Stewart Hoover, Ph.D., is Professor of Communication at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Colorado at Boulder. Douglas K. Wagner is a staff member of the Centre for Mass Media Research, University of Colorado at Boulder.
This essay appeared in “Media, Culture and Society” (Sage Publications), Vol. 19, Number 1, January 1997, pp. 7-27.
The authors examine the development of public policy about religion content in broadcasting — policy that has implications for the treatment of religion in the society.
A prima facie case can be made that there is a contradiction between the fundamental religiosity of the American public and the treatment of religion in American mass media. By all accounts, the USA is the most religious of the major western industrial countries. More Americans by far claim that religion is important in their lives and claim to regularly engage in religious activities than is the case in western Europe. The next nearest European country by this measure - the Republic of Ireland - reports levels of religious service attendance at about two thirds those of the USA.
Anecdotal measures from ‘niche market’ (as opposed to ‘public’) media support the notion of a high level of religious interest. Religion is the third most widely-syndicated radio format, and religious book publishers set new sales records each year. These trends are not limited to the conservative side of the religious spectrum. So-called ‘new age’ or ‘alternative’ religious movements are also booming. The 1994 book of new age cosmology The Celestine Prophecy spent over 28 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
At the same time, religion is remarkable by its absence from mainstream American public media. While most major newspapers have at least one full-time religion writer, their output seldom finds its way into the front sections of their papers on a daily basis, and the total number of religion writers nationally is small compared to other news ‘beats’. The situation is even more pronounced in broadcasting, where until recently, there were no religion correspondents on network news, and where only three of the over 600 affiliate television stations have had religion reporters (Hoover et al., 1994; see also Buddenbaum, 1990).
This situation has come to be more recognized in recent years. For example, ABC World News Tonight commentator Jeff Greenfield has
observed that ‘... when it comes to the day-to-day presence of religion in America’s media, it’s a very different story. In fact, usually it’s no story at all’ (13 August 1993).
Dan Rather concurred in a January 1994 issue of TV Guide: ‘Religion was consistently underreported . That’s especially unfortunate when you remember how many of the worst conflicts today are born of religious misunderstanding .... There isn’t a news organization that wouldn’t benefit from greater attention to the coverage of religion.’
Stephen Carter, in his influential book The Culture of Disbelief (1993), suggests that the absence of religion from television - both news and entertainment - is one of the most significant measures of the problematic place of religion in American discourse, where it is assigned only the most truncated and limited role. People are allowed to have substantial religious lives in private, but not to talk about religion in public as though it were anything more than a ‘hobby’ (to use Carter’s term):
we often ask our citizens to split their public and private selves, telling them in effect that it is fine to be religious in private, but there is something askew when those private beliefs become the basis for public action. (Carter, 1993 : 8)
Carter’s argument is based in Tocqueville (1945), who felt that democracy actually depends on the ability of democratic discourse to take account of the moral claims of religions. ‘First, they can serve as the sources of moral understanding without which any majoritarian system can deteriorate into simple anarchy, and, second, they can mediate between the citizen and the apparatus of government, providing an independent moral voice’ (Carter, 1993: 36).
The absence of religion from American public media is further ironic when so much of contemporary political discourse is dominated by religious claims and religious sensibilities. James Davison Hunter’s (1991) study of America’s ‘culture wars’ has identified the extent to which contemporary political struggles are rooted in the century-old fundamentalism-modernism controversy that came to a head in the 1920s with the Scopes Trial - itself a major ‘media event’.
