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Manipulating the Media Against Small Religions PDF Print E-mail

Larry Witham
The Washington Times

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

It is not exceptional to say that interest groups in a society hope to manipulate the media to support their agenda. What is unique in the case of small religions, however, are the particular critics who urge media coverage, the dramatic social response, and the media’s own self-directed inclination to be highly and unrelentingly critical of the small faiths—the so-called sects and cults.

As a member of the secular news media, however, I straddle the fence on this debate. In most cases I see remedies to produce fairer coverage in regard to small religions. In other cases, however, I don’t see how the news media could avoid “negative” coverage, whether manipulated or not.

In regard to negative coverage, the process of both external manipulation of the media and its self-directed reporting has changed over the past 25 years. If at first it was purely manipulation, now the media go along on their own interests and misconceptions of the crucial issues. Not manipulation but events themselves perpetuate what some scholars have called a “stream of controversies” approach to small religious groups. Without manipulation by anyone, CBS’s Dan Rather on a 48 Hours segment tied in the historic Bruderhoff community, small at only 2,500 members, to the Heaven’s Gate suicide group in a March 1997 broadcast. A week later, without coaching, Newsweek reported in a sure exaggeration, “There are thousands of cult-like sects headquartered throughout the country—many of which are a dangerous blend of apocalyptic theories, mind control and paranoia.”1

The desired media results for the critics of small “deviant” religions, of course, are to prompt social rejection and government investigation. What often results first, however, is called a “moral panic.” The media play a key role in such events. Most recently this has been documented in satanic abuse scares in England and in the city of Jamestown in upstate New York, where in 1987 rumors led to public concern, news reports, community action, and a spiraling of events.2

The media pride themselves on their watchdog role. They report on whistle blowers who find corruption in big business or government, they defend poor tenants against landlords or freethinkers against government censors. This is considered altruism. However, in the case of small religions, the “little guy” to be defended has inexplicably been only the aggrieved parents of adult children or the ex-members of a group. Why not the small religious group as well, at least in balance?

Negative news coverage can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy for small religions. One study showed that in the Cultic Studies Journal (1987), published by the anti-cult organization American Family Foundation, of 218 suggested readings cited, 141 (64 percent) were negative news reports.3

One thing any study of news will find is the “herd” or pack journalism effect. Publicists know that if they can get a story in the New York Times, People magazine, or a CBS News broadcast, every other news organ will follow. The result is a stampede of undifferentiated stories. A harmless example of this is the case last month of the 150 Taiwanese followers of a “master” of the “true way.” Major news outlets scrambled to Garland, Texas, not wanting to miss the next possible mass suicide. Nothing happened of course, but let’s look at two more severe media cases: the People’s Temple and David Koresh in Waco, Texas.

People’s Temple leader Jim Jones (an amphetamine addict for two decades before the 1978 Guyana suicides) fled San Francisco for Guyana in 1971, almost the day before an article in New West magazine disclosed his treatment of members and his election fraud schemes in municipal elections. Jones’ paranoid response came after a few years of San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner reluctance to take on a minority group, even one it deemed corrupt.4

In the Koresh case, the Waco Tribune-Herald ran a seven-part series on “The Sinful Messiah” on February 27, 1993. The lead editorial, “That’s Law and Order?” chided local authorities for not cracking down on the rumored child abuse at the Koresh compound. The next morning at 9:30, as readers enjoyed the second part, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) launched its first assault. The resulting gun battle left four dead and 16 wounded among the government agents. Cause and effect are hard to determine here. But one Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter has said the goading news stories surrounding the debacle at Koresh’s Mount Carmel, both from the local print organs and television, “played a role that was central to elements of the disaster at Mount Carmel, even arguably caused it.”5

All of this has a social background that was clear at least 12 years before Waco. In 1981, the Gallup poll on neighbors found that “cults” were the least favored neighbor by 30 percent of Americans. That disfavor mushroomed to 44 percent in 1987.6 There is another given that works against small religions; by being small, membership may be tighter (fewer “free-riders”), there is less bureaucracy, and there usually is a more prominent leader or council. When confronted with any intense religious group, what Americans like least is the leader, followed by the organization. They like most of the ideals.

