References to Cox's religion prompt questions of fairness

Public Editor


The Sun's coverage of Kristen Cox's selection as running mate to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last week thrust the issue of religion and politics back into the spotlight. The relatively unknown Cox is head of Maryland's disabilities office (Cox is legally blind), a mother of two and a member of the Mormon Church - the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Because The Sun's news stories have mentioned her faith and in several instances focused considerable attention on it, several of the governor's political supporters have complained that the paper is attempting to impugn Cox's beliefs. Some readers also have questioned the newspaper's motives.

Referring to The Sun's July 1 article about Cox, which was her first extended interview with the newspaper, reader Tom Wieciech said: "I thought we had moved beyond religious prejudice. But after reading Ms. Cox's comments and your obviously biased interpretations, I guess we have not."

Former Sun deputy editorial page editor Barry Rascovar, who now writes a weekly political column for the Gazette newspapers, said: "Unless being a Mormon is controversial, it makes no more sense to include this fact in each Cox story than it does to refer to Ehrlich as a Lutheran or Martin O'Malley as a Catholic. ... I would think editors would make every effort to avoid the appearance of unfairness."

Rascovar, who emphasized that he is not aligned with any politician, added: "In the context of The Sun's stories, Cox's religion is irrelevant. It simply fuels the belief that the newspaper will do whatever it takes to hurt Ehrlich."

More than ever, all of The Sun's articles about politics and state government are scrutinized for telltale signs of unfairness. I agree with Rascovar that some readers (and nonreaders) strongly feel there is a bias against the governor and his administration. I also agree that the newspaper has probably included too many references to Cox's faith in recent articles.

In addition, the headline with the July 1 article, "Cox makes shift to back Ehrlich policies," presented a distorted view of the article's content - inadvertently implying that Cox had compromised her principles when in fact she was offering some of her views publicly for the first time.

I do not believe, however, that The Sun was trying to denigrate and embarrass Cox by initially writing about her religious beliefs. Mormonism is more high-profile than many other religions because of its clearly stated social views. This is Cox's first run for elected office, and she has no voting or detailed administrative record to examine. If she were elected lieutenant governor, she would immediately become the front-runner for governor in 2010 and would automatically become governor if Ehrlich were unable to complete a second term.

Voters deserve to find out as much about her and her beliefs as possible at this early stage of her political career.

Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka, who has written most of the articles about Cox, said: "We were trying to give readers as clear a picture as we could of Cox. That is why - in addition to reporting about her political views - it was also important to explore what might be informing her beliefs - whether it's religion, life experience or education."

Some readers also have complained that The Sun has not described the religions of other major political candidates, as it has with Cox. The newspaper has described Cox as "a Utah native and a Mormon" and "a mother of two and a Mormon." Said Rascovar : "Clearly, The Sun would never write, `A Montgomery native and Catholic, Duncan,' or, `A father of two and a Jew, Cardin.'"

It's important to note that the newspaper seriously reported on Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's Catholicism when he became Ehrlich's running mate in 2002, partly because Steele's views on abortion and the death penalty differed from the governor's. The Sun also wrote substantial articles about the faiths and religious backgrounds of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Ehrlich during that campaign.

The newspaper has written about how O'Malley's views on abortion differ from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. I expect that pieces mentioning and discussing the faiths of O'Malley and Ehrlich will be published later this year.

This issue should subside as the campaign continues and as she more fully expresses her own views. If Cox fails to do so, it will continue to be the responsibility of Sun reporters to learn as much as possible about her background and opinions and to share what they learn with readers.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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