Ten Years Ago, 'The Passion' Ruckus Demonstrated Network TV's Hostility to Orthodox Christianity

April 18th, 2014 1:26 PM

Ten years ago, Mel Gibson unveiled his massively successful movie The Passion of The Christ. It came out on Ash Wednesday (February 25, 2004), but is often re-viewed on Good Friday. It had a worldwide box-office gross of over $611 million.

In our Special Report on religion coverage that year, we explored how the TV networks attacked Gibson's movie as extreme, divisive, and potentially harmful  -- one CBS reporter even called it an "ecumenical suicide bomb" -- and how that differed from their fascination with theories in The DaVinci Code:

This contrast is perhaps best explored by two commercially successful products: Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, which presents the central Christian story in traditional biblical terms, and Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code, which suggests in a much less orthodox way that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who was impregnated by Jesus, and moved with her baby to France, where the child became part of the Merovingian line of kings. Dan Brown’s Vatican-bashing novel The DaVinci Code, was promoted with the mildest of factual challenges, without any notion that it was crudely and falsely anti-Catholic, while Gibson’s film was questioned thoroughly about its accuracy, its fairness, and its potentially violent impact.

Like The Passion, the theories behind The DaVinci Code were promoted by all three networks, but the best comparison comes from ABC’s Primetime, which devoted a Monday night hour to each subject. One was divisive and scary, while the other was mellow and intriguing. On February 16, 2004, Diane Sawyer began by welcoming viewers to this special event about The Passion, “the film that set off an explosion of debate, controversy, and feeling in America....And not only between Christians and Jews, but Christians and Christians, historians and scholars, true believers and secularists, and everyone who falls somewhere in between.”

On November 3, 2003, Elizabeth Vargas began by lowering the bar of accuracy and draining out the notion of divisiveness: “There is a legend that sometime in the first century, just after the death of Jesus, a boat full of refugees from the Holy Land arrived in France.” She then added that the show would explore “extraordinary claims” from The DaVinci Code: “Some of the claims that book makes are simply not credible, and some of the claims have been made before. But there are some surprising truths behind the story of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Leonardo DaVinci.”

Sawyer reported Gibson’s film suggests “echoes, the critics say, of what were called ‘Passion plays,’ which through the ages, were used to inflame Christians against their Jewish neighbors. Ghettos were sacked, the Jewish populations terrorized.” (Sawyer didn’t relate that Passion plays are read or performed annually around the world in millions of Christian churches without outbursts of anti-Semitic violence.)

Vargas reported The DaVinci Code theories also can be traced back to...church-inspired violence: “Why not just say, Mary Magdalene, impregnated by Jesus?” Author Henry Lincoln, who helped inspire Dan Brown, explained: “That is not the way that our orthodoxy would have it. You can’t have a married Jesus.” Vargas replied: “It was too dangerous to tell?” Lincoln charged: “Anything that runs counter to orthodoxy has always been dangerous. The Church has always responded with violence. Think of the Inquisition.”

The big question behind The DaVinci Code special was, why would a “hard news” division devote an hour to a novel, and to a theory that’s highly improbable, a “legend” instead of a history? Vargas sounded serious even as she explained the most fanciful allusions: “The First Merovingian queen was impregnated by a creature from the sea, the fish, which you theorize, could symbolize Jesus.”

But Sawyer hounded Gibson about matters of fact: “What about the historians who say that the Gospels were written long after Jesus died, and are not merely fact, but political points of views and metaphors? Historians, you know, have argued that in fact it was not written at the time [of Christ]. These [gospel writers] were not eyewitnesses.” Gibson protested, and Sawyer insisted: “But historians have said they don’t think so.” It all came back to politics, that the Gospels were better understood as partisan tracts instead of the word of God.

