Are Atheists Getting a Free Pass from the Media? March 18, 2008

Are Atheists Getting a Free Pass from the Media?

The (Christian) Media Research Center’s Culture and Media Institute thinks so.

They say that the news media (in 2007) did not “subject atheism or atheists to the same skepticism to which they subject Christians and Christianity.”

According to their findings:

Eighty percent of feature stories about atheism or atheists had a positive tone, 20 percent were neutral. No feature stories were negative.

Their “research” was limited to CBS, NBC, and ABC broadcast news; Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report; and NPR shows Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation.

Let’s say their research is accurate.

I wouldn’t be surprised.

It’s certainly not because the media is biased toward atheists. They’re not. Most members of the media — like the population at large — are religious. We atheists are going to be in the minority for a long time still.

But think about why atheists were in the news in 2007.

Atheist books suggesting that we challenge religious claims were bestsellers.

Atheists challenged President Bush’s faith-based initiatives.

Atheists created a Sunday school of their own.

For the first time in history, we learned that we have a non-theistic Congressperson.

A lot of good things happened for atheists this year. We deserve some decent coverage.

That said, the research is not accurate.

Are we favored by the press? Of course not.

Newspapers and magazines love to feature stories about things you never hear about. Those stories attract more readers. Positive articles about atheism used to be a rarity, so it’s not surprising that the media would try to feature more stories about atheists having summer camps or atheists standing up for their rights.

Let’s go through this hilarious report (PDF)…

This report concludes that, whether deliberately or not, the news media did not subject atheism or atheists to the same skepticism to which they subject Christians and Christianity.

If so, that’s only because there is much more to be skeptical about when it comes to Christianity!

In this day and age, it’s remarkable that there are so many people who could be against proper sex education, gay marriage, scientific truths, or controversial books. Yet, it’s the numerous radical members of the Christian faith who fit that bill.

Everyone should be questioning what they do and who the followers are.

What are atheists advocating that merits such “skepticism”?

Equal rights for everyone? A good education? Tolerance? Respect? Exposure to different points of view? A separation of church and state (that would no doubt benefit religion)?

Let’s get to the specifics.

The report’s writer Kristen Fyfe said that Good Morning America covered the Atheist Alliance International convention back in September.

[Liz] Marlantes was reporting on an atheist convention, and [Bill] Weir led into the story by saying, “A large convention of atheists is gathering – men, women and children who all proclaim that God does not exist. Still, of course, the minority view in this country, but it is a view that is becoming more and more vocal with more and more members every day.” Marlantes chimed in, “Call it ‘atheism unleashed.’ Books denying the existence of God are topping the best seller lists. Congress now has its first self-proclaimed atheists. There are even atheist summer camps for kids.” She went on to speculate that the “stigma” of being an atheist “may be fading.”

The story aired on a Sunday morning, and no opposing point of view was offered in the piece. After Marlantes’ feature, Weir interviewed Christopher Hitchens in studio.

Such uncritical promotion of atheism was typical in the coverage CMI examined.

That’s promotion of atheism? The report that said a convention took place and people are reading atheist books. Those are facts.

(Though Good Morning America incorrectly thinks that there are atheists, plural, in Congress.)

Why would there be an opposing point of view? What is there to oppose? Do they want a Christian pastor to say, “That convention did not take place”?

Also seen as media promotion of atheism was this sentence referring to Newsweek‘s story about the Rational Response Squad’s Blasphemy Challenge:

The story ranked high on Newsweek’s Popularity Index, a measure of how many times a story gets viewed at

Let me get this straight… a lot of you read that story.

Therefore Newsweek is biased.


The report also cites Nightline‘s airing of the debate between the Rational Response Squad and bananamen Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort. Apparently, that was a “victory” for atheists (but not a victory for Christians). Personally, I don’t think either side came out better as a result, as great as it was for Brian Sapient and Kelly O’Connor to get the exposure.

Similarly, the report cites the Newsweek debate between Sam Harris and Rick Warren as promotion of atheism (but not Christianity).

How about atheists’ critical responses to religious stories?

Newsweek added to its pro-atheism story count by profiling Christopher Hitchens in the May 14 issue and then giving him two pages in the September 10 issue to critique a book about Mother Teresa’s spiritual struggles.