Contemporary commentary on media treatment of religion has itself been modulated by this divide. Most prominent critics of religion and media point to the ‘media elite’ studies conducted by S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda Lichter (1980, 1981, 1982) as evidence of a persistent ‘anti-religion bias’ on the part of American media. Ralph Reed of Pat Robertson’s ‘Christian Coalition’ put it this way on CNN’s Crossfire program:
on the one hand, you have mainstream, middle America, which is devout, church-going, prays daily .... They’re more devoutly religious, more devoutly
of faith, but on the other hand you have the media elites, which according to sociologists Stanley Rothman and Bob Lichter, 86 percent said that they go to church either infrequently or not at all, and what happens is you have that syndrome ... which perpetuates stereotypes of people of faith as - in the same way that blacks were once stereotyped and women were once stereotyped. (Crossfire, CNN, 29 December 1993)
While many non-conservative observers (Bill Moyers, for example - see Hoover et al., 1994) agree fundamentally that religion’s status in broadcast content is somewhat tenuous, the critics on ‘the right’ tend to be the most outspoken and most clearly identify the problem as one that can be attributed to the contemporary actions of contemporary actors (see Olasky, 1988). These contentions assume that the problem of religion in broadcasting (and the other mass media) must be seen as a political matter and specifically as a matter of religious politics.
It is the purpose of this study to argue that these issues must be seen from a historical perspective, less lodged in specific religious political claims. We see at least the following as reasons for taking such an approach. First, the Rothman and Lichter-derived criticisms are suspect on the basis of their easy assumption that the problem, to the extent it exists, can be found to reside wholly within the rational and biased choices of contemporary ‘gatekeepers’ in the news business. We would like to investigate the extent to which there is a historical or structural basis for the situation that might transcend such explanations.
Second, we question whether this situation may be seen only as a reflection or measure of the overall status of American religion (as the Carter thesis would seem to suggest) or whether deeper and more complex historical or institutional relationships are involved.
Third, we question the notion that the issues here are limited to the utility of media to religion as instruments of religious publicity or religious proclamation. Simply put, we have reason to suspect, from a reading of the history, that the situation is more than merely one of transmissional or instrumental utility. James Carey’s (1989) influential essay criticizing the traditional ‘transportation’ model of communication implicit in much media theory and research is broadly indicative here. There is evidence that communication practices - specifically in the area of broadcasting - have been organically embedded in the whole fundamentalist-modernist controversy from the earliest days of the century, thus evidencing an integration between the realm of ‘the media’ and the realm of ‘religion’. It further appears that the practices and prerogatives of the various combatants in the ‘culture wars’ have played an important role in the development of policy and practice regarding religion, particularly in broadcasting.
Past work on relations between religion and the public media has tended to focus on instrumental understandings of media and their utility to various religious bodies and religious sensibilities. Ellens (1974) classifies various approaches to religious broadcasting with reference to their sources in the major denominations of the religious culture. His history suggests that religious use of broadcasting can be typified as a movement from a purely ‘oratorical’ model in the early 1920s to a ‘public service’ model in later years. This transformation resulted from policy decisions by the FCC to privilege religion as an aspect of broadcast public service responsibility and by the industry to accept this as part of their mandate under the Communications Act of 1934. Ellens also describes how mainstream religious bodies accommodated themselves to this situation.
Jennings (1969) presents a deeper reading of the policy history of religious use of the airwaves: ‘The predominant concern of the Protestant churches during the period of this study was in the procurement of access and employment of these facilities for their private needs’ (1969: 482), he notes. Jennings’ work provides a detailed history of these negotiations, but from the perspective of the mainline or establishment groups, who were in a position to benefit from the situation as it evolved. The system which emerged, that of ‘public service’ broadcasting time provided free (on what was called a ‘sustaining’ basis) to those faith groups who cooperated with commercial broadcasters, created a ‘two-tiered’ system of religious broadcasting in America. On one tier were these mainstream groups. On the other were those groups, primarily evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches and para-church organizations, which were ‘left out’ of the sustaining-time system.
In various works, Hadden (1992; Hadden and Shupe, 1988; Hadden and Swann, 1981) has addressed the consequences of this structuration. In step with other observers (Schultze, 1991; Voskuil, 1990) Hadden observes that those groups left out of the sustaining-time system would later come to dominate religious broadcasting in the era of televangelism. Frankl (1987) concurs, suggesting that the entrepreneurial spirit engendered by the necessity of financing expensive broadcasts outside the public service rubric served the televangelists well when economic and structural changes began to privilege independent, ‘commercialized’ religion. Armstrong’s (1979) apologia for televangelism strikes the same theme.
