Whistling In The Wind by Anne Nicol Gaylor (October 1994)

p> If you ever doubted the importance of media in the United States, give All’s Fair, the new book by political spinners James Carville and Mary Matalin, a whirl. Newlyweds Carville and Matalin worked in the 1992 opposing campaigns of Clinton and Bush, and they tell their story in a 493-page book, with the able help of nonghostwriter Peter Knobler. The major public relations message I gleaned from these experts was that how you sell a candidate is far more important than the candidate. Carville, though, had a more thoughtful message: “Fight back.” Let no “negative” go without a response.

That’s all well and good if you are in the spotlight of a national political race with prominent, competing, professional newspeople covering you. However, it does not necessarily work at other levels. The “negatives” not only are printed, but repeated and buttressed, and your attempts to correct them amount to whistling in the wind.

Some examples! Earlier this year a Wisconsin daily editorialized in a patronizing and erroneous way about our complaint that a Catholic priest was serving as a Chaplain for the Wisconsin Badgers football team with public money financing his travels with the team. We had pointed out that the priest was conducting formal prayer sessions, that he had traveled at public expense to all sorts of places: road games, Japan, the Rose Bowl, to see Vice President Gore, Atlanta for the Super Bowl. The editors in question accepted without any investigation of their own the denials of the athletic department and the priest that these state-church violations were taking place. Their editorial, defending the priest as “just a football fan who happens to wear a cleric’s collar” and chiding us for attempting to “sever this friendship,” contained gross, fundamental errors of fact. What can you do? As a journalism professor once said, “Practically nothing. The media can always have the last word.” Barring libel, it matters not a whit if that word is inaccurate.

The correct story finally was told because of the investigative reporting of an intern on a rival paper. But no editorial castigating the athletic department and the priest for their attempted cover-up ever saw print. Male media kowtow to football and religion. It’s quite a combination.

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This fall a religion reporter for a Wisconsin paper interviewed a local minister about the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Despite our constant efforts to separate church from state and our not unimpressive successes, the article was titled “Anti-religious group reaching for straws.” This was expected. What else would the combination of a devout reporter and a fundamentalist preacher produce? But the reporter went on to questions like: “Do you pray for the group and hope that one day its members will see the light?” Ah, objectivity!

The unparalleled naivete of religionist reporting came through in another breathtaking question in the interview. “Q. The foundation says its membership is growing by thousands each week. What is the appeal of this type of organization?” When we read this, we shook our heads in disbelief. We bend over backward not to make any inflated claims. Our current total paid membership is about 3,300, not including subscribers, and where, we wondered, did this reporter ever come up with this so-called “claim.” In a subsequent conversation with the religious reporter, Dan Barker ferreted out the answer. The reporter had noticed a column of mine that appeared in Freethought Today in September. In this column headed “Every four days there are one million more of us,” I had written in the first paragraph that “the earth is like a train speeding toward a cliff as far as population pressures are concerned,” noting that “every four days there are one million more people on earth, births over deaths.” Out of this, this religionist actually had come up with a ridiculous interpretation that was printed and commented on.

Although we promptly asked for a correction, it took almost a month to get it. Incidentally, in my nearly two decades of work for state/church separation, no reporter ever has contacted me to ask what I thought of a particular clergyperson or church in the news–local, regional, national or international. But it is standard procedure for the press to go to clergy for commentary on us.

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If a paper is indifferent about corrections, the least you can hope for is that notifying them of their error will prevent them from running letters to the editor or other commentary based on their misinformation. Don’t count on it.

Dan, who is a member of the Delaware Tribe of American Indians (Lenni Lenape), recently asked the Dane County Historical Society to consider redesigning the emblem that it uses so it did not stereotype native Americans or promote religion. The emblem carries a design which includes an Indian with bow and arrow lurking outside a fort, and, in another quadrant, a cross atop a church. This request was twisted by the same religious reporter to imply that the Foundation is anti-Indian and, of course, that wanting a cross removed from an official seal is the height of absurdity. As Dan so aptly had stated: “The Indian is depicted as an armed warrior appearing to attack a white fort. To be accurate it should be the other way around–the European invaders should be depicted with guns and bibles running our original settlers off Wisconsin soil.”

In a letter of correction that was eventually published, Dan wrote: “It is disingenuous to accuse us of being ‘antagonistic’ when we raise legitimate constitutional questions. We are not starting any bloody Crusades, brutal Inquisitions or fanatic jihads. We are not blocking access of believers to churches or dragging them out of their pews. We are not burning believers at the stake, killing Irish Protestants, dropping bombs on Sarajevo, or making death threats against ‘orthodox’ authors. If we were lobbying to replace ‘In God We Trust’ with ‘Jesus is a myth,’ that would be antagonistic. We simply are asking our government to be neutral.”

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This same daily, in otherwise thoughtful coverage of our county zoo’s agreement to (finally) remove a creationist poster directed at children, attributed to Annie Laurie a statement that human beings have been around for 25 million years! She never said that; perhaps it was even a typo, but naturally enough, it spawned a jeering letter complaining that the zoo’s dating of the human race at 15,000 B.C. was closer to the mark than the Foundation’s claim. Never mind that all statements, news releases and official letters on the subject by the Foundation used the conservative but currently accepted estimate that we have been around as this particular species for at least 100,000 years. Here again, a letter of correction ran weeks later, while these errors, distortions and misquotes sat, waiting to be taken as “gospel truth.”

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Moral of the column: if you read, see or hear statements attributed to us that don’t make freethought-sense, rest assured, it’s just the media–we undoubtedly never said it.

By the way, if you are interested in reading the Washington Post’s in-depth story on the Foundation’s recent actions, including the Job Corps victory, please send your request with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.

And, oh, those thousands of members each week–don’t we wish!

Anne Gaylor is president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation