TV’s Fatal Attraction

WARNING: This article features content of an explicit nature.

In recent years, there has been growing concern among Catholics that the American media have declared open warfare on the Catholic Church. Seemingly, a week doesn’t pass without a blistering press release from the indefatigable Catholic League documenting yet another media slap directed at Church teachings, the Holy Father, or the clergy. Not long ago, it was considered antireligious bigotry; anyone denounced as engaging in it was banned from civilized discourse. Today, it is the rage, and no religious institution is more vilified than the Roman Catholic Church.

In fact, it’s worse than you think.

The term “media” encompasses network news, both cable and broadcast; it includes the plethora of TV political talk shows, newspapers, newsmagazines, wire services, and talk radio. It also extends to entertainment television, on more than 100 channels in some markets; film; music; and the Internet. But the term “media” incorporates more still— museums, libraries, women’s magazines, sports magazines, and children’s schools. Any institution that delivers a mes­sage is, by definition, a medium.

Attacks from All Sides

Much has been written about the art world’s assault on the Catholic Church, and it’s best encapsulated by U.S. News and World Report columnist John Leo:

Today’s art-world orthodoxy increasingly seems to require a contempt for Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.

In painting and sculpture, the bashing of Chris­tian symbols is so mainstream that it’s barely noticed. Recent examples include the Virgin Mary coming out of a vagina. Mary encased in a condom, Mary in pink panties with breasts partially exposed, an Annunciation scene with the Archangel Gabriel giving Mary a coat hanger for an abortion….

Playwrights are working overtime to degrade Catholicism, too… a corrupt cardinal accidentally kills a pregnant woman and tries to bribe a judge (The Cardinal Detoxes), a gay Jesus character has sex with his apostles and an HIV-positive street hustler (Corpus Christi), the Virgin Mary turns out to be a lesbian in a gay sitcom version of the Bible ( The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told)…. This type of play almost writes itself—just have a gay Jesus or a lesbian Mary have sex with a pope, Judas, or a farm animal and contract a venereal disease or work in an abortion clinic. Nobody in the cultural world will object. Instead, there will be lots of talk about artistic freedom.

Assaults on the Catholic Church are coming from every direction. From music, there is Madonna’s Like a Prayer video, featuring the artist kissing Christ on a crucifix, and Sinead O’Connor’s ripping up a photograph of the pope on Saturday Night Live. Popular rock bands like Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine raise money for abortion causes. Yet another, Nine Inch Nails, derives its title from the dimensions of the stakes driven into Christ’s body.

In feature films, the attacks continue. In Priest, one cler­gyman is a practicing homosexual and another lives with his girlfriend. Dogma denies Mary’s virginity, has a woman por­tray God, and says that a 13th apostle was excluded from the Bible because he was black. The Messenger presents St. Joan of Arc as a delusional egomaniac. End of Days portrays an out-of-touch Vatican, a priest/assassin, and a secret cabal of priests willing to murder to achieve their ends. And the upcoming Antonio Banderas film, The Body, denies the bodily resurrection of Christ.

But nothing approaches the damage being done to the Catholic Church and her teachings like what is happening on television.

More TV Than Teachers

The power of television is awesome. Culturally, the influence of entertainment television is profound, especially with impressionable youngsters. More than half of the children in America watch at least two hours of television every day; 28 percent watch six hours or more. (By comparison, the aver­age daily quality time spent between children and their par­ents is 15 minutes.) In fact, by the time the average youngster graduates from high school, the child will have spent more time in front of a television than in front of a teacher. Who, then, is society’s teacher?

What comes across the airwaves as “entertainment” tele­vision oftentimes is anything but wholesome, the product of an industry whose worldview is decidedly antireligious. Almost 20 years ago, Dr. Robert Lichter polled the Holly­wood elite and found just how apathetic the industry is to matters of faith: About half didn’t believe in God; only 7 per­cent were regular churchgoers; and only 5 percent were self- identified Catholics. A full 75 percent declared themselves politically liberal, and it showed: 97 percent were pro-abor­tion, 80 percent found nothing wrong with homosexuality, and 51 percent found nothing wrong with adultery. God only knows what those numbers are today.

