by Ronald Bishop. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007. 202pp. Hardcover. $68.50. ISBN: 9780791471814. Paperback. $21.95. ISBN: 9780791471821.
Reviewed by Kyle L. Kreider, Political Science Department, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA. E-mail: Kyle.Kreider [at] wilkes.edu.
In this highly charged polemic, Communications professor Ronald Bishop seeks to resurrect the reputation and legal arguments of Michael Newdow, an avowed atheist who sued to remove the words “under God” from the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Though Newdow succeeded in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002, the US Supreme Court dismissed his case on procedural grounds in 2004. Bishop defends Newdow against a rabid media intent on protecting the nation from a renegade atheist and a Supreme Court that allegedly does not even understand its own Establishment Clause jurisprudence.
In Chapter 1, Bishop introduces the reader to a body of literature that explains how the media constructs its stories and how the public comes to understand the “news.” In short, Bishop adopts the theoretical perspective that the media makes the news by creating narratives that comport with existing societal values. Central to this news making function is the media’s fascination with relegating strange or persistently problematic individuals into the “sphere of deviance.” Bishop also argues that the media serves as the “guard dog” of America’s beloved cultural and social institutions. Though Chapter 1 provides an interesting review of communications and media literature, it is easy to see where Bishop is headed: In order to protect our communal recognition of a deity (“under God”), the media created a narrative with defenders of the Pledge as “heroes” and Michael Newdow as the godless villain.
In Chapters 2 and 3, Bishop reviews the legal development of Newdow’s lawsuit against his daughter’s school district requirement that elementary students recite the Pledge of Allegiance before the start of each school day. Newdow also named the president and Congress as defendants. Newdow’s specific complaint was that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, which were inserted by Congress in 1954, violated the Establishment Clause because impressionable students were “coerced into hearing religious dogma” (p.25) and could not “opt out” of the recitation without feeling like an outsider. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Newdow, striking the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
It is not until Chapter 4 that Bishop takes the media to task for their biased coverage of Michael Newdow and the Pledge of Allegiance case. For starters, Bishop castigates broadcast (Chapter 4) and print journalists (Chapter 5) for taking their cues from President Bush [*925] and Congress and acting as the “sentry” or “guardian” of one of our country’s most precious institutions, the Pledge of Allegiance. Bishop recounts numerous stories of mainstream journalists who interviewed Newdow but defended the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and did not allow Newdow to venture far from the media’s “preferred reading” of the case. Bishop alleges that journalists “sprinkled” pro-Newdow quotes into their stories but refused to give credence to officials or students who believed the Pledge was a violation of the Establishment Clause. The media was so biased, Bishop alleges, that “[their conduct was] eerily similar to their conduct as they covered the Japanese-Americans during the days after Pearl Harbor” (p.76) and were quick to paint Newdow as a “quirky fanatic” (p.96).
As the lawsuit moved from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to the US Supreme Court, the case took strange twists, from a custody battle between Newdow and Sandra Banning, the girl’s mother, to the procedural issue of standing. As the media took an interest in Newdow’s daughter and Sandra Banning, Newdow was ridiculed for dragging his innocent daughter, who wanted to say the Pledge of Allegiance, into this case, while Banning was portrayed as the “victimized mother looking out for her daughter’s interests” (p.115). Bishop maintains that, as the lawsuit moved to the US Supreme Court, the media continued to frame Newdow as an eccentric renegade by refusing to include any serious discussion of the Establishment Clause claims he raised and by not citing or interviewing anyone who agreed with him.
In the last three chapters, Bishop reviews Newdow’s case before the Supreme Court. According to Bishop, although the media disparaged Newdow when he announced he would be representing himself before the Court (pro se), he did far better than anyone predicted. Some members of the media wrote positive reviews of Newdow’s performance, but many others took the “he is outside the mainstream” approach (Chapter 9). Nevertheless, Bishop offers some praise for the media, noting that it was at this stage of the litigation that the media began to move the story toward the “sphere of legitimate controversy” (p.165). However, when the Supreme Court decided that Newdow lacked standing to sue on behalf of his daughter, the media reverted to defining Newdow as an embarrassing, atheistic rebel.
TAKING ON THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE offers political scientists and lawyers a fresh perspective on a controversial issue and legal case. Bishop introduces the reader to a body of communications and media literature that provides a rich context for how the media framed the issue and created “winners” and “losers.” As we approach the 2008 elections and partisans on both sides complain about media coverage, a read of Chapter 1 offers key insights on how the media operate.
