The following is a transcription of the December 25, 2004 edition of "FOX News Watch," that has been edited for clarity:
ERIC BURNS, HOST: On this Christmas weekend, our "FOX News Watch" topic is Christmas, the Christian faiths that celebrate it and the other faiths that do not, and the media that report on it.
We'll discuss Jesus as a cover story and as an attraction at the box office. Does religion belong in the classroom? Do Christmas carols belong in school concerts? And we'll ask about the future of religious broadcasting.
First the headlines, then us.
BURNS: Here are four Christmas presents from the FOX News Channel to you. You may not exchange them for at least 30 minutes. Jim Pinkerton of Newsday, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, Jane Hall of the American University, and media writer Neal Gabler.
I'm Eric Burns. "FOX News Watch" is coming right up.
The media don't cover religion very much, yet when the news magazines put it on their covers, they usually sell a lot more copies than they usually sell. Actually, they always sell a lot more copies than they always sell.
Jane, why is that? And does it give the lie to the notion that religion should not be more part of news coverage than it is?
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I think religion should be more a part of news coverage, and I think we're in a period, as the "Time" magazine — the "Newsweek" magazine story, [written by] Jon Meacham,a wonderful writer and a wonderful, thoughtful piece, he said, we, like the Victorians, we live in a period of great belief and great doubt.
And I think that a lot of people are interested, especially at this time of year, in trying to find out and think about whether these stories are, "true" in the way that people usually think of them.
BURNS: Yes, but that's...
HALL: And — and I think that there's a lot of curiosity about that.
BURNS: But curiosity, Cal, about something historical. How would you make religion more relevant in news, more a part of conventional news coverage?
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Thinking about what Jane said, I would say that Jesus sells as well as saves!
The Meacham piece was fascinating because it follows a line that we've come to expect for much of the big media anyway, the so-called secular media. It quickly, after giving the gospel accounts, moves right into the doubters. Interviewing the intellects, the reverends, the doctors from various universities, saying that well, of course, we don't really believe it happened this way.
So it's — it's kind of amusing to read these things, and see that they focus at least as much on the doubt about the story as the story itself.
BURNS: But again, Neal, trying...
HALL: I think...
BURNS: ... to bring it up to date, is there a way and should there be a way to bring religious coverage up to date, current journalism?
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: Well, now get ready for the letters, but by my estimation, no. The reporters cover news. And when religion makes news, as it did when the Episcopalians had a rift in their church because of the investiture of a gay bishop...
GABLER: ... that was covered everywhere.
But the fact that people worship, the fact that people believe, is good for a feature story, but it's not news. And that's the issue. News ought to be covered.
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": The magazines — those weekly magazines are getting softer and softer. And they clearly wrote these Christmas covers, I think, to sell magazines. So in that sense, you can argue that's just them being what they are in this day, today.
However, I agree with Neal, the founding (ph) of religion, treated as a sociologist, as opposed to from a belief point of view, in terms of the red-blue America, the election, I mean, that — all these controversies that, some of which Neal alluded to, and there's another hundred on top of that, is fascinating and does deserve a lot more coverage. Because, let's face it, a lot of the media elites have been taken by surprise, election after election, in the United States and also elsewhere around the world by the persistence, the upsurge, the great awakening, whatever you want to call it, of religion faith and not just in Christianity.
BURNS: But the way you'd have to cover that would be to try to decide how that upsurge of faith, Jane, if there is one, was related to political events, to economic events, to consumer driven events. Wouldn't you, I mean?
HALL: Well, you would. And you know, without going too much into detail about this, there's some — there's some doubt. I mean, if you poll people differently about how big the issue of moral values was in the last election, it comes out slightly differently.
But I think the media have taken that, they've taken the fact that the Republicans got a lot of evangelicals out [on November 2] — on certain issues. And they've decided that this is now a story.
And I really have to say, I disagree with Cal. I thought the "Time" magazine story quoted a lot of doubters. I thought Meacham's piece was very thoughtful. This was a man who actually had studied this [subject] before he became a journalist, and I think it's reflected in that.
THOMAS: I'd like to pick up on something Neal said about news. A gay bishop is ordained; it's news in the Episcopal Church. Perhaps if an abortion controversy breaks out again in the Catholic Church, it's news.