Horsfield (1984) provides a comprehensive analysis of policy and practice in religious broadcasting, evaluating both the evangelicaltelevangelist and the mainline-sustaining approaches. He notes that, by the early 1980s, the balance of power had shifted in favor of televangelism as the amount of air time allocated by the broadcast industry to sustainingtime religion was beginning to wane. Hoover (1988) concurs with this
judgement, identifying the extent to which the prominent religious broadcasters achieved increased political and social status and profile during the 1980s.
What is lacking in these studies is a systematic appraisal of the evolution of policy and practice within commercial broadcast institutions. The focus on the prospects of televangelism tends to ignore the extent to which a situation was evolving (or hardening) in which relatively little attention was given to religion in public media content at all. The prospects of religion at the ‘margins’ (in cable religious networks on the part of televangelists or on the ‘fringe’ public service time available on a sustaining basis to others) is of less interest here than is the role of religion within the ‘center’ or ‘core’ of broadcast content: in news and entertainment programming. The question with which we began addresses this general realm of public discourse, not the marginal realms to which religion has been relegated in broadcast content. We turn now to a study of the history of that relegation.
Categories of broadcast treatment of religion
In the most general terms, then, approaches to the question of religion in broadcast content could address the issue in three specific contexts. First, there is the area of commercialized religious broadcasting, on both television and radio, the best-known model of which is televangelism. Second, there is the area that came to be known as ‘sustaining-time’ religious broadcasting (also on television and radio). This was and is programming placed under a generalized ‘public service’ rubric, but often produced in cooperation with one or more religious groups, nationally or locally. Third, there is the broad question of religion in formal commercial broadcast content, both news and entertainment. While much of the commentary on broadcast treatment of religion has focused on entertainment programming, it is our purpose here to address policy and practice in general, leaving aside for the moment the question of entertainment.
The situation that obtained until recently with regard to religion in broadcast news was particularly stark. None of the major commercial networks had religion reporters in their daily news operations. Coverage of religion in these programs was also rare, tending to focus on institutions (Rome correspondents traditionally covered the Vatican when major news was made there, for example) or on controversies and scandals. Peter Jennings, in explaining the decision by ABC to add a religion reporter early in 1994, expressed the same sort of dissatisfaction found among critics and observers of network practices: ‘I came to the conclusion that we simply weren’t doing a very good job in the area of religion’ (Jennings, personal communication, 1993).
The same has held in local television markets. Until recently, out of the approximately 60 network-affiliated and independent VHF stations in the country (those most likely to have local news operations) only two, WFAA in Dallas and KSL in Salt Lake City, have had religion reporters. WFAA’s was Peggy Wehmeyer, who moved to ABC News in early 1994. A third station, KOTV in Tulsa, added a religion reporter in 1993 (Hoover et al., 1994).
On one level of analysis, this should be even more surprising than the situation with the networks. If, as Rothman and Lichter have claimed, the major networks evidence an institutional culture which does not understand religion, then it is more understandable that they would leave religion ‘off the news agenda’ than it is that local television stations would. The latter should be more closely articulated into their local cultures, and reflect the religiosity of their religions. Why, then, haven’t stations in Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham or Bakersfield taken religion into their news purview?
In radio, there has been a somewhat different story. Several network news programs have, over the years, dealt with religion as part of the news package. The longest-lived of these, The World of Religion on the CBS Radio network is still in production at KMOX in St Louis, and is still carried over the CBS owned and operated radio stations several times a week (Lloyd, 1993). UPI Radio Network has employed a religion editor for ten years, according to published accounts, and provides a religion newsfeed for stations which wish to purchase this specialized service. Other radio wire services also offer specialized religion packages (Govier, 1994).
Some local radio stations in major markets have devoted attention to religion. WINS in New York, for instance, has for many years included regular religion commentaries in their weekend news cycles (Lloyd, 1993). There are other, similar examples which, while not exactly the same as religion reportage, nonetheless represent a commitment to the topic.
