The ignorance factor: Obama, religion and the media

Official behind-the-scenes photos from the White House account from July 2010.
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 9:33 AM

The chilling chunk of people who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim has caused some serious soul-searching in the news business.

How have journalists failed to adequately communicate that the president is a Christian? Or does it no longer matter what we report if people choose to believe something with no basis in fact?

This is not like people believing in death panels during the health care debate, despite news outlets repeatedly saying they were imaginary. There was heated rhetoric back and forth that influenced public opinion. But the religion of a man who attended church for 20 years--a controversial church, in case the memory of Jeremiah Wright has faded--is beyond dispute.

And yet you've undoubtedly heard about the Pew Research poll in which 18 percent of those surveyed say Obama is a Muslim and only 34 percent say he's a Christian (with another 43 percent saying they don't know). To make matters worse, six in 10 of those who mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim say they learned it from the media.

So it's not that these folks are saying they don't believe the media on this question; in their confusion, they are attributing to the MSM what they probably heard from friends, crazy e-mailers or Web sites that traffic in distortion.

I suspect that for some the question is a proxy for whether they like the president. (If you don't trust the guy, maybe you think he's lying about his religion, and after all his father was a Muslim, yadda yadda yadda.) It can't be a coincidence that a third of conservative Republicans say they believe the president is of the Muslim faith, a level twice as high as Americans as a whole.

Some skeptics are saying Obama has contributed to the ignorance because he hasn't joined a church in Washington (citing the disruption to parishioners) and is rarely seen attending. But how do you explain the fact that 48 percent of the public thought he was a Christian last year, according to Pew, and that has now declined? He is, after all, the president of the United States. It's not a trick question. It's not like asking people to name all nine Supreme Court justices.

In the end, the media aren't to blame. This is a truly strange phenomenon. But it is frustrating nonetheless to think that in a culture awash in opinion, we can't even get people to agree on some basic facts.

At Slate, John Dickerson says Mitch McConnell's "I take him at his word" response on "Meet the Press" is typical of Republicans on this question:

"If McConnell wasn't trying to stir the pot, he also wasn't trying to lower the boil. What you didn't hear McConnell say was that the whole notion that Obama is a Muslim is ridiculous because by any standard we use to evaluate the religious beliefs of our leaders, President Obama is a Christian. Nor did he go on to say that any politician who tries to benefit from this urban legend--by courting either Islamophobes or conspiracy nuts who think Obama is engaged in some kind of systematic deception--should be ashamed of himself.

"He also did not produce a baby unicorn. That is to say, expecting the events of the previous paragraph would ever happen in real life is a fantasy. We can define our politics by the outrageous things people say. Rep. Joe Wilson yelled, 'You lie' during a presidential address to Congress. Newt Gingrich called Sonia Sotomayor a racist, and Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson said, 'Republicans want you to die quickly.' But the shamelessness of our politics can also be measured by silence. It's just as embarrassing that in a case like this, no politician will take the high road against their political interest. . . .

"For Republicans whose constituents dislike the president, there's no advantage in going out of your way to stick up for him. That's why McConnell kept trying to get back to talking about the economy. He was trying to stay on the issue voters care about."

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