Vice President Joseph Biden's very public wearing of ashes, a Lenten practice for Catholics, on Wednesday led to several befuddled reactions from the mainstream media. Sky News's Kay Burley had to apologize after confusing the ashen mark for an injury. More egregiously, ABC News's Karen Travers omitted the past controversy over his support for legalized abortion, and portrayed him as a devout Catholic.
The Vice President bore the ashes on his forehead as he introduced President Obama at a White House event celebrating the one-year anniversary of the so-called Recovery Act. Burley asked Greg Milam, Sky News's US correspondent, about the mark as they monitored Biden's remarks: "What's happened to his head? I'm sure that's what everybody's asking at home." After a short pause, Milam replied, "Yes, I don't know. It's a simple answer. Maybe we'll get a chance to find out a little later." Burley then remarked, "It looks like he walked into a door, doesn't it? I'm sure that's one of the questions that the networks will be asking him." (video clip above is from Thursday's Morning Joe on MSNBC; audio available here).
Moments later, the Sky News correspondent apologized on-air for her confusion: "I know that I am a very bad Catholic. I know now that it is Ash Wednesday, and I know that those are ashes on his forehead. I hang my head in shame."
Apparently, Ms. Burley went much further than noted by MSNBC. Several news outlets in the UK, including the Daily Mail and Metro, reported that she later said in jest, "I've said three Hail Marys, everything is going to be fine."
ABC News's Travers also reported on the Vice President's ashes on the Political Punch blog on Wednesday, and took some effort to portray Biden as deeply Catholic:
Biden, the nation's first Catholic vice president, regularly attends mass back in Wilmington. Last month his mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, had a Mass of Christian Burial at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Wilmington, the church she attended since 1955.
It has been fifty years since John F. Kennedy became the first and only Catholic elected president. Catholic political candidates have faced significant criticism from within the faith community over questions of whether their political positions align with their religious ones.
Biden said in 2007 that that his political views "are totally consistent with Catholic social doctrine.”
"There are elements within the church who say that if you are at odds with any of the teachings of the church, you are at odds with the church. I think the church is bigger than that," Biden told the Christian Science Monitor for an extensive piece on the role his faith plays in his life.
"I get comfort from carrying my rosary, going to mass every Sunday. It's my time alone," Biden said.
The ABC News correspondent only vaguely referenced the longstanding criticism the Vice President has faced for his support for legalized abortion. During the 2008 presidential campaign, several Catholic bishops publically corrected then-senator Biden for remarks he made on the September 8, 2008 edition of NBC's Meet the Press. Biden answered, "I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at conception. But let me tell you....to impose that judgment...is inappropriate in a pluralistic society."
Despite these missteps on the part of both Burley and Travers, they are not the most egregious statements made on the topic of Ash Wednesday. Almost a decade earlier in 2001, media mogul Ted Turner bashed ash-bearing Christians during a February 28 retirement party for CNN personality Bernard Shaw (as reported in the March 15, 2001 CyberAlert): "'I was looking at this woman and I was trying to figure out what was on her forehead. At first I thought you were in the earthquake' in Seattle that day. As puzzled staffers furrowed their brows, the cable tycoon unleashed this zinger: 'I realized you're just Jesus freaks. Shouldn't you guys be working for Fox?'"