The church of media coverage

robertson time 01I know we always claim we're going to stop talking about Pat Robertson but he keeps making it difficult. We just don't know how to quit you, Pat! Whatever his other merits, the televangelist has an amazing ability to make news. Such as today when he gave Rudy Guiliani his endorsement for president. Even more newsworthy, Guiliani took the endorsement! Here's how The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote it up:

Pat Robertson, one of the most influential figures in the social conservative movement, announced his support for Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid this morning at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Robertson's support was coveted by several of the leading Republican candidates and provides Giuliani with a major boost as the former New York City mayor seeks to convince social conservatives that, despite his positions supporting abortion rights and gay rights, he is an acceptable choice as the GOP nominee.

I'm not sure how coveted Robertson's support was, but I'm not terribly in tune politically. I'm sitting here trying to decide who is hurt more by this alliance, but obviously they wouldn't have done it if they didn't both stand to gain from it. So what should reporters covering this story consider? The most fascinating aspect to me is that the founder of the Christian Coalition would endorse a candidate who unequivocally supports abortion. Reporters have already queried him on it and Robertson provided some excuse for the incongruity, saying that Guiliani would appoint the right Supreme Court Justices and that no president can do much on the abortion issue. Cillizza sat down with Robertson and Guiliani to find out more about the ties that bind the two:

[Robertson] insisted that while some on the "fringe" of the social conservative movement may see Giuliani as an unacceptable nominee, the "core know better."

Robertson said although he and Giuliani disagree on social issues, those disagreements "pale into insignificance" when measured against the import of the fight against global terrorism and radical Islam. "We need a man who sees clearly how to deal with that issue," said Robertson.

I love Robertson talking about the fringe of the social conservative movement. Anyway, a good question for reporters to answer is whether Robertson is a leader of the religious right whose change of heart signifies a larger shift in the religious and political views of a large sector of the population, an old man who is sad to have lost his prominence and is struggling to get it back, or something altogether different. After referring to him as a pillar and prominent leader of the religious right, Cillizza quotes a different view from the Post's religion reporter:

In May our colleauge Alan Cooperman described Robertson as a member of "an older generation of evangelical leaders" that includes the Rev. Billy Graham, psychologist James C. Dobson and the Rev. D. James Kennedy, who are "ailing or nearing retirement," and who are seeing their movement "tugged in different directions" by a new crop of activists.

If abortion is no longer a make or break issue for the religious right, and if evangelicals begin to break along different lines, what might those lines be? Big government social welfare programs vs. big government anti-terrorism programs? It certainly seems like it could happen. Fact is, the most recent incarnation of Protestant activism (on both left and right) is just that: the most recent incarnation. If Robertson is indicative of a new religious right primarily backing the global war on terrorism, it's not that different than some of the religious divides we saw prior to and during World War II.

And what does a new political breakdown do to the pro-life movement? Will Democrats start courting those religious adherents and others who loathe legalized abortion on demand? Is that better for the pro-life movement or the pro-choice movement?

The thing is, though, that I'm not so sure who Pat Robertson represents. I don't want to pull a proverbial Pauline Kael and think he has no influence because he doesn't influence me. Does his endorsement have news value? Most certainly. Does he represent a huge swath of voters? I've always felt his congregation was the mainstream media more than religious voters. In fact, tmatt has called on that congregation to excommunicate Robertson. After Robertson made one of his trademark statements in January 2006 (I believe it was the one where he said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine retribution), Washington Monthly's Amy Sullivan had this to say:

As for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, their heyday was 20 years ago; the only reason they're still booked as talking heads is that most producers don't know these two men no longer have any power. But more than that, they're just not representative of today's evangelicals. Robertson is a Pentecostal and Falwell is a fundamentalist, and while you could broadly say that most Pentecostals and fundamentalists are evangelicals, not all evangelicals are Pentecostals or fundamentalists. That's why some of the more extreme theological statements you hear from those two (God let 9/11 happen because of gays and women and the ACLU) aren’t shared by a lot of evangelicals. That's not to say that many evangelicals (and some of the names I mentioned) don't hold intolerant, troubling views. But when we criticize them, we should be able to distinguish between widely-held beliefs and the wacked-out positions of a couple of has-beens.

So once again Robertson forces some good media criticism questions. How do we ID him? Does his endorsement mean anything? If so, what? What should reporters dig into for further clarification?

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