September 2001

Credibility Round Table

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Recently the Salt Lake Tribune and the Associated Press Managing Editors sponsored a “Credibility Roundtable” on the coverage of religion. Various leaders from religions, the civic sector and news media were invited to attend. Following are a few excerpts from the discussion as reported in the Tribune:

SHELLEY THOMAS, Moderator: …how many of you think this statement is true: society as a whole is more religious than the population of your average newsroom?

ALONZO WATSON, JR.: People in the newspaper business probably get a broader scientific base to begin with. And as a result there’s some built-in skepticism that is natural and needed…

GEORGE NIEDERAUER, bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake: I think it’s true of media generally. Michael Medved…was writing a regular column on movie reviews. One time he stumbled on an interesting question at a Hollywood party. He asked a producer why there wasn’t more reflection of people going to church, and religious practice, why it was usually crazies who believed in God in movies. And he said, “Well, because most people don’t go to church”…Medved was inspired to say, “Well how many people do you think in America, on an average Sunday, are in church?” And the fellow said, “About 1 percent.” And so he started deliberately asking people in Hollywood the same question. He never got anyone to guess higher than 5 percent. The actual figure is about 40.

THOMAS: Statistics from a Freedom Forum study that was done a few years ago said: “90 percent of Americans say they believe in a higher power, 80 percent say they pray regularly, 70 per cent identify with a religious group and 40 percent attend services in a given week.”

KAT SNOW, news director, KUER public radio: A religion believes that it has the only answer. If a media story raises another possible answer or a different point of view, the people in that faith might feel that somehow it was a disservice, that we are not portraying accurately their viewpoint…To the extent that journalism can broadsweep everything, big brush strokes and quick summaries, then we do a disservice…To cover [religion] fairly, you have to give it extra space and extra time, to honor the depth that it has within people’s lives.

BILL BEACHAM, chief of bureau, Associated Press: My experience has been in coverage of religion that we don’t cover beliefs necessarily…What we cover basically is issues, separation of church and state, the Main Street story, this type of thing. The issues that that churches and religions or governments bring on themselves we cover…I’ve lived all over the United States, I’ve never seen a community as unique as this is. When you have an 800-pound gorilla, it needs to be covered.

J.D. WILLIAMS, political science professor, U of U: I suggest two criteria [of fairness]. One I will call the newsworthy test and the second one the public interest test…[Newsworthy subjects were] when the Baptists held their convention here two summers ago and indicated wives ought to submit themselves to their husbands in righteousness,… polygamists and incest…. [and President Kimball’s] revelation with regard to blacks and the priesthood in the LDS Church. [Appropriate subjects regarding the public interest were] closing streets in Salt Lake City…and LDS interference in the 1954 reapportion of the legislature, a grab for power that was blatant and needed to be covered in depth…There is a traditional and well-regarded role of journalism that seems to be fading a little bit in our capitalistic competitive environment, and that’s that journalism traditionally had a responsibility not just to cover what people wanted, but what they should know. In this community people should know that there are more than just three or four churches. That there is a diversity, and a wealth of diversity in this community, and it deserves coverage.

GAYLE RUZICKA, president, Utah Eagle forum: It’s not just that we have the “predominant religion” that overpowers the legislature as far as their religious beliefs. It is this way across the nation for religious people. Partly it is our passions.We believe in something passionately enough to go out and get elected. The family is the most passionate issue we deal with….And so when we have an issue that deals with the family, as you go to the legislature you will find…those committee rooms absolutely packed.

ADAM BRADSHAW, news director, KTVX: Let me say, having been around the country at many television stations…the appetite for religious coverage of any faith in this market is the highest I’ve ever seen…The issue of covering controversy in religion is very difficult because there are people of various faiths who think there are not two sides to every story. And we as journalists are always taught to go to the middle…Yet when we do present both sides, we are often criticized.

BRYAN SHIFFER, news director, KUTV: I have been in this market a long time and would offer that the issue of fairness in covering religion in this town has dramatically increased. That has a lot to do with the fairly recent openness of the LDS Church. There was a time when getting a statement and trying to deal with an issue fairly with the LDS Church was a very difficult situation, and it caused some animosity in the press…I look at fairness in religion [coverage] as this: If it’s a religious and social issue, it’s fair game…Issues of faith we do not question. We will explain them. We will try to explain them fairly. We try to get it right. But we do not question faith.

MARILYN WELLES, atheist, Wasatch Front Unitarian Fellowship and a member of Humanists of Utah: Speaking both as an atheist and as someone new to Utah, I find astonishing the amount of coverage of religion…to an atheist it sounds like people shuffling for market share, arguing over which is the best toothpaste. We really don’t care if you want to print a lot of that…A theology [is] like someone’s sex life, is only interesting to them or people in their own church. I don’t care about people’s theology or people’s sex life…We are also interested in the public parts of religions. Some of the best music in any city is put on by religious choirs, sponsored by religions. It’s a fund raiser or it’s for the benefit of the community, we atheists [support it]…because they help the community.

JOHN FLOREZ: former deputy asst. secretary, U.S. Dept of Labor: We get too uptight in this community about religion…Also, we underestimate the public. The public knows…We can make our own decisions.