Saying that there has been a paucity of attention to religion in broadcast news is not to say, of course, that there has been no religion on the air at all. As we have seen, there is actually a great deal there, but it differs substantially from the ‘ideal’ of religion reportage represented by the recent moves at ABC News. There is the long and significant tradition of independent quasi-commercial religious broadcasting, beginning with the fundamentalist ‘radio preachers’ of the l920s and stretching to the programs known as ‘televangelism’ today. There is nearly as long a tradition of ‘sustaining-time’ religious programming presented on a ‘public service’ basis by commercial broadcasters, usually in cooperation with one or more of the major faith groups in ecumenical alliance.
Broadcasting has thus had no tradition of religion news to parallel that which has long held sway at the nation’s newspapers. Instead, there is a
situation which seems to describe - through its very structuration - the particular construction of religion in public discourse observed by Carter. The ‘radio preachers’ and televangelists have represented the intensity and privatism of religion which has traditionally been encouraged to flourish off the public stage. The ‘public service’ model of programming represents a mode of broadcasting based on a limited presence of religion in public culture - able to exercise a certain autonomy, but within socially and culturally defined limits.
There is reason to think that these two interrelated activities have functioned, in part, to establish standards and expectations for broadcast treatment of religion. By their mere existence and profile, they have conditioned audiences and producers to certain understandings of what happens when religion appears in broadcasting, and may have served to reinforce, in the minds of media decision-makers, certain perceptions of its ‘natural’ role and place.
It is further possible to see religious broadcasting as a particular site of struggle over the cultural ascendancy of religion in modernity. It is significant that the first ‘radio preachers’, and the subsequent televangelists, represent one side (the ‘fundamentalist’ side) of the great religious-cultural divide that defines American religion in the late 20th century, and that the ‘ecumenical’ or ‘establishment’ broadcasts represent the other (the ‘modernist’) side.
The history: a struggle for definition
It is often not recognized that the emergence and development of religious broadcasting was actually integrated into (rather than being a mere reflection of) the broader modernism-fundamentalism conflict of the early 20th century. While it might be an obvious conclusion to suggest that this was a coincidence - that the occasion of the development of the technology of radio communication coincided with the rise of fundamentalism and naturally become one among many sites of its expression -there is reason to suspect a deeper connection between religion and religion’s use of broadcasting.
Carpenter (1985), in a fascinating study of early fundamentalist radio, has identified a cultural-symbolic connection between the medium and its early fundamentalist users. Far from seeing it as merely another means of evangelism, these preachers saw in broadcasting a powerful, cultural, almost mystical instrument, one that could confer social and cultural status and power.
The evangelical coalition’s mastery of mass communications, claims one observer, has been the matrix of its survival and success. I don’t see it exactly that way. Rather, in an age of sight and sound, evangelicals have used the
reality-establishing force of mass communications to convince themselves -and many others, apparently - that they are a real presence in American public life. They have transmitted their images into the ‘show windows of modem publicity’. (Carpenter, 1985: 15)
Schultze (1987) takes a similar view, noting that broadcasting stimulated a profound ambivalence in these early users; on the one hand drawn to its power, on the other, fearful of its implications. But, Schultze feels that a ‘mythos’ of broadcasting - that it has implications far beyond its ‘informational’ or ‘publicity’ capacities - has come to hold in the minds of conservative Christians.
For whatever reasons, fundamentalist Christians were among the earliest users of broadcasting, beginning in the era before uniform federal regulation began. By 1925, more than 10 percent of all stations were licensed to religious organizations. Hadden and Swann note that among these religious licensees, ‘.... for every This ‘broad truths’ approach thus contrasted sharply with the virulent appeal of the evangelical radio preachers. Due in no small part to a desire for the avoidance of controversy, the radio industry itself soon began expressing its preference for the ‘mainstream’ approach represented by Cadman. A passage from a 1923 issue of an industry publication is indicative:
It becomes apparent that we have not to consider the question shall radio be utilized for broadcasting religion, but rather should radio be used by this particular church for broadcasting the particular form of worship used by this church? (quoted in Ellens, 1974: 27)
As a result of what quickly became the common interests of broadcast stations and broadcast presenters from the mainstream churches, an arrangement was worked out which gave speakers such as Cadman, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Ralph Sockman and David H.C. Read air time on what were then the major radio outlets of the time, the General Electric and Westinghouse stations in New York.