In general, Gibson’s movie was covered first as a political problem. It was without question the largest anti-Semitism story of 2003 on the TV networks, since nearly every one of the 66 network segments on ABC, CBS, and NBC touched on those complaints. News coverage didn’t shift from offending Jews to inspiring Christians until a week into February, when it became apparent that the film could fuel a box-office boom. Even then, the anti-Semitism angle was still strong. Anti-Semitism in Europe, or the Muslim world, was apparently of little concern in the newsrooms, while the real threat to Jews worldwide was being cooked up in a Hollywood editing room. ABC and NBC did segments promoting the is-it-anti-Semitic angle heavily in the waning months of 2003.

When Peter Boyer’s interview with Gibson for The New Yorker came out in September, the Gibson criticism was in full swing. Matt Lauer elaborated in an interview with Boyer: “The Anti-Defamation League expressed concern over whether it would portray the Jews as, quote, ‘bloodthirsty, sadistic, and money-hungry enemies of Jesus.’ You spoke to the head of the ADL. Did he think it was an anti-Semitic movie?” The networks never provided the ADL or other Jewish and secular critics with any countering scrutiny, as in: Are you also responsible for fomenting division, for driving a wedge in Christian-Jewish relations? What if the film isn’t anti-Semitic and doesn’t lead to any anti-Semitic incidents? And most importantly, how can you attack a film you haven’t seen? That’s certainly the take reporters had for critics of the doubting, sex-starved savior of The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.

Most of the network coverage was a politicized rollout. Gibson was described as “ultraconservative” and a “Catholic fundamentalist,” but his critics were never described as “ultraliberals or “hard-line secularists. “ People magazine writer Jess Cagle summarized the media take on “extreme” Mel vs. his unlabeled critics on CBS’s The Early Show on January 8: “I think at the heart of the controversy is Mel Gibson’s extreme passion for his very ultra-conservative Catholic faith, and Jewish leaders who are worried that a film about the crucifixion could feed into anti-Semitism. That’s at the heart of it.”

There were no labels in ABC’s DaVinci Code special. But the soundbite count was very slanted: 58 soundbites in favor of the liberal theological interpretation (Richard McBrien 15, Dan Brown 12, Elaine Pagels 12, Karen King 10, Margaret Starbird 6, Henry Lincoln 6, and Robin Griffith-Jones 2) to just ten opposed (Darrell Bock 5, Umberto Eco 3, Jeffrey Bingham 2, and one soundbite of a woman on the street denouncing the theory as “sacrilege”). This does not include quotes about Leonardo daVinci.

Another example came on February 25, the debut of The Passion of the Christ. On ABC’s World News Tonight, Peter Jennings concluded with a replay of his 2000 special, The Search for Jesus. The experts were N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop widely respected by traditionalists on one side, and on the other, liberal Jewish scholar Paula Frederiksen, and John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg of the “Jesus Seminar,” a group of skeptical academics which have voted as a group that most of the Gospels are false. Jennings never explained who these men were. One was labeled as a professor emeritus at DePaul, the other as a professor at Oregon State University. ABC did not explain the more vivid details of their scholarship, for example, Crossan’s suggestion that the body of Christ was more likely torn apart by wild dogs rather than raised from the dead.

In this story, as in others, the soundbite for the traditionalist was used merely to provide a limited recounting of what the Gospel says (for example, that Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple), and then the liberals are asked to determine the broad question of the historicity of the Gospels. The result is not a debate, but a stilted discussion where apparently disinterested “experts say” the Gospels and history are two distinctly different things.

But even this Jennings replay contained a lot of conjecture. “The way I imagine it is that they know that Pilate is getting nervous about the crowds,” began Frederiksen in one sentence. Borg stated that “it’s possible” Pilate acted without Jewish goading, but most scholars would suggest that “most likely,” the Jewish elite was involved. With so much uncertainty in the equation, why isn’t there a more balanced debate?

As Associated Press religion reporter Richard Ostling wrote in reviewing the 2000 Jennings special, “as the old saying goes, a reporter is only as good as his sources. In Jennings' lopsided lineup, the key talking heads consist of five American liberals, a middle-roader in Israel and a lone traditionalist from England. Jennings seems to have discovered none of the estimable moderate and conservative scholars in America.”