TOM BARBERI: KALL talk show host:…ownership does mean an awful lot. And to say there’s fairness in this marketplace with ownership…is ignoring the truth. The LDS Church owns the Deseret News, owns KSL Radio, owns KSL Television. To think that there are not discussions going on in the upper floors of those buildings as to how this story is going to play with the person who signs my paycheck is foolish. You talk about diversity. We have diversity. We have 70 per cent of the population who are LDS. We have a very small minority of other things…And you talk about “perception is reality.” If you have a legislature that is 85 or 90 percent belonging to the same church, if you have a supreme court that 100 percent belongs to a specific church, if you have various organizations or boards which all the members belong to one church, to say there is diversity of thought is kidding yourselves…I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’m just talking about reality. The reality is that the 800-pound gorilla does weigh more than 800 pounds.

RON THORNBURG, managing editor, Standard Examiner: The thing that I find rather unique about life in Utah is the defensiveness of many of the LDS members when there is the least bit of…items in the news that could be interpreted as criticism of their faith.

PAMELA ATKINSON, vice president, mission services, International Health Care: And if one of the major goals of the media is to educate the public, they can do a much fairer job in religion education by writing articles…on the variety of religions that are in the state of Utah.

Happy Birthday PC

Much fanfare has recently appeared in the media about the 20th birthday of the Personal Computer. Most of what I have read is reminiscent of the great strides made in making computers more powerful, smaller, and cheaper. PC Magazine, in the September 4, 2001 edition, takes a different approach. They interview several futurists and ask the question, “What will the PC be like in 20 more years.”

Peter Schwartz, academically trained as a rocket scientist, is “one of the rare professional futurists who doesn’t exude the ripe scent of charlatanism.” Schwartz says, “The biggest political challenge in this new century is the conflict between the secular and the sacred-between secular societies and religious societies. And it’s one that science and technology will only exacerbate. Cloning, life extension, genetic manipulation, super intelligence, sentient robots-this stuff has a way of really freaking people out, because it touches on fundamental issues of human identity. What is a human? Are we God-endowed or just chemicals? If I succeed in growing a cell out of chemicals, what does that say about God? If I can manufacture an iris or something even more beautiful, what does that say about God? These are the sorts of questions we’ll confront. The issues will be profound.”

If Mr. Schwartz’s predictions are correct, I believe that there will be a place for humanists in leadership of acceptance of new technology while looking at moral implications and making decisions that will affect us all. The magazine is currently on store shelves everywhere or on-line at:

–Wayne Wilson

A Bill of Rights for Unbelievers

The freedoms of thought and expression count among our most fundamental and cherished rights, and promote both individual welfare and the common good in a democratic state. Historically, however, unbelievers such as secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, rationalists, and freethinkers have faced prejudice, intolerance, and discrimination for their opinions and discoveries.

In the firm conviction that the principle of Church-State separation guarantees the equal rights of the religious and non-religious, we the Campus Freethought Alliance, on this 12th Day of July, 1998, hereby present the following Bill of Rights for Unbelievers.

Unbelievers shall have the right to:

  • Think freely and autonomously, express their views forthrightly, and debate or criticize any and all ideas without fear of censure, recrimination, or public ostracism.
  • Be free from discrimination and persecution in the workplace, business transactions, and public accommodations.
  • Exercise freedom of conscience in any situation where the same right would be extended to believers on religious grounds alone.
  • Hold any public office, in accordance with the constitutional principle that there shall be no religious test for such office.
  • Abstain from religious oaths and pledges, including pledges of allegiance, oaths of office, and oaths administered in a court of law, until such time as these are secularized or replaced by non-discriminatory affirmations.
  • Empower members of their community to perform legally-binding ceremonies, such as marriage.
  • Raise and nurture their children in a secular environment, and not be disadvantaged in adoption or custody proceedings because of their unbelief.
  • Conduct business and commerce on any day of their choosing, without interference from laws or regulations recognizing religious days of prayer, rest, or celebration.
  • Enjoy freedom from taxation supporting the government employment of clergy, and access to secular counseling equivalent to that provided by chaplains.
  • Declare conscientious objection to serving in the armed forces under any circumstance in which the religious may do so.
  • Live as citizens of a democracy free from religious language and imagery in currency, public schools and buildings, and government documents and business.

Letter to Senator Leahy

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy
Chairman, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary
433 Russell Senate Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

August 10, 2001

Dear Senator Leahy,

I write to you as the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, the oldest and largest organization promoting Humanism in the United States. Claiming the support of leaders like Kurt Vonnegut, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Stephen Jay Gould, who was 2001’s Humanist of the Year, the AHA is dedicated to ensuring a voice for those with a positive moral outlook which embraces all of humanity, but does not happen to be based on a belief in a higher power.

On behalf of the AHA I thank you for your recent use of the secular oath when swearing in nominees and others who testify in front of the Committee on the Judiciary.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions goes too far in asserting that the Senate should require witnesses to add, “so help me God” to their oaths when presenting testimony. I am particularly troubled to hear that Senator Sessions may embark on an effort to make such language a part of the Senate rules. The Constitution itself does not require such religious wording, providing only for an “oath or affirmation.” Further, the Supreme Court ruled in 1961 in Torcaso vs. Clerk Watkins that a state could not require a belief in a deity as a condition for exercising public office.

Several Christian denominations do not approve of oaths; and neither theists nor non-theists should be required to say anything incompatible with their conscientious beliefs. Religious belief or expression should never be coerced. While Senator Sessions is correct in asserting that non-theists are in the minority in this country, we hope you and other responsive leaders in our nation’s capital will continue to stand-up for the millions of Americans, theists and non-theists alike, who object to government mandated religious expression.

AHA Executive Director
Tony Hileman