treated in the media. And the group doesn’t like what it sees.

“Widespread sexism in the media is one of the top problems facing women,” says an intro on the group’s home page. “A highly toxic media environment persists for women candidates, often negatively affecting their campaigns. The ever-changing media landscape creates an unmonitored echo chamber, often allowing damaging comments to exist without accountability.”

The group was co-founded by Gloria Steinem, but both Republican and Democratic candidates have suffered the effects of  sexism in coverage. Consider:

* When Sarah Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, one of the first questions the media brought up was “How can she be vice president with a special needs child?” (Her then-infant son has Down’s syndrome.) Gee, I wonder how many male politicians have special needs children? They seem to do quite well without being home all the time.

* A Boston Herald reporter, covering a female Green Party candidate running for governor in 2010, wrote a story quoting stylists on how the candidate should improve her looks. The headline: “She’s a great candidate … for a makeover!” Her hair was “a Brillo pad that’s seen better days.” Her clothes are “earthy crunchy.” Not a word about her policy positions.

* During a 2012 televised debate in New York for two female candidates running for the Senate, the moderator asked both candidates if they had read the sexually graphic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Would that moderator ask a male candidate if he reads Playboy?

* Wendy Davis is running for governor of Texas and got a lot of publicity in the summer of 2013 when she led a successful filibuster against an anti-abortion bill in the state Legislature. But what got the most coverage? Her pink tennis shoes. More recently, a story about her in a Texas newspaper that questioned some discrepancies in her biography focused on her role as a single mother, how she spent time away from her children, and how her ex-husband was the one who really made everything possible by paying for law school. As if a male candidate never had to spend time away from his children, or if that candidate’s parents didn’t pay for his schooling.

* A Today Show interview with Samantha Powers, U.S. ambassador to the UN, touched on her views on Syria, but the label across the bottom of the screen read “UN AMBASSADOR ON BALANCING DIPLOMATS AND DIAPERS.” Guess the media just couldn’t resist the meme of “How does the working mom do it all?”

The examples are endless. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and changing hairstyles. What Michelle Bachmann wore to Republican debates (“When her numbers went down, she should have brought down her neckline. Might have helped,” wrote one columnist). Referring to many female candidates over the age of 50 as  “granny.” Terms describing women candidates like “ice queen,” “mean girl,” and “cougar,” or even worse, “slut” and “prostitute.” One candidate was even asked for her measurements — in the middle of a stump speech.

So what should female candidates do when they face this kind of sexist coverage? “Name It. Change It.” advises candidates to jump on the coverage immediately and say, “We need to be talking about issues, not calling people names.”

Only 2% of the 13,000 people who have served in Congress have been women. Only 31 women have ever been governor of a state, compared with more than 2,300 men. The U.S. actually has a worse record than other Western countries when it comes to female office holders. And media coverage of female candidates has played a big part.

As the “Name It. Change It.” campaign puts it: Don’t say she’s had facial surgery unless you say he dyes his hair or has hair plugs.

Sure, they’ve got to fill 24 hours of “news,” but …

You wonder how long the cable news channels can sustain their endless coverage of the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.

It’s a tragedy for those with family members or loved ones on board, and I don’t want to minimize that. But we really don’t know any more now than we did when the flight went missing on March 8. Still, that hasn’t stopped the parade of aviation experts, government officials from around the world, and other pundits from offering theories, whether plausible or unsubstantiated, about what happened. And at the same time they offer these theories, they admit that they have no idea what’s true or not.

Stolen passports! It was the pilots! It was the flight engineer! It was the passengers themselves!

No doubt many stations jumped the shark on this long ago. But consider: CNN’s Don Lemon asked a guest a few days ago if something “supernatural” might have happened to the flight. “Especially today, on a day when we deal with the supernatural,” Lemon said. “We go to church, the supernatural power of God … people are saying to me, why aren’t you talking about the possibility — and I’m just putting it out there — that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding?”

Really, Don? Why stop there? Why not aliens? ET? Maybe the plane, its crew, and its passengers were all assimilated by the Borg. Maybe the plane was diverted to Nepal (hey, it’s in the neighborhood) and was taken over by Yeti. Maybe the plane landed on the Indian Ocean’s version of the island on Lost. Or Gilligan’s Island.

In The Guardian, Michael Wolff wrote that although we are all fascinated by the missing or the unknown, this story is really “anti-journalism.”

“Everyone is entitled to his or her own their own theory it’s more democratization of journalism – including, but not limited to: a) terrorism; b) mechanical failure; c) hijacking; d) mad or rogue pilot; e) meteor; d) aliens; e) reality show promotion (in this, the 239 passengers and crew would have been in on it – each paid for their performance),” he wrote. “It is, of course, an ideal story for the current journalism era because it costs nothing. Nobody has to go anywhere. Nobody has to cover the wreckage and the recovery. Not only is the story pretty much all just theories – but theories are cheap.”

And while we are oversaturated with coverage of a missing airliner, we are not learning all we should about more important stories elsewhere in the world. Crimea. Syria. Iran. The effects of the Affordable Care Act, both good and bad. Congress’ lack of any legislative accomplishments.

Probably the best comments about the 24/7 coverage of the missing flight came from political satirist Andy Borowitz in his always-sharp posts on the Borowitz Report. The blame is spread across the board. (And in case anyone thinks these quotes are real, remember: THIS IS SATIRE.)

“As a news network, we regard a lack of news as a worthy challenge,” CNN chief Jeff Zucker said. “Our people are doing a heroic job of filling the void with rumor and hearsay.”

A spokesperson for MSNBC, however, scoffed at Mr. Zucker’s assessment that there was no information about the missing plane. “We are receiving tons of erroneous and conflicting reports from authorities every hour, and the instant we get them we pass them on to our viewers,” he said.

Over at Fox, host Sean Hannity expressed confidence in his network’s coverage. “When it comes to broadcasting twenty-four hours a day with no verifiable facts, I wouldn’t trade our experience and expertise for anybody’s,” he said.

The social cost of carbon

A report released March 13 by three environmental groups makes the case that the social cost of carbon is far higher than the $37 per ton estimated by the U.S. government.

The costs of carbon — the including harm to human health, decreased farm productivity, and a growing rise in sea levels — should be estimated at a much higher figure, says a report from the Cost of Carbon Project, a joint initiative by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Institute for Policy Integrity, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The latest government estimate by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget leaves out many specifics, such as growing acidity in oceans, spikes in food prices, increases in respiratory diseases, and damage to ecosystems.

Although the U.S. estimate was raised in November 2013 from $24 to $37, the new report says the estimate is still way too low. The report says there is a “downward bias” in how OMB measures the social cost of carbon because of other omissions, including forced migration, social and political conflict, extreme weather events, and catastrophic damages.

“What we know is bad,” said Gernot Wagner, a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “What we don’t know makes it worse.”

The bigger question, of course, is: Where is the coverage of this? Where is the coverage of environmental issues, period? Thirty-one Democratic senators pulled an all-nighter on March 10 to talk about environmental issues, but they did so admitting that no environmental legislation would get passed this year. Republicans dismissed the talk-a-thon as a “political stunt.” Maybe if something concrete happened, people — and the media — would pay attention.

The full report, “Omitted Damages: What’s Missing From the Social Cost of Carbon,” is at costofcarbon.org.

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