This proved to be the model for what occurred after the introduction of omnibus regulation of broadcasting in 1927 and 1934. In both the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934 provision was made for the regulatory body to oversee communication services to local communities which would serve the ‘public interest, convenience, and necessity’. During its occasional periods of activism, the Radio Commission and the subsequent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) both took steps under this doctrine to ensure that a wide range of community interests would be served by broadcasting, religion being prominent among those interests (Jennings, 1969: 3; FCC Blue Book, 1946: 10-13).
Thus the newly-regulated and regularized broadcasting that evolved in the period 1927-35 had an important incentive to give account of religion as part of its overall service obligations, and a further incentive, based on the experience of the period before 1927, to ensure that what religion was aired was of a variety that involved ‘broad truths’ and was noncontroversial. Broadcasting in this era quickly became dominated by radio networks which soon achieved a national scope, and which came to determine much of industry practice vis a vis speciality topics such as religion. However, this practice was to evolve without a great deal of direct involvement from the regulatory authorities. Aside from general expectations, they gave few guidelines.
NBC’ s approach became definitive of the network philosophy regarding religion that developed. ‘NBC will serve only the central or national agencies of great religious faiths .. . as distinguished from individual churches or small group movements’, said a 1928 NBC statement of principles (Jennings, 1969: 29). NBC was the dominant network in the
early years. Its major rival CBS (founded in 1927) struggled financially and, as a result, was initially open to selling air time for religion.
Independent religious broadcasters thus gravitated to CBS, and one of them, Father Charles Coughlin, precipitated yet another crisis over religious controversy. Coughlin first began appearing on CBS in 1930, and rapidly began to build a following through his mixture of populism and ardent nationalism. His program took on more and more of a ‘political’ stance, as he attacked both ‘unregulated capitalism’ and ‘international bankers’. A confrontation ensued with CBS management, which insisted that Coughlin ‘... desist from these subjects and submit advance scripts’ (Barnouw, 1966: 46). Coughlin appealed directly to listeners, who sent 1.25 million letters of protest to the network.
CBS decided to take a different approach along the lines of the NBC model. It moved to replace all paid religious broadcasts (including Coughlin’ s) with a program called Church of the Air, which offered free air time to speakers from the three ‘major’ faiths on a rotating basis. This donation of air time, called ‘sustaining time’, thus became the dominant model for network treatment of religion.
Coughlin continued his program by creating his own network of individual stations (based at WOR in New York) linked by leased telephone lines. He became more and more overtly ‘political’ in his broadcasts, first supporting Roosevelt, and then teetering toward fascism. He suggested that ‘Christians suffer more at the hands of the Reds than Jews do in the Third Reich’, that Nazi actions elicited publicity because of ‘Jewish influence in radio, journalism and finance’, and that Jews were leaders in communism against which Nazi Germany had to fight in self protection (New York limes, 21 November 1938: 7). He also objected to attempts to censor him on radio as a ‘typical case of Jewish terrorism of American public opinion’ (New York Times, 27 November 1938: 46). His perceived anti-Semitism and pro-Nazism eventually led to his being discredited in the wake of national consensus forged by the USA’s entry into the war.
The Coughlin affair had far-reaching consequences for broadcast policy and practice regarding religion. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the industry trade association, moved in 1939 to adopt its first industry code, and it included provisions covering religion that were widely perceived to have resulted from the still-fresh memories of the Coughlin controversy. The New York Times reported that the code ‘was seen in some quarters as designed to bar Father Charles E. Coughlin from buying time on stations belonging to the Association ...‘ The code was explicit regarding religion:
Radio ... may not be used to convey attacks upon another’s race or religion.