But if you only cover that part of religion, you are skewing what religion really is. What about the soup kitchens? What about people who actually visit people in prison, who are not on television begging for money all the time for their various ministries?
BURNS: Which would be a conventional news story.
THOMAS: Yes. Well, it would. It should be.
BURNS: Should it be a daily event?
THOMAS: Another application — no...
BURNS: But there's room for it.
THOMAS: But you have a stereotyping about religious faith if you only cover the controversial stuff and not the daily out working and application of one's faith.
GABLER: Can I pick up on something Jim said? I mean, reporters can barely cover politics. Now we want them to cover theology? That is incredibly difficult.
And I think part of the special pleading here for saying we don't get enough religious coverage — let's face it, there's a political component to this. What kind of religious coverage don't we get? We don't get enough religious coverage about fundamentalist values.
So what we're really not talking about here is religion, which I think, you know, could be covered if you had some really smart people doing it, which unfortunately, we have a dearth of—But what we're really talking about here is not religion. We're talking about politics. More coverage of politics...
BURNS: But wait — but is that — wait. Is that fair to say, because I agree with you on the one hand, but you're suggesting there — maybe without meaning to, which is to say I'm putting words into your mouth...
GABLER: Go ahead.
BURNS: ... that there's no coverage of any kind of — of religion. I mean, no, you're suggesting there is coverage of more liberal kinds of religion. And I would submit, Jim, there isn't coverage, really, of any kind of religion.
GABLER: No. I would say...
PINKERTON: I think that religion, like most things, and I agree with what Cal is saying, that like most things in this world, it's the bad news that is covered. It's not some people are happily going to church or synagogue. It's people who get arrested or kill somebody or something.
So that's just an essence, it's the nature of the news.
THOMAS: It's banned by choice.
PINKERTON: Exactly is that, and that's an unfortunate dilemma we face. Which is why I give the magazines credit for at least taking some time out, like Easter, Christmas...
THOMAS: Yes, why not?
PINKERTON: ... to at least give some thought to this.
HALL: Well, you know, I think that — what is lacking is a real reflection. I think we — you know, this will probably get letters, too, but I think there is enough coverage of the fundamentalist vote. And I mean, that was something the media missed. Now they're overcovering it.
How many — how many people saw stories about the number of Catholic priests and others who sent something up to the White House, saying the Iraqi war was not their definition of a just war, religiously? How many Unitarian ministers do you see? You see Ralph Reed. You see Al Sharpton.
There is a range of opinion, and I don't see that reflected on many talk shows.
BURNS: There's a range of opinion when the religious people, Cal, are talking politics.
THOMAS: Yes. Well, it's kind of a hit and run approach by most of the media. Most reporters don't know the definitions of the terms. They don't know the difference between, say born again and born yesterday.
There was a terrific piece in "The New York Times" a few weeks ago, lamenting the fact that the networks, especially, when they want religious leaders, go after a Falwell or a Sharpton but don't have a John Stoddard, a real intellectual, on.
BURNS: Well, we do, and thanks.
We have to take a break. Back with more with this Christmas weekend, after we tell you this.
BURNS: (VIDEOTAPE) Maplewood, New Jersey: no Christmas carols at school concerts this holiday season, even instrumental concerts.
(VIDEOTAPE) Bay Harbor Islands, Florida: town officials permit a menorah on public property while denying permission for a nativity scene. A woman sues on behalf of the nativity scene and wins.
Jim, stories like this come up every year. My first question is why these [stories] seem to engage the media to the extent that they do. They always take place in relatively small communities, but they get an enormous amount of coverage.
PINKERTON: Well, first of all, there are a lot of them by now. I think what's happened here is that 30 or 40 years ago, a liberal, secular wave went through the law schools and the courts. And they started setting in motion all these losses and all these sort of annihilation of religion in the public square and so on.
And the last 30 or 40 years have been the rollback of that, as— we're talking about the surge in religious feeling that's come along. And now people want to put religion back into things. And now there's a major collision between the forces of the seculars and the forces of devotion. And they're fighting it out in the courts.
