Culture Notes: Christmas Without Christ
2,000 years ago, there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn in Bethlehem. Fittingly enough, in the past two years, there was no room for their baby at the network evening news shows. Every year, millions of Americans celebrate the most important Christian holiday by reflecting upon the significance of the birth of Christ. Families attend church, count blessings and exchange gifts, and yet the evening news broadcasts for ABC, CBS and NBC almost completely ignored these religious traditions by leaving Christ and God out of Christmas.
Two years of Christmas coverage on three networks produced a scant 1.3 percent of stories mentioning the deity. The true message of Christmas, the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, has simply been ignored by the mainstream media.
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The big three networks ran 527 stories about Christmas in their nightly news broadcasts, but a mere seven of those stories mentioned God or the birth of Jesus Christ. ABC’s “World News,” “CBS Evening News,” and “NBC Nightly News” all thoroughly covered Christmas, but 98.7 percent of the Christmas references highlighted the holiday’s impact on the economy, weather, travel, retail sales, the passage of the Senate health care bill and its other less religious connotations.
The Media Research Center’s Culture and Media Institute looked at network evening news shows that mentioned “Christmas” from Oct. 1, 2008, to Sep 30, 2010. CMI found that the networks almost completely neglected stories about family, religion, and the blessings that Americans enjoy. Here are some key findings:
- God Who?Just seven stories out of 527 (1.3 percent) mentioned the deity in two years of network evening news coverage.
- More Words about Ping Pong than God:Only 312 words, in 19 sentences over two years and three networks mentioned “God,” “Jesus” or “Christ.” CBS used more words than that (320 to be exact) in a single story about the possible addition of table tennis to the Olympic Games in 2012.
- Underwear Bomber and Retail Stories Overshadowed Christ: It’s a holiday season everywhere … except the networks, where other stories dominated the coverage. One hundred and sixteen stories referencing Christmas only covered the holiday in terms of the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber on flight 253 over Detroit – 22 percent of 2008 and 2009 Christmas coverage.Retail stories were a favorite Christmas topic as well – the networks dedicated 104 Christmas stories (19.7 percent) to coverage of how Christmas sales impacted the bottom line for the US economy and revenue for retailers around the nation.
The media could argue that national security threats trump everything when it comes to covering news, and therefore the excessive Christmas day underwear bomber stories were justified. But that ignores both the 2008 coverage and the stories leading up to the day of the bombing. In 2009, the year of the Christmas day bomber, only one story mentioned the deity, and in 2008, a mere five stories positively referenced God.
To accurately reflect the true meaning of Christmas, CMI recommends the networks:
- Talk about Christ during Christmas. The effort to make God obsolete in evening news reports about Christmas is simply futile when one considers that, according to a 2008 Pew Research Poll,nearly 80 percent of Americans consider themselves to be Christian.
- Interview Christians and those who celebrate Christmas by remembering its true meaning.
- Go to various churches to find stories about Christmas.
- Cover more positive stories about the spirit of giving and those who reflect Christ during this special season.
Christmas Without Christ
He’s the reason for the season, but networks mum on Jesus in Christmas coverage.
Santa, carols, sleigh rides and presents – they’re all images the media bombard Americans with each “Christmas.” While none of those things are intrinsically bad, the lack of focus upon the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, is a sad commentary on pop culture. In 1870, Congress officially declared December 25a federal holiday, to give those who celebrate Christmas a day to reflect upon God’s gift to mankind in sending his son, Jesus Christ.
However it seems that every year, the news about Christmas covers increasingly secular topics: Christmas weather, Christmas shopping, Christmas crime, Christmas travel, Christmas crowds, etc. The religious aspect of the holiday gets shoved aside.
Nearly 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians, so it is safe to say that they are not offended by the words “Christ,” “God” and “Jesus.” But the media have made Christ nearly taboo in network news coverage.
And yet, out of the 527 stories about Christmas in their nightly news broadcasts, the three networks mentioned God or the birth of Jesus Christ in just seven. So 98.7 percent of the Christmas references on the networks were about anything but the day’s religious significance.
Worst Examples of Neglecting God
If ever there was an appropriate time to mention the deity, it would be while discussing religious songs sung by a chart-topping group of priests on Christmas night. The “NBC Nightly News’ broadcast on Christmas Day 2008, with guest anchor Amy Robach filling in for Brian Williams, went to almost ridiculous lengths to avoid any mention of God. In an almost 400 word segment about a chart-topping group of Irish priests and their CD titled “Priests,” there was not one word about the deity of which they sang. Instead other religious terms took God’s place.
