The communications industry, television mostly, took a drubbing at two recent national meetings of religious leaders. The two groups together claim to represent 107 million church members in the United States.
For the National Council of Churches Nov. 8-13 in Baltimore and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 15-18 in Washington, the shortcomings they perceived in the communications media were a preoccupation. Speakers at both assemblies were apt to say, a little defensively, "This may sound like media bashing, but --"
If the industry decision-makers whom the two clergy organizations targeted and sought to influence were the same, this was virtually all that their critiques had in common.
The separate evaluations of the media began with shared teachings of Jesus that are the reason for the existence of both groups, but they veered off in opposite directions.
The dissimilarities arise from fundamental organizational differences between the conveners: the one a patriarchal, hierarchical, vertical church governed from the Vatican, top to bottom; the other a horizontal confederation of religious denominations ruled, more or less, from the bottom up and rooted in the give-and-take traditions of U.S. democracy.
At the Baltimore meeting, the ecumenical council of 32 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations -- with a total membership estimated at nearly 49 million -- gave line-by-line scrutiny to and finally adopted two studies critical of the mass media for what were said to be major contributions to the violence in U.S. society.
Entitled "Violence in Electronic Media and Film" and "Global Communication for Justice," the two papers reflected the concern of the Protestant and Orthodox clergy that they remain faithful to their opposition to censorship while finding a hTC cause-and-effect relationship between the prominence given gratuitous violence in films, television and other media and the rising crime rates in America.
The National Council of Churches was wary of any restraints on news coverage or the free exercise of reporters. Its discussions began with a videotaped address by Democratic Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, who drew a distinction between legitimate news reporting of violent crime or warfare and what he called "glamorized, happy violence."
The clergy and lay representatives at the Baltimore meeting found "misuse of the First Amendment by commercial interests as a cover for a quest for profit," but they concluded: "As objectionable as we find media violence, we do not believe government censorship is a viable or appropriate solution."
All of the discussions of the National Council of Churches were in the open. There were no closed-door, executive sessions.
In Washington, the public deliberations of the Roman Catholic hierarchy began with a keynote address by Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, the elected president of the conference. More than half his speech was devoted to his disapproval of what he said is a shallow, negative, seriously distorted picture of the Catholic Church presented by U.S. television, radio, newspapers and magazines. U.S. Catholics number about 59 million.
Many of the Catholic bishops' discussions were in the open -- and their reliance on the news media to tell their story was supported, as usual, by a large and savvy communications staff -- but many of their meetings, also as usual, were behind closed doors.
What, if any, disagreement with Archbishop Keeler's address may have been expressed in executive sessions or otherwise in private was never divulged.
The archbishop's unhappiness with the media focused largely on news reports of what dissident Catholics were saying in Denver in August during the visit of Pope John Paul II.
"One most objectionable media technique is the tendency to interview people with the extreme views at either end of the spectrum and then suggest the interview has covered the whole spectrum," Archbishop Keeler said. "What that technique does, in fact, is exclude from the conversation the broad mass of the Catholic population."
He claimed that a "pre-programmed 'Catholic Story' " of a church "in disarray, rife with dissent," is supported by faulty surveys of Catholics' opinions. "The same few issues are covered in poll after poll, giving evidence of the narrowness of the media's concerns," the archbishop said.
"In the case of Denver, the media's 'American Catholic Story' was most concisely formulated in the question asked by [ABC television reporter] Ted Koppel on 'Nightline' on the day the pope arrived, 'The Catholic Church: coming together or coming apart?' " the archbishop continued.
Archbishop Keeler said, "We, the bishops of the church in this land, face a major challenge in addressing this situation and we dare not ignore it," although he did not make clear what the bishops' response to the challenge from secular news coverage should be.
In another strong statement by the Catholic hierarchy, dissent was not only discouraged, it was forbidden.
One of the many organizations calling themselves Catholic that descended on Denver during the pope's visit to question some of his views and priorities was Catholics for a Free Choice. Its news conferences, in particular, agitated some church leaders.
At the recent Washington meeting, the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a denunciation of this pro-abortion rights group, warning that "many people, including Catholics, may be led to believe that it is an authentic Catholic organization" and stating categorically, "It is not. It has no affiliation, formal or otherwise, with the Catholic Church."
The bishops went on to say that the group "merits no recognition or support" and concluded: "In fact, there is no room for dissent by a Catholic from the church's moral teaching that direct abortion is a grave wrong."
Characteristically, Catholics for a Free Choice responded immediately and aggressively to the bishops in Washington with a point-by-point defense, saying that it "makes no claim to speak for the institutional church" but rather claims "quite rightly that the positions we take reflect the views of many, often the majority, of Catholics, even when these views are at odds with the view of the hierarchy."
The dissident group also said: "Our job is to present the views of Catholics on public policy issues based on a fair and reasonable reading of survey research about attitudes and behavior. In this task, we believe we present Catholic opinion more fairly and honestly than do the bishops.
"The cornerstone of democracy is the free exchange of ideas. The public and the policy community will be the arbiter of our issues."
The latter phrases could have been almost anywhere in the documents hammered out in Baltimore by the National Council of Churches. Clearly, its approach to criticizing the communications media and that of the Catholic bishops were, as Archbishop Keeler might have put it, at far ends of the spectrum.
Frank Somerville is a reporter for The Sun.