When one approaches his or her work with that level of personal prejudice, it is simply impossible to keep it out of the product.

Numbers, Not Anecdotes

From 1993 to 1996, the Media Research Center analyzed all prime-time broadcast network television to determine exactly how matters of religious faith are presented. Overall, it is virtually nonexistent, with an average of one depiction of religion for every 3.3 hours of programming. However, these numbers become even more interesting when considering how religious faith is actually portrayed.

If the depiction of religion is one of simple faith (e.g., a character uttering a prayer), the portrayal is overwhelmingly positive, by a factor of almost 10:1. Become more specific and the numbers change. If the depiction deals with religion in its institutional or doctrinal role (say, the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion), the positive-negative ratio drops to 2:1. More significantly, it’s just not a subject: In 1996, out of 1,800 hours of prime-time programming, there were only 33 positive portrayals of religious doctrine.

What of the coverage of the clergy? Arguably, no one in American society is held in greater esteem than the men and women of the cloth, but Hollywood doesn’t see it that way at all. Only 32.1 percent of the depictions were positive, while almost as many (25.9 percent) were negative (with the balance being mixed or neutral). Hollywood’s greatest scorn, however, is reserved for the religious laity. Overwhelmingly, the por­trayals are harsh and negative; in 1996, for every positive depiction, there were four negative ones.

Much was made of the 1997 ABC drama series Nothing Sacred, whose protagonist was a liberal priest constantly dis­torting and attacking Catholic teachings. It is telling that ABC chose to run the series at all given that there is no broad market outside of Hollywood clamoring for this product. It was even more telling that ABC obstinately ignored the Catholic League’s complaints and massive sponsor defec­tions, keeping the series on the air even when it was coming in dead last in the ratings, behind more than 100 other shows.

Such anti-Catholic screeds are seemingly the rage now in television land. On December 13, a character on NBC’s Sud­denly Susan described a party’s watered-down drinks by say­ing, “I get a better buzz during communion!’ The December 15 episode of NBC’s The West Wing rewrote recent history by identifying gay-bashing thugs as Catholics who “made him say Hail Marys” as they beat a homosexual to death. CBS contributed a December 13 installment of Beckerwhere the title character tells a man dressed as Joseph, “You told the Virgin Mary she had a nice ass, didn’t you?”

But Catholics focusing on the direct attacks on the Church are missing the bigger picture: Television has become a vast swampland of anti-Christianity, anti-Catholicism. One needn’t look to late-night, pay-per-view cable to find it. It is right in front of us, on broadcast network television, on prime time, even during the 8:00 p.m., so-called “family hour”—and it’s being directed specifically to children.

Anything Goes, Literally

The rules governing profanities and obscenities are being hurled out the window. Characters regularly swear at strangers, friends, spouses, and parents, using unspeakable language unheard of just two years ago. This year, on the CBS series Chicago Hope this year, a character broke new ground by uttering “S— happens.” Why use this gutter talk? The explanation from the show’s executive producer, Michael Pressman, speaks volumes: “It comes down to a phrase that embodies the feeling of the whole hour. There’s no other way to express it.” On the Fox comedy series Action, another taboo has come crashing down as the protagonist relentlessly uses the “f” word, bleeped out so as to get by censors (as if they exist any longer) but mouthed directly into the camera so that it is not only recognizable but accented.

Sexual promiscuity is everywhere. Abstinence, chastity, and fidelity are medieval concepts to be rejected in place of raw sexual adventurism. Nothing today is off the table. Premarital, extramarital, and homosexual sex are not just permitted but glorified, always without consequence and consideration of tradition, religion, and the impressionable audience. A typical scene from Action includes this kind of dialogue:

Prostitute: I kept extensive notes of all our activi­ties and then I itemized them—straight, oral, and others.

Producer: Yeah, you definitely broke it down three ways.

Prostitute: Oh, that reminds me. I forgot about the three-ways. Well, you know what…what the hell, I’ll just throw those in, on the house.