And of course, it's news, because it's going on everywhere. We'll see Los Angeles County being intimidated into taking away the [cross on their county seal] — their own history of the missions there, with a little cross on it. That's a fight, and it's big news.
GABLER: No question, this is big news. But I think it's interesting the way that the media are covering this story. And it's particularly incendiary this season.
I mean, first of all, we get a number of stories that the "secularists" are out to destroy Christmas. —Well, it seems to me Christmas is thriving pretty well.—But they're trying to light a kind of — of religious Reichstag fire to — to attack un-Christians, of whom there are some in this country, believe it or not, and those Christians, those liberal Christians, who disagree with their point of view.
PINKERTON: Can I just say...
GABLER: Let me just — let me just take one story here that — a story in "Newsday" about the Maplewood situation you were talking about. This is the way—in this story—it's supposedly an objective news story— they talk about the situation. They say "not many are happy about it." Now that's — you know, that's — they're...
BURNS: Happy about the ban of Christmas carols.
GABLER: About ban of the Christmas carols. But then down — down later [in the story], they say, "The policy does have its supporters, though. Mark Brownstein of Maplewood said he supports the ban."
I mean, there is an agenda here. There is an agenda, and let's not overlook that.
PINKERTON: All right. Can I make a point here? Maybe Mark Brownstein does support the ban and that's — he's the guy they found to quote. It does seem like there's more lawyers involved in opposing these things than citizens. Just to be clear, though...
BURNS: We know Mark's a lawyer, do we?
PINKERTON: No, but we're saying the numbers are small. So if you have to find somebody, you have to find somebody.
Neal, you didn't really mean to—the Reichstag fire was the occasion that Hitler used to take over Germany.
GABLER: I know the Reichstag fire.
PINKERTON: You're not making that comparison, are you?
GABLER: I am making that comparison in saying that there are people in the media, and I'm not saying all over the place, but there are people in the media — I don't want to use any names on this program—But there are people in the media who are using this occasion to marginalize, to attack and to foment a very ugly, ugly situation in this country.
PINKERTON: Are they Nazi-like?
GABLER: Yes, they are Nazi-like. I would say that.
HALL: I think that there are—you know, one of the things that is going on is the way the ACLU probably pursued stories in the past, there are—there are groups that are representing people in these towns. And it goes from a small town story to a big thing that's all over a lot of talk radio.
There's been a lot of — from what I've read, there's been misreporting. There was the story out in California where they said the man was banned from reading the Declaration of Independence. It was reported on Reuter's, a whole bunch of places.
I read other stories that said he was asked not to — to distribute things that he had edited, not the Declaration of Independence.
I think there is an incendiary quality to a lot of this reporting.
THOMAS: Let me...
HALL: And it is exclusive of other people's views.
THOMAS: Let me tell you what one of the unreported elements of all of this is. With Republicans in the White House now for eight years, since the election, with Republicans controlling Congress, with the conservative movement seeming to be making increasing advances, there is a feeling among many of these that they're losing their fundraising edge.
You have to have a controversy in order to get people to send in money. What better one than to say they're trying to keep you from celebrating your faith?
I'm not forbidden from celebrating my faith. I can have people over to my house, pray to whichever god I wish, wear things on my lapels, shop or not shop, consume or not consume, give money to charity and all of the rest.
BURNS: So who's making this into more of a controversy?
THOMAS: Well, you get a lot — first of all, you've got talk radio, which has been mentioned... You've got some of these preachers who do direct mail.
You always have to be an outsider. Even though the Christian majority is 80, 90 percent in this country, you still have to be offended and afflicted in order to get that money in, in order to get attention in certain circles in Washington.
PINKERTON: It's not too often I find myself to the right of Cal Thomas on a religious issue here! But look, I was going through all the items here, and it's just a fact. The schools say you can't...
THOMAS: Yes, of course it's a fact.
PINKERTON: Well, it's an outrage. I think it's wrong. And I think people are mad about it. And I think that groups like the Becket Fund and the Thomas More Center and the Rutherford Institute have done wonderful work about suing to say, look — that religion ought to have a place. Not...
PINKERTON: And that's a fight. It's a fight, Cal.
BURNS: But wait a minute. It's not just religion versus secularism. It's one religion versus another. For instance, this Bay Harbor Islands, Florida, case, the menorah and the nativity scene.
