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Why So Much Media Focus on Mitt Romney's Mormon Faith?

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'FOX News Watch' host Eric Burns (FNC)

The following is a transcription of the February 17, 2007 edition of "FOX News Watch" that has been edited for clarity.

ERIC BURNS, HOST:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, GOP PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL: I think in my view, the people of America want a person of faith to lead the country. They can look at my wife and me and my family, they can see that our faith has made us better people, better Americans, and we share the values of the other citizens of this great land.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNS: That was former Massachusetts Republican Governor Mitt Romney responding to a question about media focus on his religion. Romney said this week he's running for president, but on the day of his announcement, he woke up to see this headline on the front page of USA Today: "Will Mormon faith hurt bid for White House?"

Jim, let's pretend that's a question asked of you.

JAMES PINKERTON, NEWSDAY: Well, I don't know the answer to that. I do know that the media seemed inordinately interested in kind of nudging Christians into talking about this more and more. You wouldn't see a headline, I don't think, would a Jewish person be opposed for being president. I don't think they would put the headline like that. I don't think they would do it. I think the bias against Romney is pretty strong. The Media Research Center...

BURNS: Because of his faith?

PINKERTON: No, I think they're using that as an excuse. I don't think they like Romney. I don't think they really want a Republican to win. And they're using his Mormonism as one way of getting at him .

NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Who is this "they" you are talking about? The "they" that doesn't want Romney to win. I love this .

PINKERTON: I can answer that question for Neal. Thank you for asking.

Media Research Center counted up the minutes and seconds...

GABLER: Conservative organization?

PINKERTON: Yeah.

They counted up the minutes that CBS News had devoted to Barack Obama's announcement and to Romney's, and the ratio was 54 to one, 54 = Obama, 1 = Romney. That...

GABLER: "Figures don't lie," as my father used to say, "liars do figure."

PINKERTON: And at the same time, of course the three network newscasts all did Hillary Clinton's announcement live on the air when she announced it a little while ago.

GABLER: As they will do with McCain.

PINKERTON: As they would not do with Romney.

JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM: I think this is what happens every time. John F. Kennedy had to explain his Catholicism. Lieberman had a funny line about how I will work for you 24/6, i.e., taking off the Sabbath off, which was a great way of dealing with it.

I think, to be honest, I mean, if you read the rest of that story, it's a very interesting piece about Mormonism. I think most people in this country think they still have polygamy. And they think it's an odd religion and the media were playing into that and his positions on abortion and a few other things, to my mind, are more relevant to how you should vote.

GABLER: I couldn't disagree more. Look it, it's one thing for the media to report that something might make a difference for the voters. And frankly, 24 percent of the American people in polls say they wouldn't vote for Mormon. And the media is saying that the American people should feel this way.

What the media are acknowledging is that this is a big issue , the same as it was for John Kennedy in 1960.

HALL: I didn't say it didn't matter...

BURNS: In other words, Neal, by raising the issue they were doing something they should have done because it's an issue in the minds of so many Americans.

GABLER: Exactly. Now maybe it shouldn't be. Frankly, knowing where I come from, I don't think it should be. But the media is being absolutely responsible in saying that when a quarter of the American people won't vote for somebody because he's a Mormon, that's a big story.

CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: But that isn't the story. The media only care if you take your faith seriously. Ex-senator Rick Santorum, serious Catholic, was portrayed as a fanatic. Pat Robertson and some of these others.

GABLER: Pat Robertson is not fanatic?

THOMAS: I didn't — I'm just saying this is the way — if you take your faith seriously, then you're in trouble. They don't ask about Obama's faith, he's a member of a liberal denomination. They don't ask about Giuliani's faith — if he has one. They don't ask about any of these people. They only ask if you take it seriously.

I believe in the W.C. Fields' philosophy. "Everybody's got to believe in something. I believe I'll have another drink!" How's that? That's the best one.

HALL: I wasn't saying this doesn't matter or that the media weren't reporting it. I'm saying they're doing what I call "first" coverage. Hillary Clinton is getting first woman coverage. He is getting "first black" coverage and now "first Mormon" coverage. That's a trend.

PINKERTON: I'd also mention that John Edwards slid off the blogger controversy pretty quickly. John Edwards is the first presidential candidate I can think of who hired absolute blasphemers to work for him and when that story came and went I think people let it go not taking a chance to take the window and reveal into the window of what the mindset of the people in the Edwards campaign really is.

BURNS: It came and went because they got rid of them so quickly, too.

PINKERTON: But other stories dog people. They say well, Giuliani — the media for the rest of this campaign will be bringing up Giuliani's previous wives because they're trying to sticking it to him.

THOMAS: So it's bad if you have previous wives. But if you're a Mormon and supposedly have three or four wives currently, that's bad...

BURNS: But the point Jane makes I think has some validity to it. Every "first," first Mormon, first woman, first Jew, first Catholic many years ago, seems to get more attention than the second one would. We need in the media a trailblazer and the media pay less attention the second time around.

GABLER: Partly true, however. Only 12 percent of the American people say they wouldn't vote for a woman and seven percent said they wouldn't vote for an African American. So it's not exactly the same with Romney.

HALL: We'll see what they do in the voting booth. No one wants to acknowledge prejudice.

GABLER: Exactly right. Exactly.

BURNS: We have to take another break.

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