The Pressure Groups

Who are the people interested in manipulating the media against small religions? Usually it is family and friends and other religious groups that first notice a “newcomer.” Yet they must gather information and form an organization to truly guide the media.

With the new religions in the United States, this began with the so-called anti-cult movement.7 These are citizens groups, often joined by clergy, with the pressure point a local news organization or local political representatives. The most prominent have been the American Family Foundation and the Cult Awareness Network.

Even earlier than these critics of the new religions, there were the evangelical watchdog groups, those whose End Times theology required a vigilant anticipation of “false prophets” and the “anti-Christ.” They expressed these concerns primarily in the media of their own subculture, since the secular press was not interested in theological motivations.

Perhaps the first compelling force in galvanizing the media were the appearance of ex-members of the small groups, whether the Children of God, the Hare Krishnas, or the Unification Church. A few of these people went on to have quite brilliant careers doing nothing but sounding the alarm against the so-called cults, writing books, speaking; some of them aided in deprogramming, later called “exit counseling” to avoid any suggestion of coercion. Of course, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who have defected over this century, claiming to come out with the true inside story—“now it can be told!”—provided earlier grist for the media’s mill. The so-called “apostates” of the more recent new religions have been studied more closely, however. The scholars say that their claims represent only a tiny percentage of a much larger number of people who come and go in the small religions. The apostates seem to have been, without exception, coached and counseled by the “deprogramming” or “exit counseling” movement. This movement says that all cult members are brainwashed, and that is why a sound young person with a college degree could have been taken in by a corrupt organization.8

Eventually, celebrities became involved. Wealthy parents, from Washingtonian magazine publisher Warren Adler to entertainer Steve Allen, had children who had encountered a new religion. Their high profile and social connections made this a good society story, even if one-sided.

In an electoral political system, officeholders must respond to the squeaky wheel. Thus, there has been a history of local and national officials—district attorneys, mayors, congressmen, senators, and zoning officials—who have waged a contest with a small religion. The most dramatic case, of course, was the [unofficial] Senate hearings in early 1979 on “The Cult Phenomenon in the United States.” Whatever the level of official power, however, there is the temptation (or methodology) in government to leak information to the newspapers and television news. This has occurred with allegations of child abuse, zoning violations, financial fraud, and passport fraud.

Religious organizations also have prompted media scrutiny of small religions. Two of the most active religious organizations in the United States in speaking against the small religions, or so-called “cults,” have been the American Jewish Committee and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. To the extent that they can put pressure on the news media, they add the aura of established religious authority to criticism of small groups. Campus ministers also have been prominent critics, since college towns have been a venue for the new religions to recruit members. In evangelical circles, such cult-watchers at Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute, are interviewed on Larry King Live and ABC World News Tonight, in addition to their wide reach on radio and publications. When Pope John Paul II addressed the Conference of Latin American Bishops in the Dominican Republic in 1992, he warned of the sects as “ravenous wolves” that were after the Catholic sheep.

Added to all of these external pressures on the news media is the pressure of its own news-gathering logic. This will be looked at more extensively below.

Typical Coverage of Small Religions

The scholars who track coverage of small religions have typically called the news treatment negative. In covering such groups, “it appears that the assumption of misdeed is the norm among news reporters,” writes sociologist Stuart Wright. Say J. Richardson and B. van Driel, “news and political editors have strong feelings about deviant groups in society.” More colorfully, Nancy E. Bernhard of Harvard Divinity School put it this way in 1993: “With or without the reporter’s intent, such coverage reinforces mainstream norms about religious and social behavior and creates the impression that all nontraditional or exotic belief is lecherous, moronic or illegal.”9

As early as 1985, the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review sounded an alarm—in an article titled “The Cult Beat”—against use of the term cult because of its imprecise and pejorative connotations. Still, while news editors may struggle with the issue more, the result is the same. A database search of up to 250 print media organs in North America since 1975 shows a far higher number of stories using the term cult (191,425) than either sect (74,066) or new religion (4,196).10

