One of the top stories on CBSNews.com today concerns Pat Robertson's comments about Ariel Sharon. Robertson suggested Friday "that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for 'dividing God's land,'" as the story puts it. Robertson, who has been a figurehead of the evangelical movement since he powered onto the national scene as a presidential candidate in 1988, has garnered attention recently because of controversial comments, such as his suggestion that disaster may strike a small Pennsylvania town because residents "voted God out of your city" and his call for the United States to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Presently he controls a television network, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and hosts its flagship show, "The 700 Club."
Guest blogging on the Web site of the liberal Washington Monthly, Amy Sullivan wrote, "I try not to comment on all of the ridiculous things that come out of Pat Robertson's mouth because 1) he's a moonbat who seems to be reading a very different translation of the Bible than I am, and 2) most evangelicals, even conservative ones, don't think of him as a spokesperson who represents their views."
The response prompted another liberal blogger, Atrios, to ask: "So who would represent the views of conservative evangelicals better than Pat Robertson?" He added: "I'd quite like the views of religious conservatives to be represented by people who are less nuts than Pat Robertson even if I subscribe neither to their religion nor the politics."
I asked "Evening News" host Bob Schieffer for his thoughts on Robertson and whether he thought there were others who better represent evangelicals.
Schieffer, who considers himself a religious person, has covered Robertson and interviewed him several times in the past, and says "at the beginning he represented a particular point of view, and articulated it quite well." But he's reluctant to cover him now.
"I think we have to be very careful about quoting Robertson, because I'm not sure who he represents anymore," he said. "His comments have gone beyond interesting and into bizarre." The "Evening News," he points out, has not covered Robertson's recent comments.
So who does he think is a better representative of evangelicals? Jim Wallis, who Schieffer calls "very compelling." (It's worth noting that many consider Wallis to be left-leaning, unlike most evangelical leaders.)
Michael Bass, the executive producer of the "Early Show," also gave me his take on the issue. "We would only try to book Pat Robertson when he's a newsmaker and we want to interview him to ask him about it," he says. "Otherwise he would not be a choice for us because there are other people who speak for many more people."
Bass says two of his favorite voices when it comes to religion are Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," and Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church. He also mentions Billy Graham, who these days is rarely available for interviews, and his son Franklin. "They're worthy of the following they've inspired," he says.
Gal Beckerman, who wrote a piece asking why journalists don't "get" religion for Columbia Journalism Review, says figures like Robertson and Jerry Falwell are overcovered. "They have the most bombastic thing to say. It's like anything else – you go to the guys who give you the best quotations," he says. "They make for good TV. It's unfortunate." (Bass, for his part, says Falwell "has been a guest several times and we like him.")
Beckerman says that the media's reporting on Robertson's extreme comments "does evangelicals a disservice." Other, more representative evangelical leaders, he says, are more likely to "give nuanced answers – and from a media perspective that makes them less interesting."
This isn't, ultimately, just a religious issue, says Schieffer. It's rooted in larger questions about the way the media functions. "One of the problems we have in TV is that we too often go to the first person who has something to say – and that's often the person we should be paying the least attention to," he says. "We go out and find the people who are on the most extreme sides and let them scream at each other."
Media outlets don't just want the most incendiary quote, however. They also want a familiar face. That's why, Sullivan argues, Robertson and Falwell continue to get significant coverage. "As for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, their heyday was twenty years ago; the only reason they're still booked as talking heads is that most producers don't know these two men no longer have any power," she writes. Sullivan says that Ted Haggard, Warren, Brian McLaren, Osteen, Rod Parsley, and Franklin Graham, among others, are religious leaders who should be featured as evangelical voices of today.