Rather it should be the purpose of the religious broadcast to promote the
spiritual harmony and understanding of mankind and to administer broadly to
the varied religious needs of the community. (quoted in Jennings, 1969: 109)
In its discussion of appropriate approaches to controversy, the code set an important precedent, and provides a telling account of the developing self-understanding of broadcasters regarding their role as guardians of public discourse. The code directed that potential controversy in broadcasts should be dealt with by integrating controversial spokespeople into ‘public-forum-type’ broadcasts, where the ‘... control of the fairness of the program rests wholly with the broadcasting station or network’ (New York Times, 4 October 1939: 15).
The notion of ‘fairness’ remains controversial to this day. Its direct impact on the issue of network practices regarding religion was that it came to be interpreted in a specific way. That is, broadcasters came to take full responsibility themselves for the character and nature of religion on their airwaves. This, in turn, led them to move toward a kind of religious broadcasting that represented consensus, that promoted ‘... spiritual harmony and understanding of mankind ...‘ and spoke to broad, varied interests.
The way they chose to pursue this was through an extension of the NBC model, whereby major ecumenical and faith groups were given sustaining time for national broadcasts. Ironically, this meant that at the same time that these broadcasters moved to assert control over potentially thorny issues in the area of religion (both by direct control over content and by delegation to the reliably ecumenical mainstream organizations) they were quickly absolving themselves of this responsibility. Henry Bellows of CBS spoke about the issue during Congressional debate over the 1934 Communications Act:
we have uppermost in mind freeing ourselves from the responsibility which we are not qualified to assume of allotting time on a commercial basis to different religions .... So long as we view this question solely in the light of business practice, we are likely to fail to give the radio audience the balanced religious broadcasting it is entitled to. (Jennings, 1969: 60)
These deliberations are significant to our concerns here because of an important difference between American broadcasting and print media. Broadcasting is regulated, and as a result has had to engage in policy discussions that have been both more open and more deliberative than is the case with print journalism. Thus, decisions made at the time of the 1934 Communications Act, and the companion NAB Code (written expressly to guide industry practices under the Act), have been determinative of later practice in many areas, not least religion.
And what was the general doctrine which developed? Clearly, the broadcasting industry chose, for understandable reasons, to dodge the issue of religion, rather than meeting it head-on as an affirmative obligation that would find its way readily into such things as news broadcasts. This history reveals a construction of religion as potentially controversial, and as something that rightly exists outside the purview of the broadcaster engaged in a rationalist pursuit of business opportunity. As a result, religion developed in national broadcasting in a specific way.
First, industry doctrine regarded religion as something that needed to be pursued in the most general, rather than specfic, terms. One way of avoiding the sort of controversies encountered in the 1920s and 1930s was to construct religious interest as something that could be engaged on a general level of ‘spiritual harmony’.
Second, industry doctrine eschewed professional responsibility or judgment regarding the character and nature of religion content. Unlike areas such as business, agriculture, the arts or the ‘hard news’, where broadcasters moved aggressively to establish a place of parity with the print media (the epigram of the industry publication, Broadcasting Magazine used to refer to the ‘fifth estate’), broadcasters chose to defer their professional judgement in religion to the faith groups who they invited to participate in the sustaining-time system.
This is a delicate point. Broadcast licensees are, of course, ultimately responsible and accountable for all the content they carry. The networks continued to exercise control and influence to a certain extent in their working relationships with their sustaining-time partners over the years (Pomeroy, 1992: McClurken, 1992). However, it is clear that the whole purpose of the sustaining-time system was to eliminate the necessity of the industry taking responsibility on some level for what they considered to be the internecine issues of interest within the broader religious community. This point can be clarified by referring to the approach to religion adopted elsewhere, such as in the United Kingdom. Both the British Broadcasting Corporation and the independent commercial networks in Britain maintain their own internal religion units and produce a wide variety of programming including news, documentaries, commentaries and, of course, broadcast religious services.