As Richards et al. have shown, most stories about the small religions have focused on sex, whether it be new kinds of marriage, sexual abstinence, or free love.11 Another pattern may seem obvious: the great surges of stories cluster around major controversial events, such as a Jonestown or a mass marriage. When such events take place, news-editors order up side bars on what is happening in the local neighborhood, real-life stories of “escape,” or on how many “cults” stalk the nation. What the 1990s show, however—despite more suicide events than in any other decade—is a more two-sided approach (as in USA Today’s “The cult culture: Often quiet, next-door neighbors,” March 2, 1993).

Finally, reporting on small religions should be put in the context of news coverage of the large traditions. It will be of no consolation for small groups to hear that the large ones also feel slighted by the secular media. The largest study on this topic showed the clergy and journalists were “divided by a sea of suspicion.”12 When asked if the secular press “is biased against ministers and organized religion,” 90 percent of Roman Catholic priests and conservative evangelicals said yes, as did 58 percent of mainline Protestant clergy. Naturally, 62 percent of reporters disagreed with the statement, and the high clergy dissatisfaction must also be considered partly special pleading.

The difference, however, is in impact. National officers for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness will recount how it spent more than a decade to redeem its public image after one corrupt swami was indicted on fraud and conspiracy to lull at a West Virginia ashram. Compare that to the Roman Catholic Church in America. Almost annually, it is the most reported on religion in America. One study, however, argued that the coverage has been acutely negative for 25 years. Remarkably, however, in 1990 a Times Mirror poll found “the Church ranks number one in terms of favorability when compared with ten other national groups or institutions.”13

A New Debate: NRM Scholars and Journalists

In December 1997, the Religious Research Association published a special report on “Mass Media and Unconventional Religion.”14 While past religion and media studies have included new religions and cults on questionnaires, the data was never broken out and elaborated on. This makes the RRA special report a groundbreaking work.

In summary, the scholars and journalist made a few key arguments defending their positions and their professions. The New Religious Movement (NRM) scholars said the news media are ignorant about religion, rely on biased anti-cult sources, play up “horror stories,” and do not write articles to clear small groups of unfounded accusations. I believe, this later charge is perhaps the most penetrating. As a daily news reporter for 16 years, I can plead guilty to this on occasion. I looked up one very serious story in the New York Times of September 3, 1993: “Argentines say a sex cult enslaved 268 children.”

This was the Family, formerly the Children of God, and in fact the charge was false and the prosecuting judge reprimanded. Yet I could not find a follow-up story in the Times clearing the group’s name. Once, I wrote a story about a bitter fight in a parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. The bishop had been sued. I saw him a few months later, and he said, “By the way, the lawsuit was dropped.” I admit, I never did a “lawsuit dropped, bishop innocent” story. The Episcopal Diocese is doing fine, but the Family is still thought to be international child abusers.

In the RRA report, the two responding journalists—John Dart of the Los Angeles Times and Mark Silk, formerly of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—made these points. First, most news is about conflict; not only small religions get that treatment. Where, the two journalists also asked, are the NRM scholars when newspapers have daily deadlines on the latest “cult” story? Medical, political, and sports reporters get fast-response telephone calls from publicists whenever an event in those fields happens. Moreover, there is no getting around the fact that some of these small groups do commit crimes; and not only crimes of non-conformity. The two journalists, being fair-minded, still noted that at times the NRM scholars appear to be “cult apologists” who see no evil.

One important element of the RRA report was a survey of reporters’ attitudes to small and new religions. It found them more amenable to Mennonites and the Salvation Army than to Christian Science, in the news of late for its views about not giving sick babies medical attention. Of the new religions, reporters felt most comfortable with Transcendental Meditation, presumably because it is more individualistic, lacking the baggage of an organization or visibly dominant guru. They showed least sympathy toward Scientology and the Unification Church, both groups with ambitious organizational agendas.

