Passion screenings -- just in time to be late

It appears that God-beat professionals are finally going to get to see "The Passion of the Christ" -- on Monday. This is when run-of-the-mill press screenings are being held across the land. Let me stress again. The problem with the so-called public relations for this film is not with the treatment of the people who review films. The problem has been with the professionals who cover religion AS NEWS. This has -- for months -- been one of the biggest religion stories on Planet Earth. Passions have been high, to say the least.

Yet reporters who have wanted to tell both sides of the story have had their hands tied. The film's critics -- including some journalists -- have been willing to talk and talk, world without end, amen. Many of their criticisms have been based on material such as an early leaked script that could not be verified. If a reporter wanted to be fair to Gibson and Icon, who was the reporter supposed to quote? Meanwhile, tens of thousands of ministers and activists of all kinds have seen the film. Many of them have been highly critical of negative press coverage. Yet -- irony of ironies -- many of these ministers have had face-to-face access with Gibson and others. They have information and input that the reporters do not.

As a journalism professor, I have been asked my views on this film and, get this, the students asking the questions have seen the film and heard Gibson discuss it. Yet I, as a journalist, have not.

What did Icon's publicists gain by preventing many fair-minded journalists from doing their jobs?

It has been agonizing. Here is the latest Editor and Publisher take on the situation:

Debra L. Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, which represents 240 writers, said such late screenings do not compensate for writers who needed to view the film months ago. "I don't think it makes up for it," she said. "We would have liked to have seen the film weeks or months ago."

Mason knew of only three writers, from the Associated Press, The Washington Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who had seen the film through the private showings. She also complained that the press screenings would be limited to the 50 largest markets, shutting out writers at smaller papers. "Some people have to drive more than four hours to these places," she added.

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