COMMENTARY: When in doubt, blame the media

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the National Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee.)

(UNDATED) _ Pity the media. Whatever it does in its treatment of religion, it always seems to be wrong.

For years the media was criticized by the religious community for failing to provide adequate and accurate coverage of America's spiritual life. Critics charged while other popular activities, like sex, exercise, and eating, were given extensive coverage on radio, television, and in the print media, religion remained a journalistic pariah, unworthy of serious exploration.

So what happened? Stung by the criticism, the media has in recent years strengthened its reporting of religion, and in so doing, journalists have uncovered some excellent stories of how authentic faith profoundly affects people's lives. But, surprise of surprises, the media also discovered some fiscal and sexual scandals within churches and synagogues. "Not fair,"cried some in the religious establishment. Religion, it was claimed, is a"private sacred matter"for each faith community to regulate. It is unlike other public institutions in our society and deserves special, even preferential media treatment. Outsiders, especially reporters who only look for scandal anyway, are not welcome.

It's an old game: discredit the messengers and their upsetting messages will be disregarded.

One exciting sign of the media's increased interest in religion is the TV program,"Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly,"which made its debut in September on the Public Broadcasting System. Bob Abernethy, the well-known former NBC correspondent, conceived the program and acts as its host each week.

Linked to no denomination or faith community, the independent TV program seeks to provide genuine news and not"preaching"for viewers. Hopefully,"Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly"will expand beyond the 20 cities where it is currently broadcast, and become a permanent and valued part of America's religious landscape.

But how priests, ministers, and rabbis respond to the program will clearly reveal whether they are indeed serious about having responsible, professional media coverage of things spiritual. Will America's religious leaders welcome"Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly"as a reliable source of news and analysis? Or will they ignore the program's great potential and retreat back into their private kingdoms, principalities, and pulpits?

And the persistent demand for religion to be exempt from independent media treatment is often applied to commercial prime time TV as well.

A few years ago, I lamented the quick cancellation of the show,"Amazing Grace,"starring Patty Duke as a divorced Protestant minister with the strengths and weaknesses of any member of the clergy. There was a pleasant honesty about Duke's character because she didn't have all the theological answers for her congregation, but she certainly knew which questions to ask about God, prayer, and faith.

A network official told me the"show didn't get enough of an audience,"and one of the reasons for"Amazing Grace's"short shelf life was the criticism it received from the religious community. The show never had a chance.

Currently, another prime time TV show,"Nothing Sacred,"is fighting for network survival. This time the central character is Father Ray, a Roman Catholic priest, who struggles each week with his all-too human urges and doubts."Nothing Sacred"has been widely condemned, even by critics who proudly admit they have never seen the program. Father Ray's future remains in doubt.

I feel a special compassion for the pompous rabbi who appears from time to time on the TV hit show,"Seinfeld."But instead of laughing at this comedic figure, and perhaps admitting the shock of personal recognition in the overdrawn character, some of my rabbinic colleagues have reacted to the program in rage and anger.

They blame the media and argue that"Seinfeld's"rabbi demeans our profession and holds the Jewish community up to ridicule. Oh, please.

Are rabbis and the people they serve so insecure they cannot laugh at themselves? Whatever happened to the famous Jewish sense of humor that has served as a source of survival for centuries? A sincere, albeit bumbling rabbi provides a welcome counterpoint on a TV program whose main characters are totally selfish and narcissistic.

Oh well, when in doubt, blame the media.