Cultural Influences

A final factor to consider is the cultural context of small religions, advocacy groups, and the media. I suggest that four factors in culture have determined how small religions are treated by the media: a therapeutic age, a risk-free culture, a clash of baby boomer cultures, and the unequal status of minorities.

There has been much written about modern man’s faith in the psychiatric. When it comes to reporting on small religions, the media have largely taken the word of mental health professionals over historians. Adherence to exotic or intense religion is considered a psychological matter, whereas the testimony of history—that people have always had such religious adherence—is ignored.

Perhaps the most ironic cultural feature is that we live in an age that some social critics have said is governed by the “ideology of choice.”15 At the same time, however, there is a public outcry demanding that we be saved from our bad choices! This is the demand of the critics of small religions—save people from joining them. And this is the entirely unreflective outlook adopted in many newsrooms. A macabre, yet telling, example is the Heaven’s Gate suicide, which took 39 lives. By comparison, an average of 30,000 Americans committed suicide that year. Another 400,000 died of cigarette smoking, and countless others hurtled to their deaths in automobiles. The media, however, would never undertake such dramatic, breathless, alarmist reporting on modern hopelessness, smoking, and driving! Only little religious groups get that honor.

This would take some effort to document, but it is my sense that small religious groups, many of which involve renunciation of materialism and sex and in turn acceptance of spiritual authority, have angered other baby boomers on the cultural left. It is interesting to note that the white, middle-class joiners of American new religions tend to be entrepreneurial and Republican. As they joined the Krishnas or fundamentalists, their college peers on the left went into the media, from the Village Voice to the Washington Post. There is a family fight going on here, I suspect. It is like two alienated high school friends: one saying his peer is materialistic and concupiscent, the other saying his peer is sexually repressed and “a loser.” (That is what Ted Turner called the Heaven’s Gate 39—before he apologized, of course.)

Finally, though I think Americans and the media feel sympathy toward minorities, it depends on which one. Religious ones, unless they are very quaint such as the Amish in Pennsylvania, are the least comfortable to deal with. Or so it seems by the media coverage and public conversations.

Signs of Change

Scholars of the anti-cult groups, the new religions, and the media have detected a shift since the 1980s. Richardson et al. have perhaps stated it best: “Many of the journalists appear to be suspicious of both the new religions and their opponents.” In November 1988, the anti-cult groups staged a “Cult Awareness Week,” but apparently it drew little coverage.

While newsrooms may be only slightly better informed about new religious movements, they are no longer manipulated they way they used to be. One reason is that dramatic and tragic events surrounding the so-called cults make their own news regularly. The news stories follow the events. If it is a suicide or subway gas attack, the reports are not pretty. If it is a temple dedication in New Delhi or a mass marriage rededication, the news reports are quite good.

In 1978 Harvey Cox wrote Turning East, which fairly typified the Eastern origins of new religions from the 1960s to the 1980s. Now, however, the small religions at issue—both as innocents and potential troublemakers—may be considered the fundamentalist or charismatic sects, survivalist groups, a few old-fashioned apocalyptic prophets and therapy groups.

Meanwhile, the news media are learning. Dart, cited in the RRA study, issued a 1995 religion-reporting handbook not long ago.16 For reporting on cults, he gave the Cult Awareness Network phone number. Yet he added this guideline: “Don’t accept casual use of sects, cults and brainwashing. These are loaded words often used unfairly.” As part of the generational change, members of the new religions now are adults with children, jobs, and mortgages. They even have friends in the news media.

National Public Radio once did a sympathetic report on members of the Unification Church, the so-called Moonies. How was that possible? Well, an NPR reporter was a friend of a former Moonie who was not at all negative about his involvement in the group. It works the reverse also. It is not uncommon, for example, to find a highly placed editor whose friend had a negative experience with, say, Scientology or the Catholic Church, and nary a fair news story will get past that gatekeeper.

The pressure groups still exist, but even they are beginning to make distinctions between “cults” and “destructive cults.” It is a very slippery distinction indeed, but it shows some change. These groups are less fulsome than before as well. The Cult Awareness Network is bankrupt, and a Scientology unit has claimed its assets and connects media callers to NRM scholars when stories arise.