Is there a way not just to accommodate religion in the public sphere, but to accommodate different religions at the same time?
GABLER: I think there is. And in point of fact...
BURNS: Well, that's what we ought to be looking for, isn't it?
GABLER: Most of these — most of these court cases do that. I mean, one of the things, if you look at the California law, when we were talking about the teacher in Cupertino, California, the California law forbids religious instruction. But it doesn't forbid the discussion of religion.
So on some of this, I think I agree with Cal. Some of this is really a kind of smokescreen. It's a kind of red herring to foment an anger and attention and a division in this country that really doesn't exist.
HALL: I also think — you know, I agree with what's been said. I also think there's a point at which it has gotten too P.C. When you say that people cannot have red and green Christmas plates [at a school function]. I mean, that is not — nowhere is it in the Constitution that that is separation of church and state. And I think people are reacting to it.
And the unfortunate thing is that a lot of people are using this as a bludgeon against other people.
PINKERTON: I think a lot of people are trying to just reassert their rights under the First Amendment...
HALL: They already have their rights.
PINKERTON: ...of free speech.— No, they don't. They've lost it in schools. They've lost it in a lot of public places.
GABLER: Someone deprived you of the opportunity to celebrate Christmas?
PINKERTON: They have — they have deprived Los Angeles County...
GABLER: Let's talk about it.
PINKERTON: They've deprived the only — of their music program to play Christmas carols.
BURNS: The only serious impediment to — to a right to speech on this program is — you know it, Jim, don't you? A commercial break. Here's one. We'll be back with more on Christmas in the media, after this.
BURNS: We've been talking about religion as a story this year, and perhaps what it might be in years to come. But the biggest religious story this year, Cal, was a movie, "The Passion of the Christ," which has come back to controversy, it seems to me, because the Golden Globe nominations have been announced and, despite its surprising success, it got none.
Are we coming in for a new wave of religious controversy?
THOMAS: Yes, all that Jewish control in Hollywood, you know? Steal Neal's line here, you know...
No, I mean, it's — this movie was more than a movie. It was a phenomenon. And it outdid everything everybody thought in terms of attendance, in terms of profits.
BURNS: Why? Why did it do that?
THOMAS: It snuck in under the radar because again, people — well, it had two elements. I mean, my friend ["New York Times" columnist] Frank Rich, you know, pointed out the— what he felt...
BURNS: Your unlikely friend, Frank.
THOMAS: Yes, he is my good friend, —I'm happy to have him as a friend—of "The New York "Times," pointed out the undercurrent among some of anti-Semitism. And some used this film, especially in the Middle East, where in Arab nations you're not allowed to depict prophets, and Jesus is regarded as a prophet in the Middle East. But Yassir Arafat and others saw this as a good way to beat up on the Jews.
Now, the Christian audience in America flocked to this because they were thrilled to see something coming out of Hollywood that depicted their Savior in a positive light, in a redemptive way—violence notwithstanding. That's the secret of that.
BURNS: Neal, anything to add as to why this movie was, and I'm sure we'll all agree, more than a movie but truly...
GABLER: Well, I think more than a movie is the key term here, because I think people not only — however they responded to it aesthetically, they were making a statement by going to see it.
BURNS: And the statement was?
GABLER: And the statement was this is too secular a culture. You're not giving us the things we want. We want something that satisfies us, and this satisfies us. And so simply by putting down the money to go to see it, they were making a declaration.
PINKERTON: I think — I'll add this then. I saw the movie in Manhattan, in what we politely call an "urban" audience. And it was filled and people were crying. It was not just a statement. It was, I think, a genuine pilgrimage.
THOMAS: Religious experience.
PINKERTON: To this audience. Yes, I agree.
HALL: Well, I don't mean to rain on this parade, but I do think that we should also note that Mel Gibson, very interestingly and smartly in retrospect, marketed this, at first, to church groups that he thought would like it. And people were talking and pastors were telling their parishioners to go to see it. That certainly helped build a groundswell. And then it became a phenomenon.
PINKERTON: Which is also a reminder that, again, we talk a lot about it on the show. New media, new channels, the Internet, I mean, the whole new distribution system outside the studios.
