It happens at the supermarket, on the subway, at the gym and most recently at a Broadway show. That quizzical look from someone who’s trying to figure out if we’ve met. And then sometimes a flash of recognition and, “Aren’t you that TV priest?”
I’ve been asked to hear confessions in the middle of a bustling Times Square, and in the fluorescent glare of an airport departure gate.
I did not seek to be on television. When my third book was published, an ABC News TV producer who had attended one of my retreats invited me on air to talk about my book.
That appearance segued to me hosting my own show on spirituality for ABC News NOW, their now defunct digital TV news channel, and also to appearing on Good Morning America, World News Tonight and Nightline as a religion commentator.
After ABC News I was hired by CBS News and subsequently have appeared on FOX, NBC, MSNBC and HLN. For the last four years I have had an exclusive contract with CNN as “Religion and Faith Commentator.”
Television has been my friend—though, admittedly, a fickle one. More on that later.
The most common questions are: “What’s it like to work in TV as a priest? Do they tell you what to say? Is the media really anti-Catholic?”
Some context is necessary. News and the media are businesses. They don’t exist for the betterment of humanity, though sometimes their reportage has that result. News divisions must generate revenue to keep broadcasting the stories they deem luring to audiences.
Media organizations deliver what they perceive people want, so that ratings climb and advertisers pay higher fees. As this political season has demonstrated, Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, so we get plenty of Trump.
Happily, for we religion-covering types, Pope Francis has also proved to be a media darling—especially when he questions the Christian bona fides of some, ahem, politicians.
From the moment he was elected, Pope Francis was a news-maker. The world was fascinated with his every move, from his carrying his own bags and paying his hotel bill to his attracting 3 million people for Mass on a Brazilian beach. People watched, so media outlets readily accommodated the appetite for all things papal.
There are indications that three years into his papacy, the press’s fascination with Francis might finally be waning, and that now only his more dramatic gestures warrant coverage. A recent example is the Pope’s brief visit to the island of Lesbos to shine a light on the refugee crisis in Europe. It wasn’t until the pope surprised the world by taking twelve refugees back with him to Rome that the mainstream media really paid attention.
(Perhaps that’s why the Vatican chose to make it a surprise, exhibiting their own media savvy in navigating the vagaries of a 24-hour news cycle.)
Getting religion coverage on television is no easy task. TV producers have told me that religion does not generate ratings, and thus revenue, equal to those of other news stories—unless, of course, an unbridled Pope Francis or some Vatican scandal is involved.
If it’s not “sexy,” it doesn’t sell. So it’s not enough to give informed commentary; one must also be armed with talking points that generate buzz. Encouraging millennia-old traditions to trend on Twitter requires some ingenuity.
Making religion enticing to a viewing audience sporadically more enamored with the latest antics of the Kardashians is not achieved without peril. It’s a fine line between making religion accessible and dumbing it down to piffle that lacks theological and ecclesiastical heft.
“Religion-lite” doesn’t appeal to me, but neither does engendering ennui. As Gilbert and Sullivan counsel in The Yeoman of the Guard, “He who’d make his fellow creatures wise should always gild the philosophic pill!” That’s true of the religious one as well.
My primary gripe about the secular media is that often it overlooks the nuance and applicability of religion and faith in the public sphere. The media is engaged as long as there is a compelling enough figure such as Francis, or some cataclysmic ecclesial event, to garner interest, but it lacks the imagination to explore the more nuanced tentacles of religion in society.
When I try to interest television producers in covering aspects of faith and religion in areas such as politics, incarceration, global warming, international aggression, terrorism and world economics, they are slow to be convinced of a relevant faith connection. This despite a recent Pew survey that “shows a clear link between what people see as essential to their faith and their self-reported day-to-day behavior.”
Religion is also viewed with suspicion by the mainstream media. They prefer taking a laissez-faire approach, rather than risk offending personal beliefs. Separation of religion and media can seem as sacrosanct as separation of church and state.
A news producer once told me, “People don’t want religion with their Cheerios. It gives them indigestion.”
Media executives also have told me that they are afraid to be perceived as exclusionary if they don’t give equal time to all religious denominations and perspectives – so, for example, if they have a priest on-air, maybe they need to have a minister, a rabbi and an imam, too. Often in trying to do it all, they wind up doing nothing.
Despite the above quibbling, my experience of working in the secular media has been largely positive. I have never been told what to say or asked to slant my perspective. While I have witnessed anti-Catholic bias in the media, personally I’ve not been a victim of it.
Rather, I have been encouraged to don my Roman collar and have been shown respect and appreciation for my contributions. (Except once, off air, when a well-known host suggested that I was wasting my life by being a priest. But she had issues.)
In my experience, CNN has been more committed than most news networks to highlighting religion. Both their domestic and international branches have covered religion news events that other outlets have relegated to thirty second sound bites.
A friend recently said, “I can’t believe that CNN broadcast the whole Scalia funeral with commentary from its A-team.” Indeed they did, and I was privileged to have a seat at that table.
Do I wish the media, CNN included, would cover more faith and religion? Of course I do. There are plenty of missed opportunities to have a religious voice interjected into newsworthy events that suggest a moral, religious or ethical component.
However, every commentator or reporter would say the same about his or her area of coverage and expertise. It could always be more.
News comes in cycles, and these days the cycles are shorter and more crowded than ever. As a religion commentator I have to be ready to ride that diminished cycle whenever it rolls around.
And, of course, to keep praying for the good health of Pope Francis!
Father Edward L. Beck, C.P. is an on-air Religion Commentator for CNN.