Last week we looked at coverage of Pat Robertson's comments that divorce of a spouse with Alzheimer's can be justified. We talked about whether Robertson's rhetoric needs coverage and how the Associated Press actually used the Gospel of Mark to counter what Robertson said. The story got quite a bit of play. You can find hundreds upon hundreds of articles about it, in fact. Here's one that asked for a response from a couple dealing with Alzheimer's. And given that level of coverage, it's worth revisiting to see how well it was handled.
I had great fun mocking Robertson until a reader made a point about how we live in a society that makes fun of Robertson for saying Alzheimer's is grounds for divorce while supporting divorce for all sorts of less legitimate reasons. If someone divorces her husband because he doesn't make her feel special or if a husband divorces his wife because he's found someone else to start a new family with, we're all gung-ho about it and we don't even blink. Stories are so rare on the topic that when the New York Times ran something last June about how divorce had lost its cache among the elite, it was a big deal.
When you think about how cavalier we are about divorce these days, how frequently we divorce for any manner of reason, it's kind of weird to read all of the outrage over old man Robertson finding a divorce loophole for a difficult situation.
Anywho, religion writer James Davis at the Orlando Sun-Sentinel, had an interesting critique of the media feeding frenzy.
Here's how it begins:
In the week since Pat Robertson made his latest gaffe -- this one about the permissibility of divorcing a spouse who has Alzheimer’s disease -- secular media have taken turns swatting him like an off-season pinata.
They’ve fielded blogs and columns blasting him. They’ve asked theologians and chaplains about the comments. They’ve asked the opinions of people in Alzheimer’s advocacy organizations and those who have loved ones with the dreaded disease.
You know who they’re finally getting around to asking? Leaders in conservative Christianity -- the same movement as Robertson.
Typical of early reports was an article in the Miami Herald that quoted an Episcopal chaplain and people who had loved ones with the disease. And the chaplain said he "would not judge a person for moving on with his or her life.”
The Chicago Tribune did a little better, quoting an evangelical Christian who works with Alzheimer’s patients. But the main source was an ethicist who said Robertson's remarks "spotlight the void in conservative Christian thinking about divorce."
He goes on to mention what conservative Christians said about the matter and where. Instead of inclusion in most mainstream reports, they discussed it through their own media.
Of course, if it were possible to break news about something that was seen by many on cable TV, you could say Christianity Today broke the story about Robertson's remarks. It was a blog post on their site that drew attention to the slightly-wackier-than-usual remarks.
Davis also points out some media that did include the response from Christian conservatives. That includes this New York Times piece and this ABC News piece, although, he says, they're still weighted improperly.
I actually don't have much complaint with the coverage. I think the story was worth looking at and I think most reporters did an adequate job of looking at it. My beef is that the coverage was about a mile wide and an inch thick.
Scraping the surface of the "is divorcing an ill spouse" yields some pretty interesting questions about marriage and spouses' responsibilities to each other. One didn't get the feeling these questions were handled very well at all.
I wonder if there isn't just a cultural inability to discuss marriage in any meaningful fashion that gets carried over to news treatment.
For example, now that I'm married, I'm struck by how rarely marriage, much less a strong marriage, is portrayed in movies. (One notable exception to this is the absolutely excellent film Win Win -- watch it as soon as you're able!) When you think of how dramatic and rich and beautiful marriage can be -- and as much as I'd like to think my husband and I are unique here, I'm sure we're not -- isn't it kind of weird how little that shows up in the media? Sure, you get those tear-jerky human interest stories about the couple that was married for 65 years and died within a day of each other. Stuff like that.
But marriage is a day-to-day reality for many of us and yet our language for discussing it in the generic pop culture is inadequate. Particularly considering how much the topic is preached on or written about or, again, thought about in the day-to-day.
In any case, I wonder what everyone else thought about the Robertson/Alzheimer's brouhaha in general. Well done? Overdone? Too superficial?