And by the way, I do think the movie was helped accidentally, because I think Frank Rich, whom I count as a Catholic basher, trashed the movie so badly that people said, "Well, gee, if 'The New York Times' hates it this much, there's got to be something there to see."
THOMAS: Well, I think an indication of Hollywood didn't really get it, after trying to absorb this, "Variety" writing reams of explanations on how could this be and how did we miss it, came up with this movie called "Saved," about a bunch of hypocritical teenagers who are on dope, having sex, supposedly at a Christian high school, and they were actually calling some of the same people that Gibson had called in the previews, hoping that word of mouth would get around the churches!
It was a joke. It was like a racist saying, "OK, I'm in touch now with African-Americans. I'm going to re-release 'Amos & Andy'."
PINKERTON: Conversely, the same gang of cynical Hollywood types, used these folks to help market the movie "Christmas with the Kranks."
PINKERTON: With Tim Allen. They're having a hard time with the regular critics. Then they noticed the "700 Club" liked it. They started running those ads, and they started selling tickets again.
GABLER: But there's the thing. It's aesthetics versus this kind of religious devotion. And that's one of the reasons why, in my estimation, "The Passion" is not going to get Oscar nominations. Because the Oscars are based — you can disagree with their aesthetics, but they're based on aesthetics.
I mean, they actually thought that "Ben Hur" was the best picture of the year, back in 1959. But I'm not sure that "The Passion" qualifies on that basis, and that's — that's going to be...
HALL: But they're trying to...
PINKERTON: Hollywood is as political as anything. That's why they gave Oscars to movies like "Erin Brockovich" and stuff. I mean, they love — they love left-wing politics. They don't love right-wing politics. The movie will get snuffed out in the Oscars, as well.
BURNS: But supposedly — supposedly, Jane, what matters more than anything else in Hollywood and in any kind of business is the bottom line. "The Passion of the Christ" was a huge financial success. As far as I know, no one else is planning a movie any — even close to this.
Why is that? Hasn't Hollywood learned there's an audience out there?
HALL: No, I don't think they have. And I think...
BURNS: Is that fairly...
HALL: And—and I think that Mel Gibson—I think Mel Gibson was a unique case.
HALL: I mean, the betting was that this— this was his vision, and he is a big enough box office star that he got to get this made. And it's—I think that's a big factor.
BURNS: But since he laid down that groundwork, Neal, isn't it reasonable to assume—I mean, look, "Spider-Man 1" led to "Spider-Man 2." I mean, anything that's halfway successful — there have been movies that have had three sequels and I never heard of the original. This one was enough...
THOMAS: Hard to have a sequel to the resurrection.
THOMAS: Where do you go — where do you go from there?
HALL: Right. Right. Easter.
BURNS: It was successful enough, I would think, that somebody would have gotten the idea to do something on conventional Christian religious or Jewish religious faith, and it's not happening.
GABLER: But it was a phenomenon. And I don't think it can be replicated, because it was treated as a phenomenon. Not as an entertainment vehicle, but as something — as a kind of religious devotion, almost a kind of communion. How many times can you do that? I don't think you can do that very much.
PINKERTON: You've heard of crying all the way to the bank? Hollywood will be dragged, crying all the way to the bank, to make more of these.
HALL: But there was also a great deal of controversy about the movie and about its emphasis, some people thought, on the violence of the crucifixion. — And as opposed to the teachings of Jesus before that. So, I mean, that was another factor. And I think that's also a factor why it's not going to get an Oscar...
THOMAS: [Film critic and radio talk show host] Michael Medved has said that the Hollywood community would rather have approval from their peers than even make a lot of money. So I doubt there's going to be a sequel to this. It will be Cecil B. DeMille reruns.
BURNS: That is all the time we have for this week. We thank you for watching us on so special a day. And Merry Christmas to you from Jane Hall and Jim Pinkerton, from Cal Thomas and Neal Gabler, all of whom would be perfectly capable of wishing you a Merry Christmas themselves if we had just a little more time.
I'm Eric Burns, hoping you'll join us next week when "FOX News Watch" looks back at 2004 and then ahead to 2005 and when we'll all wish you the happiest of new years.