Producer: Well, I hope so. I never even touched the guy.

On the CBS series Ladies Man, aired in the middle of the family hour, one male character fantasizes about being gay, saying, “Maybe one day I’ll be able to lie naked in a field of wildflowers, stroke another man like a pussycat.” On the WB network animated series Mission Hill, two gay men are shown embracing and kissing passionately, then joking about the kind of condoms they are about to use. One episode this fall on the gratuitously raunchy NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit featured an act of necrophilia, orgasm and all. Every week there’s a new surprise, a new assault on the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But perhaps no show better illustrates what television has become and the degree to which Hollywood is deliber­ately attempting to destroy any remaining standards of human decency and civilized behavior than the UPN wrestling show WWF Smackdown!.

This program has featured a wrestler threatening to burn the flesh off another wrestler after dousing him with gaso­line. Combatants have regularly attacked each other with boards, metal folding chairs, tables, police nightsticks, shov­els, and sledgehammers. Viewers have watched a wrestler cook another wrestler’s dog, then feed it to him, prompting the dog’s owner to vomit on screen. In other episodes, one wrestler beat a grandmother into unconsciousness, and another hurled his unconscious opponent into a massive pile of dog excrement.

Ultraviolence is not enough for this show, however. It is laced with pornographic overtones. Female wrestlers are rendered topless while the audience, consisting largely of young children, roars obscenities at them. In one episode, a wrestler unzipped his pants in the ring and simulated self- abuse. In another, a wrestler overpowered his opponent and, with that man lying face down on the canvas, proceeded to simulate an act of sodomy. On and on it goes.

What audience is the UPN network trying to reach with this filth? The numbers tell the story: Smackdown! airs Thursday evenings at 8:00 p.m. And in its first week it was watched by 6.5 million people, of whom 1.2 million were between the ages of two and eleven.

In response to criticism from parents, WWF creator Vince McMahon scoffs and dismisses these types of televised wrestling matches as nothing more than innocent make- believe. Not really. On May 27, a three-year-old boy in north Dallas died from brain swelling after sustaining massive trauma to the head. According to the Dallas Morning News, the trauma was so vicious that:

Dallas police initially suspected that an adult had to have been responsible until they interviewed the boy’s seven-year-old brother. He revealed that he had struck his brother with a “clothesline” move—running and hitting him in the neck with an outstretched arm—that he had seen his wrestling heroes perform on TV.

On July 28, a six-year-old girl was killed and 12-year-old Lionel Tate was charged with her murder for throwing her relentlessly into an iron stairway railing. A court psychiatrist testified that the boy said he was copying wrestling moves he’d watched on television.

Getting to the Sponsors

This fall, the Parents Television Council (PTC) launched a massive campaign to expose those corporate sponsors underwriting Smackdown! with their advertising dollars. After more than a dozen of them were shamed into pulling their sponsorship, the producers finally agreed to tone down their show—to a degree. But that, in turn, unleashed a bar­rage of messages from an audience conditioned by and clamoring for more of the bloodlust. All manner of obscene messages poured into PTC offices, including more than one death threat. One message encapsulated the reaction, even in its edited form:

I don’t need some bigshot…to say what I can and cannot watch! After all, this is a country of free­doms. This is a country where if a man wants to watch people cuss, drink, talk sexual, and beat the living s— out of each other…he can!!

I passed along that e-mail to Mike Lawrence, the former edi­tor of the Catholic magazine Triumph. “If this were a Tri­umph editorial,” Lawrence wrote back, “I’d be pointing out that this guy’s understanding of ‘Americanism’ is, in fact, what has become mainstream and orthodox [in the popular culture].” Lawrence understands what most Catholics are still unwilling to accept.


  • L. Brent Bozell III

    Lecturer, syndicated columnist, television commentator, debater, marketer, businessman, author, publisher and activist, L. Brent Bozell III is one of the most outspoken and effective national leaders in the conservative movement today. Founder and president of the Media Research Center, Mr. Bozell runs the largest media watchdog organization in America.

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