Third, industry doctrine constructed religion as a public service responsibility rather than something that would necessarily infuse entertainment offerings, or - more importantly - news. This was, in part, responsive to the evolving regulatory doctrine of the time. Both the Federal Radio Commission and the later FCC issued guidelines for ‘public service’ performance that, until 1960, explicitly included religion. The compartmentalization of the ‘public service’ rubric had itself resulted from debates over the crafting of the 1934 Act. In a key decision, Congress had voted against requiring air-time or license set-asides for ‘public service’ as a matter of law, leaving it instead to the responsibility of broadcasters to ascertain and serve these interests within the run of their schedules. The discourse about ‘public service’, and subsequent industry and regulatory practice (facing obvious commercial pressures), resulted in public affairs programming being marginalized and, eventually, truncated to the point of near non-existence in most television schedules. Religion has thus suffered the same fate as agriculture, education, the arts, local talent and the myriad other offerings originally envisioned as part of the overall ‘public service’ to be offered by American broadcast licensees.
This doctrine recognizes one important difference between the print and broadcast media. The print media are able to afford the luxury of compartmentalization. ‘News’ and ‘feature’ sections can, to an extent, stand alone. Religion writers at many papers regard the religion section as a positive thing, a place where they can craft coverage that is complete and expansive (Hoover et al., 1989). Newspapers can think of their product as being divided into ‘beats’, and accord the various beats allocations of space appropriate to their needs.
In broadcasting, compartmentalization is more problematic. Ratings pressures lead broadcasters to care very much for audience and programming ‘flow’. Thus, interrupting the schedule with programs that are significantly ‘different’ is discouraged. This means that, unlike the ‘magazine’ orientation of newspaper layouts, broadcast texts are constructed to be as homogeneous as possible. ‘Rough edges’, such as educational and public affairs programs, naturally get pushed to the margins.
In the years between 1939 and 1975, this situation held sway. With some important and significant exceptions and struggles along the way, religion content in broadcasting was dominated by the ‘sustaining-time’ system. At the same time, fundamentalist and evangelical broadcasters did not go away. They continued to be able to buy time on local stations and on the Mutual radio network, and they gradually built up a constituency. Hadden and Swann sum up the implications of this situation:
The future course of nonmainline religious broadcasting in the U.S. was set: it would of necessity be entrepreneurial. Fundamentalists would have to buy time, and their audiences would have to furnish the money. This was their only avenue to radio, and they would fight to keep it open. (Hadden and Swann, 1981: 78)
The latter-day inheritors of this tradition are, as we have said, the televangelists. At the same time, the sustaining-time system has almost wholly disappeared on the national level. At the present time, none of the major networks produces a weekly sustaining-time television program, and the resources devoted to those that remain are shrinking.
It is not our purpose here to investigate the practices of religious broadcasters themselves in great detail. However, there are two points we would like to emphasize because they remain significant. First, we have noted with regard to the early days of fundamentalist radio that religious broadcasting came to be an important element of the emerging struggle
between modernism and conservatism in that era. It played both a practical and symbolic role in those conflicts, and was central to their development. This situation has continued through the rest of the century.
George Marsden (1982) has shown, for instance, that moves by moderate evangelicals in the 1940s and 1950s to craft a less socially pernicious image for conservative Christianity involved an appreciation of the role of broadcasting and the other public media in that process. Billy Graham was hailed by those forces as the person to fulfill this task, and his high-profile broadcasts were central to the calculus.
Second, as these more moderate conservatives began to become more active through the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the implications of the network approach to religion came into further relief. In its policy documents, the NAE emphasized the necessity of its broadcasts being able to preach ‘doctrinal’ sermons (Voskuil, 1990:
85). This was a clear challenge to the notion of ‘broad truths’ emphasized by the NAB and the mainline churches which participated in the sustaining-time system.
There has been a minor controversy over the role of the mainline churches in these developments. There are charges (implicit in Hadden and Swann, for example) that mainline complicity in the public-service system had the intent of ‘keeping the evangelicals 9ff the air’. The implication is that there may have been a cynical manipulation of a situation that worked to the advantage of the dominant mainline groups. As the history reviewed here shows, however, there was a fundamental reason for the lack of cooperation, put succinctly by the NAE in its policy statement. Evangelicals wanted to preach ‘doctrine’ in broadcast programs. The networks and mainline churches were committed to a ‘broad truths’ approach. These were simply incompatible with one another. There may have been minor conspiracies or a chain of complicities along the line, and it can certainly be said that this marginalization advantaged one group over the other (at least for a time), but no more nefarious an explanation is necessary.