That’s pro-atheism? Christopher Hitchens wrote a book that was #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list. He damn well better be profiled in a major publication. He also wrote a book criticizing Mother Teresa several years ago. He is more qualified to comment on her than just about anyone in the media. So of course he was given an opportunity to critique a book written about her.

It’s not promotion of atheism.

In 77 stories that dealt with Christian issues or themes, atheism or atheists were mentioned 71 percent of the time. Also, journalists were far less likely to include religious views in stories on atheism. Out of 21 stories focused on atheism, a religious counterpoint was offered in only 11, or 54 percent of the time.

I don’t understand this one.

If there is an issue that involves a Christian belief and it needs a counterpoint, it’s not surprising that an atheist would give it. What is a Hindu/Buddhist/Mormon person going to say? If the issue has to do with belief in God, you need someone who doesn’t hold that belief to give a rebuttal.

It doesn’t necessarily work the same way in the other direction.

As I mentioned, many of the articles about atheism were not the kind that needed a rebuttal. When a reporter writes that an atheist convention took place, for example, you don’t need a religious response.

This is my favorite bit:

Television reports also frequently favored atheists when reporting on Christian-themed stories. In November, ABC, CBS and NBC all reported on the governor of drought-stricken Georgia’s decision to hold a public prayer session asking God for rain. Governor Sonny Perdue held the prayer session outside the capitol building, drawing protests from those who think praying on government property is inappropriate if not illegal. In covering the story, ABC and CBS both included interviews with an atheist who raised the separation of church and state issue. In his November 13 ABC Good Morning America story about Perdue’s prayer session, reporter Steve Osunsami gave an atheist six times as much air time as Governor Perdue. The governor got a three-second sound bite while the atheist had two sound bites and b-roll footage of him walking in town, for a total of 20 seconds. CBS’s story was more evenly weighted. NBC’s reporting of the story occurred on the Today show as an anchor-read by Ann Curry followed by a brief conversation between anchors Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and weatherman Al Roker. It contained no atheist viewpoint.

ABC was the only network to follow up with a brief anchor mention that it rained a few hours after Gov. Perdue’s prayer service concluded.

This non-story shouldn’t have been covered at all, but if it was, Perdue deserved nothing but complete mockery (if not negative coverage) for his thinking that prayer would bring rain.

The media needed someone of reason to counter his moronic thinking. It didn’t have to be an atheist, but you need someone who can address separation of church and state issues along with someone who can comfortably point out the obvious: prayer has nothing to do with when it rains.

An atheist viewpoint seemed appropriate in this case. But nowhere was an atheist viewpoint favored or supported.

On to politics:

… six out of seven news organizations considered in this study addressed the concerns and interests of atheists in the upcoming presidential election. Only Republican candidates for President were asked how they would treat atheists.

… Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney were asked specifically whether they would appoint atheists to government positions if they were elected. No reporters asked Democratic candidates this question, even though Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards all described themselves openly as Christians, and the media had reported about the Democrats’ plans to engage churchgoers.

Again, not surprising. Huckabee and Romney made their faiths an issue in their campaigns. It’s important to question whether they would be open to seeking (and taking) the advice of someone outside their faiths — certainly this was important to ask of Huckabee. So, yes, atheists were asked about. This is not a promotion of atheism. Just a question about whether a politician’s faith would make him/her incapable of seeing someone’s good judgment in lieu of their “correct” religious label.

(For what it’s worth, Barack Obama’s possibly being atheist has been used against him.)

CMI also seems to forget all the idiotic questions regarding candidates’ favorite Bible verses. And the idiotic answers from Republicans regarding whether or not they accepted evolution. In other words, they would get approval points for proclaiming their literal-Bible-believing Christianity.

Is that not promotion of Christian beliefs over everyone else’s?

Christianity (fundamental or otherwise) played a major role in this election season and it will continue to do so. Atheism is a minor side issue. But CMI won’t acknowledge that.

Fyfe writes about an ABC special that featured Nicole Smalkowski. Fyfe is mad because “atheism was portrayed sympathetically.”

She’s also upset because, in the same segment, Richard Dawkins is featured.

