Networks Obsessed with Labeling Romney Mormon

News flash: Mitt Romney is a Mormon!

Actually, it’s not news. Romney was a Mormon as governor of Massachusetts and high-profile turn-around manager of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Romney ran for the GOP nomination in 2008 and he was a Mormon then. He’s pretty much been running ever since. As a Mormon. But somehow, the networks can’t help reminding viewers at every turn that Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints.

Just since Oct. 31, ABC, NBC and CBS have made 57 specific references to Romney’s faith. That’s on top of the more than 100 times they talked about it from Jan. 1-Oct. 31, 2011.

Unlike their colleagues at MSNBC, network reporters can’t openly attack Romney’s faith. But they can make sure nobody forgets what it is by including it in nearly every story that mentions him. They can wonder ifMitt Romney`s Mormon faith is problematic” to Christians, as CBS’s Bill Whitaker did in January. They can cite “misconceptions” about polygamy, as NBC’s Kristen Dahlgren did in February.  

Last fall, the Culture and Media Institute released “Baptism by Fire,” a study of how ABC, NBC and CBS covered the religion of the Republican primary contenders versus that of Democrat candidates in the 2008 cycle. CMI found that Republicans’ faith was discussed seven times more than Democrats, and their faith was 13 times more likely to be criticized or challenged.

Not surprisingly, the networks gave Barack Obama a near-total pass on his religion. Questions about Barack Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, surfaced in early in March 2007 and were covered on Fox News and in newspapers, but it took an entire year for any of the networks to mention Wright. Out of 11 mentions of Obama's religion, not one challenged, criticized or took his statements at anything other than face value.

Not so for the GOP contestants last year, especially not for Romney. CMI discovered that the networks were fixated on the Mormonism of Romney and – to a lesser degree – fellow candidate Jon Huntsman. In the first 10 months of 2011, the three networks brought up Mormonism more than 100 times in the context of the campaign. Clearly, they couldn’t stop mentioning Mormonism.

They still can’t, even though few of those stories have anything new to say. Reporters fret over whether evangelicals will vote for a Mormon, just as they did a year ago. On May 31, ABC's Jamie Gangel said, "Romney has to answer critics who say he isn't a true conservative, that he won't energize the party base, including Christian evangelicals concerned because he is a Mormon."

Half a year later, on Jan. 16, 2012, CBS’s Gayle King wondered to Bob Schieffer if Romney’s problems were “still an issue of the M-word? Being a Mormon? That people still are – still afraid and nobody wants to say out loud and people think, well?”

The networks aren’t known for their interest in the finer points of theology, until the presumptive GOP nominee is a Mormon. Then reporters turn to well-known Christian pastors to find out if Mormons are Christians. CBS put it to Joel Osteen in January. When Osteen said, "I see [Romney] as being a believer in Christ like me,” Charlie Rose pushed. “That’s enough for you?” On April 8, ABC’s Jake Tapper asked Pastor Rick Warren, “A lot of evangelicals have been talking about whether or not Mormons are Christians. Are Mormon's Christians?”

When Romney released his tax returns in January, and it turned out that he’d given generously to charity, each network was careful to note where most of it went. For example, ABC’s John Berman said Romney had given “more than $7 million to charity over two years, including, initial reports say, more than $4 million to the Mormon Church.” For hearing impaired viewers, the accompanying graphic repeated: “GAVE $7 MILLION TO CHARITY. $4 MILLION TO MORMON CHURCH.” It’s hard to imagine a report about a liberal politician’s charitable giving mentioning the specific denomination of a religious institution that received it – if it mentioned one at all.

Again, Mitt Romney is no stranger to most Americans. The LDS is the fourth largets denomination in the country. Mormons have been successful in business, politics and show biz for decades. And, as CMI noted before, if Mormons have an electoral problem, its with liberals, not conservative. A June 2011 Gallop poll found 80 percent of Republicans willing to vote for a Mormon candidate, compared to 71 percent of Democrats would. It also said that 77 percent of voters of all Christian denominations would pull the lever for a Mormon. The May 2011, Pew poll said 64 percent of white evangelicals viewed a candidate's Mormonism as inconsequential or even as a positive. The truth is, the only ones who believe Romney’s religion worth discussion are liberal reporters themselves.

Now, with Romney all but certain to be the Republican nominee, the networks won’t be dialing back their obsession with Mitt’s Mormonism anytime soon. Whether to remind moderates that Mormonism is a little “weird,” or to exploit what they see as a division between evangelicals and conservative Catholics on one hand and Mormons on the other, they’ll continue to mention Romney’s faith.

Matthew Philbin
Matthew Philbin
Matt Philbin is Managing Editor of MRC Culture