“Heavenly music” and “spiritually inspired tracks” were phrases used to describe the “minor miracle” that is the collective success of the priests, who signed a $1-million contract in 2008. NBC reporter Keith Miller said, “They may be the only entertainers who are more interested in mending souls than climbing the charts.” But not mentioning Christ in a 400 word segment about a group of priests was not as egregious as failing to recognize God in a 3,600-word broadcast on Christmas Eve.
The 2009 Christmas Eve “CBS Evening News” broadcast kept God out of the true meaning of Christmas, although there were 18 “Christmas” references. Bad weather, derailed travel plans, and the passage of the Senate health care bill were all discussed with Christmas, but the message of the birth of Christ was non-existent.
Even a Christmas story about giving left out a mention of the greatest gift given to mankind. That story happened on Dec. 19, 2008, just six days before Christmas during the “CBS Evening News.” In a story about a secret Santa do-gooder, there were six mentions of Christmas, and five of selfless giving, but none about God.
But CBS was willing to outdo itself with the most ridiculous Christmas story of 2009 by highlighting a “sexy Santa” in Los Angeles. Ben Tracy reporting on Nov. 28 found the true meaning of Christmas by highlighting one mall’s racy attempt to attract buyers.
“Shopping malls themselves are upping the ante to help their stores lure customers,” Tracy said. “The Beverly Center in Los Angeles has a Vegas style act hanging around in the courtyard and if you prefer your Santa more hunky than chunky, this mall knows what you want for Christmas.”
Beverly Centerstore manager Jeff Brown admitted it was a publicity stunt in order to “push the envelope about as far as we could go and really create that point of difference.”
And in 2009, possibly the worst example of ignoring the deity came from NBC. The “Nightly News” completely failed to mention God during the entire 2009 Christmas season.
A Scant Few Mentions
All the evening news shows did have at least one reference to God during the 2008 Christmas season. Most of those occurred just in the nick of time, on the Christmas Eve or Christmas Day broadcasts.
NBC anchor Ann Curry, filling in on Dec. 24, 2008, didn’t shy away from mentioning the birth of Jesus, the true meaning of Christmas for billions of Christians around the world. Curry said, “And in Bethlehem, the largest number of Christmas visitors in nearly a decade have flocked to Christ – to services at the church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.”
But CBS anchor Jeff Glor wasn’t so generous with his description of the religious meaning behind Christmas. On the 2009 Christmas Day broadcast, Glor glossed over the celebrations all over the world. “Worshipers attended mass at Chicago’s 134-year-old Holy Name Cathedral,” he stated. “In Bethlehem, pilgrims and Palestinian Christians celebrated at the Church of the Nativity, and Australians were on Sydney’s famed Bondi beach, with not a snow flake in sight.”
CBS Correspondent Allen Pizzey used some heavenly humor in the same broadcast he reported on the attack at the Vatican on Pope Benedict XVI. “Because the pope cannot be isolated from the faithful, he will always be within range of the unfaithful and the disturbed, which leaves divine protection his last, and he might say best resort,” Pizzey quipped.
The most newsy reference to God came from Charles Gibson in the Christmas Eve, 2008 broadcast of “World News Tonight.” Gibson said, “In Rome, worshippers gathered in Saint Peter’s Square as Pope Benedict lit a candle and urged people around the world to pray for peace. He then celebrated midnight mass. And in Bethlehem, thousands crowded into Major Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, the site where Christians believe that Jesus was born.”
CBS’s Harry Smith gave a brief mention of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Eve 2008, but did so in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “And the Christmas celebration in Bethlehem was much brighter this year,” Smith said. “Christian pilgrims gathered for Mass at the Church of the Nativity. Bethlehem’s been a flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinians, but security has improved a lot in the past year.”
However, Smith also gave a respectful mention of God and Christmas in the same broadcast when. ”It is one of the most solemn, yet joyous celebrations of Christmas: midnight Mass at the Vatican,” Smith reported. “Pope Benedict led the faithful in prayer this evening at St. Peter’s Basilica. In his homily, the Pope said this is the time to think of children, especially those who are orphaned, homeless or exploited. He also asked for prayers of peace for Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.”
A guest mentioned God in the Dec. 23, 2009, ABC broadcast. In an uplifting story about the generous giving that sustained the financially struggling First Baptist Church in Brattleboro, Vt, the pastor said, “It’s not just Christmas. It’s a miracle. I think God is working in His way.”
2009: How the Underwear Bomber Stole Christmas
The 2009 Christmas day bomber was by far the most common context in which the word “Christmas” was used. Of the 527 stories CMI studied, the failed attempt to blow up Delta Northwest flight 253 over Detroit by al Qaeda operative bomb smuggler Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was the subject of 116. The “underwear bomber” as he became commonly known, garnered 33.6 percent of all stories mentioning Christmas during the 2008 Christmas season.