Bishop also raises hard questions about the media and their role in American democracy. Bishop’s case study of the media’s treatment of Michael Newdow and his legal case should be read by journalists and journalism professors, because the evidence suggests that the media were far from objective, favoring the words “under God” and portraying Newdow as a villain seeking to destroy [*926] our beloved institutions. However, Bishop’s faulty legal analysis weakens the book’s main point. To Bishop, the words “under God” transform the Pledge of Allegiance from a “patriotic exercise” into a religious creed. Therefore, Bishop continues, when public schools commence the school day with the Pledge, the government is endorsing religion and coercing public school students to recite religious dogma with which they may not agree. Bishop praises the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violate three of the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause tests: LEMON, endorsement, and coercion.
While Judge Goodwin of the Ninth Circuit crafted a convincing argument why the words “under God” in the Pledge violate the Establishment Clause, Bishop fails to give full weight to the fact that some Supreme Court justices do not start with the LEMON, endorsement, or coercion tests because they believe those tests impermissibly limit the ability of government to accommodate reasonable recognitions of God and his role in America’s development. For example, in the interest of accommodating our rich religious history, the Supreme Court has allowed crèches in Christmas displays on government property (LYNCH v. DONNELLY, 1984) and even permitted governments to fund chaplains (MARSH v. CHAMBERS, 1983). To the accommodationist, “under God” is a benign reference to our nation’s religious heritage and does not arise to an Establishment Clause violation because students can “opt out” of the Pledge’s recitation.
Unfortunately, if the reader is searching for a book that provides an even-handed account of Michael Newdow and the Pledge of Allegiance case, this is not the one. To Bishop’s credit, he tells the reader in the Introduction that he is a liberal atheist who agrees with Newdow that “under God” should be stricken from the Pledge. In addition, even though he “strongly believes” in objective reporting, Bishop seems to suggest that, because the media were biased in their treatment of the Newdow case, he is going to set the record straight with his own bias, but one that he also believes to be the objective truth. Furthermore, the reader is likely to grow weary of the sarcasm and unnecessary tangents that are present throughout the book.
Bishop’s argument is also hampered by far too many factual inaccuracies. For example, on page 2, Bishop first introduces the reader to the Ninth Circuit decision by writing that the court “found first that the Pledge itself was unconstitutional, and then, in an amended opinion, that the mention of God in the Pledge was an unconstitutional breach of the wall that separates church and state.” Though Bishop gets it correct later in the book (the original opinion struck the words “under God” from the Pledge), it does not help that the reader is given factually inaccurate information at the outset. In addition, on page 70, Bishop alleges that the “Millersville, Pennsylvania, School Board” expelled 12-year-old Lillian Gobitis, a Jehovah’s Witness, for refusing the say the Pledge of Allegiance. While Millersville is in Pennsylvania, it is 75 miles from Minersville, the correct town in that 1940 Supreme Court decision [*927] (MINERSVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT v. GOBITIS).
Finally, Bishop appears confounded as to how the Supreme Court could disagree with the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning. Bishop persuasively demonstrates why the media attacked Newdow but seems to hold on to the belief that the US Supreme Court renders decisions strictly based on legal principles and logic. Not only is there conflicting Establishment Clause doctrine, but Bishop’s analysis misses the political science literature that encourages us to understand the Supreme Court in the political context in which it sits. Simply, the Supreme Court’s power is its legitimacy, and if the Court consistently renders decisions inconsistent with public opinion, the Court will lose support and, therefore its power, over time. In other words, if the Court sided with Newdow and against an overwhelming majority of Americans, especially in the religiously heightened post-9/11 era, the Court’s legitimacy and prestige might have been significantly damaged. By deciding the case on standing grounds, the justices saved the issue for another day and retained the Court’s institutional power.
In sum, TAKING ON THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE offers an analysis of the media’s treatment of Michael Newdow and the Pledge of Allegiance case from a communications perspective. While the book is valuable because it offers a literature and angle with which political and legal scholars may be unfamiliar, a legal argument that does not take into account political factors, sprinkled with unnecessary attacks and unproductive tangents, mar the book’s lasting contribution to the literature.
LEMON v. KURTZMAN, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).
LYNCH v. DONNELLY, 465 U.S. 668 (1984).
MARSH v. CHAMBERS, 463 U.S. 483 (1983).
MINERSVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT v. GOBITIS, 310 U.S. 586 (1940).
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Kyle L. Kreider.