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Catholic Media Watch

Religious media and the politics of nasty

by Michael Mullins

Immediately after this month's Federal Election, when it appeared the Family First Party would control the balance of the Senate, Greens leader Bob Brown predicted that attempts to court the religious right would lead to a "nastier Australia".

The politics of nastiness associated with the religious right is dominating the political scene in the US, with one polling organisation predicting the pro-family Catholic vote may "tip the scales for Bush" in November's Presidential Election.

Nasty politics is played out most vigorously in the media, particularly the electronic outlets that don't distinguish between fact and opinion. Rupert Murdoch's iconic Fox News in the US, which aggressively defends its trademarked "fair and balanced" ironic marketing pitch, has been depicted most vociferously in Robert Greenwald's documentary film Outfoxed, currently on cinema release in Australia.

The Fox News practice of presenting "comment as fact" headlines is of course just a more brazen manifestation of what we've long been accustomed to on the front pages of the tabloids. But it appears to have exerted an enduring influence on many other conservative media outlets, including the small daily electronic Catholic news services.

The most recent of these services - Catholic News Agency - is in some ways the most impressive. But it also produces a number of the worst examples of 'nasty' journalism, such as last week's character assassination of Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Kenyan Catholic environmentalist Wangari Maathai.

Titled "Nobel Peace Prize winner outspoken for anti-religious, anti-life views", the article seizes upon her participation in the activities of groups that are supposed to tolerate "anti-life" philosophies. Given its practice of assigning guilt by association, it's interesting that one of Maathai's misdemeanours is being one of the leaders of the International Green Cross, an organisation led by Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader much admired by his close friend Pope John Paul II.

Professor Maathai is clearly a remarkable woman who lives her Catholic faith, spending most of her weekends with her parish choir. But she also endeavours to bring the Church into dialogue with the beliefs of other envonmentalists and movements she encounters. Accounts from other religious organisations and leaders contradict the article from Catholic News Agency. The Australian Sisters of Mercy publication Mercy E-News is gratified that the "great lady" recently "spoke highly of the Sisters of Mercy in Kenya".

Most tellingly, Renaissance scholar Dr Philip Crispin writes at length in The Tablet last weekend about Professor Maathai's momentous achievements as protector of the tree, "a universal symbol of life and its mystery". Among her "anti-life" views Catholic News Agency pilloried was her suggestion that the sections of the Bible that sanction destruction of trees and degradation of the environment be "rewritten".

Last week, the US Bishops' middle of the road Catholic News Service (CNS) published a feature quoting Wangari Maathai's tribute to the Kansas Benedictine Sisters who were responsible for her education. She said they made her "who I am and may ever become".

The CNS article mentions the fact that she was divorced, but puts this in the context of her achievements and the fact that her parliamentarian husband found the strong-willed environmentalist "too hard to control". A "nasty" feature would have used the fact of the divorce to bolster its argument that Maathai is a disgrace to the Catholic faith and proof that the Nobel Peace Prize is discredited.

CNS practices the other irony that Fox News preaches - "we report, you decide". Irony, it seems, is the order of day in such media outlets, as it is in the politics of nasty, with refrains from President George Bush referring to "freedom", and Prime Minister John Howard talking about "truth in politics". Opinion as fact. Delusion.

Read more from Mike Mullins:

  • Issue 2: Steady as She Goes
  • Issue 4: Too much from Rome
  • Issue 6: Logic of being media friendly
  • Issue 8: Christian Bros: bad news sells
  • Issue 10: No positive spin from Pell
  • Issue 12: Close your eyes
  • Issue 14: Deal Hudson and the game of shame shifting
  • Issue 16: Winners and Losers
  • Issue 18: The Magazine without an editor
  • Issue 20: Bewildering the faithful with Papal instructions

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