Author examines media’s treatment of atheist who took on the Pledge of Allegiance
Ron Bishop recently published a book that examines how the mainstream press dismisses eccentric people such as Michael Newdow, whose quest to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Taking on the Pledge” is a critique on how the mainstream press operates, using Newdow as an example, Bishop told The Community News.
In the first chapter of his book, Bishop compares the media’s treatment of Newdow with the way Vietnam and Iraq war protesters were treated.
Bishop said in his book that journalists portrayed Newdow as an “erratic outsider who had the audacity to challenge one of this nation’s most revered rituals in a time of national crisis.”
Newdow filed suit against the Elk Grove (Ca.) School District, which his daughter attended, saying the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
“He has a very eclectic personality. He’s very interesting and articulate,” Bishop said. “What happens with the mainstream press is when they find somebody like Newdow, they marginalize him. What’s so interesting about his story is he managed to push back and get on the agenda.”
Newdow’s lawsuit was initially filed in Florida and thrown out, Bishop said. He re-filed in California. In interviews with journalists, Bishop said they initially dismissed Newdow as insignificant.
“They said their editors would have laughed at them for pitching that story,” Bishop said. “When he won in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002, they (the press) were caught totally by surprise.
“Almost immediately, they made him out to be crazy and outside the mainstream,” he said. “The journalists covered him as though they were beating back some kind of imaginary threat to our way of life. It wasn’t. It was just a guy who was angry and frustrated with the fact that his daughter was being forced to say the Pledge and say the words ‘under God.’ That’s why he filed suit, to stop that practice.”
(The girl’s mother, who Newdow never married, eventually expressed support for the term “under God” in the Pledge.)
Bishop said journalists criticized Newdow’s motivations and predicted that he wasn’t going to stop at the Pledge.
Indeed, Newdow has gone on to file suit about the use of “In God We Trust” on U.S. money and the use of prayer during presidential inaugurations, Bishop said.
“He does feel – and I almost share his concerns about this – that these expressions of religion in public life are beyond what the Constitutional framers envisioned,” Bishop said. “The (Founding Fathers) were deists at best, not particularly religious people who believed God and state were separate. He was just trying to clarify those boundaries a little bit.”
Bishop said journalists he interviewed felt Newdow could not possibly succeed.
“There was the attitude of, ‘Boy, wait until the Supreme Court gets a hold of you,’” he said.
But when Newdow went before the U.S. Supreme Court, the press gave him credit for being prepared and arguing eloquently, Bishop said.
“It’s almost impossible to become un-marginalized, but their tone did change somewhat, and he had a degree of respect for him,” he said. “They recognized his well-thought-out, coherent, Constitutional argument.”
Bishop calls Newdow “a sort of poster child for someone who is eccentric and marginalized.”
Newdow is a physician who also graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. He was bared and represented himself for his lawsuit.
Colleague Chris Lamb, author of “Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons,” said people who believe “the media represent antiestablishment values” need to read Bishop’s book.
“And as long as the media continue to trivialize complex issues and marginalize people who challenge us, this book needs to be read,” he wrote.
In the first chapter, Bishop expresses the belief that reporters are not functioning as watchdogs of institutions. Rather, he believes reporters are functioning as “guard dogs” for these institutions. Yet he mentions the several contributions journalists have made to the public, including The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Watergate.
“I’m not at all trying to diminish the contributions of investigative reporters. But in the current journalistic landscape, it’s hard for reporters to get support from their editors,” he said. “The job of an editor is to defend their reporters when the publisher has questions about a story and back up their reporters. They don’t do that as much as they used to, just based on the editors I’ve talked to.
“I’m not trying to blame reporters. I’m just trying to shed some light on how this happens.”
Bishop, 46, of Hickory Hill, Del., is an associate professor in the Department of Culture and Communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He was a journalist from 1984 to 1992 at newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. That included assignments as managing editor of Northeast Breeze Newspapers in Rockledge, Pa., editor of Andrews Publications in Andrews, Pa. and editor of County Leader Newspapers in Union, N.J.
The Community News (Delaware)