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Politics & Policy

What We Mean When We Talk about Media Bias: A Series

Nina Totenberg managed to report an extensive radio segment on NPR, and also to write 1,200 words, about the Missouri religious-school case currently before the Supreme Court — without ever actually managing to say what the case is in fact about.

At issue is a Missouri religious school that applied for a grant for the purpose of making safety improvements to its playground and was denied because state law categorically prohibits the making of grants to religious schools. Totenberg explained — ever so helpfully! — that the state constitution, along with those of many other states, contains ancient language explicitly prohibiting the granting of state funds to religious schools and other religious institutions.

Two words that did not appear in her report: “Blaine amendment.”

The original Blaine amendment was voted on in Congress in 1875. It failed, though just barely. It was not a secular-minded reform — it was an anti-Catholic measure.

Catholic immigration to the United States in the 19th century produced hysteria in some quarters, and more than a little resentment: In New York, a substantial share of public-education money was sent to the state’s parochial schools, on the theory that — crazy though it may sound! — that’s where most of the children were being educated. For years, New York’s Catholic schoolchildren were taught by habit-wearing nuns who gave them religious instruction — and much other instruction — with the expenses being picked up by the state. As the Catholic population grew, this became too much for certain bigots to bear.

Their cultural heirs are with us still. 

While the federal Blaine amendment failed, 38 states adopted a version of it. And anti-Catholicism is not new to the American public-education system: Our very first compulsory-education law, the Old Deluder Satan Act (we gave our laws awesome names back before everything became a strained acronym) of 1647, was adopted in reaction to anti-Catholic hysteria. The Massachusetts Puritans believed that if children were given compulsory education that would enable them to study the Scriptures, then they would be inoculated against any covert popery that might be going on in 17th-century Massachusetts. 

The question in Missouri is not really whether tax dollars may be spent in a way that benefits religious facilities — of course they can: We provide firefighters, police protection, sidewalks, etc., for the betterment and protection of church properties. The question is whether the anti-Catholic provisions of 38 states are in fact a violation of the U.S. Constitution. In Lawrence v. Texas, the Court held that statutes that were rooted in mere antipathy toward some unpopular group were invalid (no “rational basis”), and it nullified Texas’s (stupid and ugly) anti-sodomy statute. That seemed to me a candidate for Antonin Scalia’s “Stupid But Constitutional” stamp, and it is not obvious (to this non-expert, anyway) that Missouri’s dopey laws, ugly though they are, should be regarded any differently. If the people of Missouri wish to repeal their anti-Catholic laws, they have the means to do so.

But as a question of reporting: If a law were based in some prejudice other than anti-Catholic prejudice, do you think NPR would have omitted that fact? Would it have, in fact, gone far out of its way to omit that fact? I myself have a hard time believing that it would.

I do not object to a media outlet’s having a point of view, a bias, or a prejudice, as NPR obviously does.

I do object to subsidizing it.

(I also object to sloppy and incompetent journalism.)

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