ABC led the three networks in references to the underwear bomber, with 43 stories in 2008 and 2009, or 35.5 percent of its total Christmas coverage.
CBS did 36 stories about the Christmas day bomber, or 39 percent of its Christmas coverage. NBC did 37 stories about the Christmas day bomber, but that equaled only 28 percent of its coverage of Christmas in 2009.
Christmas is … just about anything but Christ.
Falling as it does at the end of the calendar year when businesses and governments scramble to show a profit or claim accomplishments, and given the demand it creates for often chancy travel during winter, Christmas offers plenty of excuses the media to talk about anything but its religious dimension.
It is no secret that Christmas gift sales and their impact on the U.S. economy, garners huge press coverage every December. But when the focus on the holiday’s impact on retailers becomes all that Christmas is good for, the original message of Christ’s birth is completely lost. A whopping 19.7 percent of Christmas coverage for all three networks was dedicated solely to economic and retail stories.
Diane Sawyer brought on the holiday gloom on Dec 21, 2009: “Christmas week chaos,” she said. “More long lines, more short tempers. Passengers stranded at airports for the third straight day.”
In 2009, retail stories amounted to 14.2 percent of the ABC, CBS and NBC nightly broadcast coverage of Christmas stories. In 2008, however, in the wake of the economic crisis, economic Christmas stories were more prevalent, garnering 30.2 percent of Christmas coverage in 55 stories.
On ABC Diane Sawyer highlighted the economy on Christmas Eve in 2009. “And on Wall Street, a nice rally for Christmas Eve,” said Sawyer. “And our Business Correspondent Betsy Stark was down oat the market today. So Betsy, bring us up, where is the market at this time of the year?”
Of course, in order to shop, people have to be able to get to the stores, and then travel to wherever their holiday destination is. Christmas occurs during winter, and winter means severe weather that each year strands hundreds, if not thousands of travelers. The networks made the woes of weary travelers a focus of 10.6 percent of all Christmas stores in 2008 and 2009.
“Across the hard-hit region, this was the sound more popular than a Christmas carol,” said CBS Correspondent Barry Peterson on Christmas night 2009. “In Minneapolis, the city said it would plow enough lanes on streets and multilane highways to equal 3,200 miles, enough to equal plowing a single lane from the Twin Cities to Anchorage, Alaska.”
In December 2009, if the Christmas Day underwear bomber wasn’t being talked about, it was likely the Christmas deadline for the passage of the $871 billion health care reform bill. On the morning of Christmas Eve 2009, Democrats in the Senate passed a bill to overhaul Americans’ health care by a vote of 60-39. In 2009, the health care reform bill Christmas deadline accounted for 32 stories, or 9.3 percent of all Christmas coverage.
Finally, generic references to Christmas that ignored the deity added up to a whopping 40 percent of all Christmas coverage in 2008 and 2009. A general story about Christmas was anything from the arrival of the White House Christmas tree, to the way deployed troops would spend the holiday.
Sadly, the baby Jesus took a back seat to mundane holiday references in 2008, with the networks running a staggering 102 stories, or 56 percent of all Christmas coverage on general Christmas references. NBC was the worst offender, with 41 stories, followed by CBS with 36 and then ABC with 25.
In 2009 there were even more even more non-pious stories run by the networks – 109 among all three.
The Culture and Media Institute looked at the nightly network news shows from ABC, CBS and NBC for two years. CMI analyzed every story that appeared in the broadcasts of ABC’s “World News,” “CBS Evening News” and “NBC Nightly News” that mentioned the word “Christmas” between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2010.
Stories were analyzed to see if they mentioned “Jesus,” “God” or some other indication of a deity.
On the Aug. 14, 2010, broadcast of the “CBS Evening News,” Jeff Glor dedicated 327 words to the possible addition of table tennis to the Olympics in 2012. That’s more words devoted to ping pong than were devoted to God during all of the Christmas coverage in two years of broadcasts.
Plainly, to the networks, Christmas means travel delays and spikes in sales for retailers hoping to see profits in the black. Christmas means arbitrary congressional deadlines and general placeholders for timelines. Christmas means that a sexy Santa can get away with toeing that naughty line in order to attract buyers to his store.
On ABC, CBS and NBC, Christmas means everything except the birth of Christ.
The Culture and Media Institute recommends that ABC, CBS and NBC not show bias against Christians by glossing over one of their most important holidays. If there are more than 300 million Americans, and 80 percent claim to be Christians, than the networks are slighting an important holiday for more than 24 million people.
CMI recommends that the networks:
- Recognize the lack recognition given to Christ during the Christmas season.
- Include more discussion about the birth of Christ and what it means to 80 percent of Americans.
- Interview Christians, Catholics, pastors, church leaders, authors, musicians and others who celebrate the Christmas every year by remembering its true meaning.