FLASHBACK: Networks Excoriated ‘The Passion of the Christ’ as Inflammatory, Anti-Semitic

Political News

As Christians around the globe prepare to celebrate Easter on Sunday, some will choose to rewatch Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. The movie, which came out 18 years ago on February 25, 2004, was a massive hit. It skyrocketed to a worldwide gross of $611 million. But to the journalists and hosts on ABC, CBS and NBC, it was a project to approach with skepticism and alarm.

On February 16, 2004, then-ABC host Diane Sawyer alerted viewers to just how controversial this movie was. In a primetime special, she warned, “The film that set off an explosion of debate, controversy, and feeling in America…. And not only between Christians and Jews, but Christians and Christians, historians and scholars, true believers and secularists, and everyone who falls somewhere in between.”

Talking to Gibson, Sawyer pushed the idea that the film was bigoted and had its origins in Nazi Europe: 

DIANE SAWYER: Do you believe this is an anti-Semitic movie?

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: No, I do not believe it’s an anti-Semitic movie. I believe that this movie has the potential to fuel anti-Semitism, to reinforce it.


SAWYER: Hitler went to a passion play and came away saying that, you know, this is a -precious tool in the fight against Judaism.

In a 10th anniversary retrospective in 2014, Media Research Center Director of Media Analysis Tim Graham explained:

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Sawyer reported Gibson’s film suggests “echoes, the critics say, of what were called ‘Passion plays,’ which through the ages, were used to inflame Christians against their Jewish neighbors. Ghettos were sacked, the Jewish populations terrorized.” (Sawyer didn’t relate that Passion plays are read or performed annually around the world in millions of Christian churches without outbursts of anti-Semitic violence.)

Sawyer talked to Peter Boyer of The New Yorker and pushed the idea that the film was bigoted: “The Anti-Defamation League expressed concern over whether it would portray the Jews as, quote, ‘bloodthirsty, sadistic, and money-hungry enemies of Jesus.’ You spoke to the head of the ADL. Did he think it was an anti-Semitic movie?”

As contrasted by the MRC’s Graham, The Da Vinci Codea film that portrays the divinity of Christ as false – was far less controversial.

To read the original MRC study on The Passion, go here. For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.

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