The news media - and the networks in particular - have a problem. The candidate they strongly backed in 2008 is facing a difficult re-election campaign in 2012. With a tough economy, high unemployment and skyrocketing debt, the election is shaping up as a referendum on President Barack Obama's policies.
Without much to work with, journalists have changed the subject to targeting his potential opponents - by using, the GOP candidates' religion against them.
Despite the fact that 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians and 93 percent profess a belief in God, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, ABC, CBS and NBC deem the Republican candidates' religion as very newsworthy. That's a complete turnaround from their 2008 treatment of the Democratic primary candidates.
From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2011, network stories mentioned the GOP primary candidates' faith more than seven times as often (143 stories to 19 stories) than they had for Democratic hopefuls between those dates in 2007 - leading up to the 2008 election cycle.
The networks rarely praised the Republicans for their faith. They were 13 times more likely to be critical of it than they were of Democrats' religion just four years earlier. These critical instances involved asking Michele Bachmann, "[D]id God tell you he wanted you to run for the Minnesota State Senate or something like that?" as CBS's Bob Scheiffer did. In another instance, ABC turned to liberal, secular People for the American Way for comment on Rick Perry's "controversial" prayer meeting; other networks exploited controversial remarks about Mormonism and parsed Bachmann's biblical "submissiveness" to her husband.
On the other hand, in 2007, there were just six instances where stories challenged or negatively highlighted the liberal candidates' faiths. An uncritical media ignored legitimate questions about Obama's upbringing and 20-year attendance of a radical Chicago church. Audiences were assured that Hillary Clinton's faith had seen her through her husband's infidelities, but specifics were lacking. And "Catholic" primary candidates Joe Biden and Chris Dodd were never asked about their distinctly un-Catholic support for abortion.