This review of the early history of broadcast treatment of religion helps to resolve the conundrum with which we began. How was it that broadcasting developed in the USA (the most religious of the western industrialized countries) for over 50 years without more attention being given to religion in its news and entertainment programming? Part of the answer is that, in its early history, broadcasting achieved a construction of religion that allowed it to be treated at the margins, rather than at the center of broadcast content. This construction can be attributed in part to tensions and pressures faced by broadcasting in its formative years. More importantly, though, it represents a reaffirmation of the basic problem religion has faced in entering public discourse in general. Its construction into the private realm meant that evolving doctrine in the area of broadcasting could follow a ‘path of least resistance’ and conveniently compartmentalize religion.
We began by noting that much of the research available dealing with religion and broadcasting focuses on the history of the development of televangelism and suggested that our purpose here was to move to a more detailed account of the development of policy regarding religion content in general, policy that would have implications for the treatment of religion in the core output of broadcasting: its news and entertainment programming.
The findings fall into four general categories. First, it seems clear that the question of access to broadcast channels has served as an important point of religious-cultural negotiation and definition since the earliest days of radio. It has been a definitive battleground on which America’s religious ‘culture wars’ have been waged for most of this century. Broadcasting has played both a functional and a symbolic role in these cultural struggles and negotiations.
Second, it is clear that religious struggle and controversy have informed much thinking and policy-making over the years. This tone of controversy has actually become determinative to a great extent, leading to a reticence on the part of regulators and broadcasters to meet the question of religion head on (for a discussion, see Hadden and Swann, 1981: 72).
Third, the approach to policy that developed in broadcasting was one that fitted well with the centralized system of broadcasting (dominated by the ‘chains’ or ‘networks’) that evolved after 1934. The major networks, led by NBC, evolved a policy that had two features: first, the networks arrogated to themselves responsibility for control over religious content by refusing to sell air time to sectarian groups. This fitted into a practice encouraged by the 1934 Act and the FCC, whereby local stations - and by definition the networks - were expected to devote substantial attention to ‘public service’ programming. Second, at the same time, the networks moved quickly to divest themselves of the responsibility for the content of this air time, turning it over to established religious institutions, with the expectation that the approach taken would be broad and noncontroversial.
This solution to the problem of religion is interesting as a commentary on the state of American religious evolution at that time. The fact that certain religious voices - specifically mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic - could be so facilely integrated into such a system is a measure of the prominence of institutional religion and of the relative consensual harmony that existed.
This situation has obviously changed, leading to our fourth finding: the relative advantage of mainline and Catholic access to ‘sustaining time’ rather quickly turned to disadvantage when economic and technological change made it possible for a range of evangelical and para-church institutions to achieve national distribution outside the network system after 1975. While it is outside the scope of this study, it appears to be the case that one direct consequence of the emergence of televangelism was the erosion of sustaining time on commercial broadcasting. That policy deliberations had never really dealt with the nature and quality of religion content in any normative terms meant that televangelism’s emergence could become a justification for network programmers to do what their balance sheets demanded: eliminate sustaining-time ‘public service’ religion altogether.
The policy evolution reviewed here can be described, in hindsight, as seriously flawed. In an era when interreligious understanding seems to be a more and more prominent public goal, religion is given very little access to the most prominent context of the American public sphere: broadcasting. That commercial broadcasting could divest itself so easily of responsibility for religion in the 1930s means that today there is no grand tradition of religion coverage in broadcast news, for example, that would serve understanding of the role of religion in contemporary issues. However, with the benefit of historical perspective, we are reluctant to too quickly condenm the process. This history is itself a measure of the larger problem identified by Stephen Carter: the generally recessive position of religion in American public discourse.
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