Moreover, for better or worse the abuses once attributed only to new religions are now being generalized. Indicative of this was the recent National Institutes of Health conference on “Undue Influence.” Cults were targeted, but also therapist caretakers of the elderly, politicians, and advertisers. “The essence of human communication is the desire to have influence over people around us,” said one presenter, Alan Scheflin of Santa Clara University Law School.17

I close with a thought from one of America’s great newspapermen. A.J. Liebling, who said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” That is an unfortunate fact for small religions. In history, the Christian Scientists and the Mormons found protection in their own counter-publications. The Hare Krishnas have an academic journal. Businesses of the Unification Church fund an independent daily newspaper. One wonders what might have happened if one of the talented people in David Koresh’s Mount Carmel had printed coherent essays or reports on what they were about, and this had somehow detoured or altered the seven-part series by the Waco Tribune-Herald.


1. Van Driel, Barend, and Richardson, James, “The Categorization of New Religious Movements in American Print Media,” in Sociological Analysis. 49: 171-183. 1988. For the Dan Rather report on March 27, 1997, see Wall, James, “Cults and Communities,” in Christian Century, March 21-28, 1997, 499-500; and “Time of Troubles,” Newsweek, April 7, 1997. 50.

2. Goode, Erich, and Ben-Yehuda, Nachman, “Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance,” 1994. See also Victor, Jeffrey S. “Satanic Panic: the Creation of a Contemporary Legend.,” Open Court, Chicago, 199

3. Richardson, James and van Driel, Barend. “Journalists’ Attitudes Toward New Religious Movements,” Review of Religious Research,. Dec.1997, 118-119.

4. Nugent, Peter. “White Night: The Untold Story of What Happened Before—and Beyond-Jonestown, New York: Rawson Wade Publishers, 1979.

5. Rawis, Wendel, 1993 Neiman Reports. “God in the Newsroom.” Rawls wrote, “A close examination of the roles of local newspapers and television staffs disclose that they played roles that were central elements of the disaster at Mount Carmel, even arguably caused it.”

6. Gallup, George. “Cults Lead List of Groups Not Wanted as Neighbors.”’ Gallup Report. 256-257:19-21.1987.

7. Shupe, Anson, and Bromley, David. The New Vigilantes. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Library of Social Research, 1980.

8. See Wright, Stuart, “Leaving Cults: The Dynamics of Defection.” Washington D.C., Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1987, and Barker, Eileen, “Defection From the Unification Church: Some Statistics and Distinctions,” in Bromley, David, ed., Falling from the Faith, Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1988, 166-84.

9. Wright, Stuart. “Media Coverage of Unconventional Religion: Any Good News for Minority Faiths?” in Review of Religious Research, Vol.30, No.2. Dec.1997. 101. Richardson and van Driel. “Journalist’s Attitudes Toward New Religious Movements,” 118. Bernhard, Nancy, “The Lecher, the Witch and the Weirdo,” in Neiman Reports 47 (2), 1993,.16-20.

10. This Nexus search was conducted in April 1997 using the search words cult, sect, and new religion. Today, Nexus covers about 250 news organs, though only a minority of those were on the database as early as 1975.

11. Wright, “Media Coverage of Unconventional Religion,” 103.

12. Dart, John and Allen, Jimmy. “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media,” Nashville: The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1993.

13. Robinson, Michael, “A Find Study: But How Much Does it Matter?,” in Riley, Patrick and Shaw, Russell, eds. Anti-Catholicism in the Media. Huntington, IN: Cur Sunday Visitor, 1993, 179.

14. Wright, Stuart A., editor. Review of Religious Research, “Mass Media and Unconventional Religion.” Vol. 39,No.2, December 1997.

15. Wilson, James Q, The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press, 1993. 233.

16. Dart, John. “Deities and Deadlines: A Primer on Religions News Coverage,” Nashville: The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1995.

17. Program. “Undue Influence Part 1: Advice for Public Health Professionals. January 17, 1997. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.