[John] Stossel mentioned that Dawkins was touring the country to promote his book and speculated that he might be getting angry reactions because “America is a very religious country.” Dawkins replied, “I thought just the same, but people thanked me over and over again for saying what they themselves would like to say, but somehow feel they better not.” Stossel did not challenge that assertion.

Again, I ask: what is there to challenge?

There were people who said this to Dawkins. Not every Christian. But some.

Perhaps CMI was looking for a Christian to respond by saying, “NO! CHRISTIANS DID NOT THANK DAWKINS FOR THAT! THEY NEVER HAVE A NEED TO QUESTION FAITH!”

Ok, one last example of “media bias in favor of atheism”:

Time chose atheist Richard Dawkins as one of its 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2007.

(They didn’t mention that hard-core Christians John Roberts and Tony Dungy were also on the list. Not to mention the Pope.)

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • What are atheists advocating that merits such “skepticism”?

    Obviously, we advocate skepticism itself.

    I think the reason that atheists get more sympathetic media coverage (if it’s true) is that we’re the underdog. We’re at that stage where we’re starting to be accepted, and do not yet qualify as the tyrannous majority. A corollary of my reasoning is that LGBT and women’s rights should be receiving more sympathetic coverage than their opponents.

    Furthermore, if they only count the 8% atheist figure, they will greatly underestimate the amount of disillusionment with religion. For a more accurate figure, they would need to include agnostics and other freethinkers. Even religious people seem to be disillusioned these days (which is why we get crazy internet people who deny that Christianity is a religion).

  • Miko

    (Though Good Morning America incorrectly thinks that there are atheists, plural, in Congress.)

    There are atheists, plural, in Congress. It’s just that we don’t know for certain who most of them are. 😉

  • Thanks for taking this apart Hemant.

  • Josha

    They obviously consider atheism and our rational criticism of religion a threat. This is why they attack any coverage of atheism in the news that isn’t “they have no morals those godless heathens”.

  • sabrina

    Well, can’t be treating Teh Atheists like they’re actual people now;) What’s next, treating Muslims, gays, and women like they’re people, too? Yikes.

  • Karen

    What a load of horseshit. Not only is it wildly inaccurate, as you point out Hemant, but it makes them come off like whiny babies, frankly.

    How come everyone is so nice to those nasty atheists, and they’re so mean to us?! We’re a poor, persecuted minority – see?!

    Please. I’d love to count all the religious nonsense that runs on the cable channels this particular week – Holy Week – not to mention all year long. I saw an ad last night for a program about the shroud of Turin, for instance, a hoax that was debunked years and years ago. But all kinds of pro-religion programming gets by scheduled without any concerns about a factual basis.

    CMI also seems to forget all the idiotic questions regarding candidates’ favorite Bible verses. And the idiotic answers from Republicans regarding whether or not they accepted evolution. In other words, they would get approval points for proclaiming their literal-Bible-believing Christianity.

    Let’s not forget the selection of a debate question from someone asking the candidates if they take every word of the bible literally – that was really an important point to nail down, in our crisis-ridden world.

    Atheist books suggesting that we challenge religious claims were bestsellers.

    True enough, and they rightly generated much coverage. But the vast majority reviewing those books – even non-religious critics – seemed to me to be highly negative. There was certainly no chorus of unadulterated praise for Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens. Much of the coverage focused on the very critical reaction to the books, and religious books hastily written that tried to counter their viewpoints.

  • Let’s not forget the selection of a debate question from someone asking the candidates if they take every word of the bible literally – that was really an important point to nail down, in our crisis-ridden world.

    I think a lot of religious voters in the USA are just not that bright. They keep voting for candidates who yack about Jesus, but what have they really gotten? Has an amendment to overturn abortion been submitted? Ever? It seemed like the big issues in the 2004 presidential election were Iraq, terrorism, gay marriage and stem cell research, with the last two being major concerns of “values voters”.

    Yet what does George W spend months talking about? Social Security “reform”. I think he wanted to implement the conservative goal of killing Social Security. As Randal Balmer pointed out in Thy Kingdom Come, the Bible talks a LOT about helping the poor, yet a lot of evangelicals vote for the party that helps the rich.

    The Republican Party and religious voters remind me of Lucy and Charlie Brown with the football.

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