Peter Jennings — a journalistic seeker

During the past few days, we have had some people ask why GetReligion hasn’t featured anything about the life and work of Peter Jennings. I held off because I quickly decided that I wanted to write about his years of advocacy for better MSM coverage of religion. My partners held off, I would guess, because they knew I had talked with Jennings about this in the past, right about the time that ABC World News Tonight took the leap of hiring religion correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer.

Jennings told me what he told others. ABC’s religion features consistently drew a higher rate of positive viewer responses than anything else aired during the broadcasts. He also told me that nothing caused more tension — creative and otherwise — in his newsroom than religion coverage.

I wish I could provide a link to the 1995 speech that Jennings delivered at Harvard Divinity School on religion and the news. I have a paper copy in my files on Jennings and ABC, but I have not been able to find the text online. It is crucial reading, if this topic interests you. You may also want to review the 1993 Freedom Forum “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media” document that helped shape or validate some of Jennings’ views on this topic.

In the past few years, ABC News replaced its own religion desk with a cooperative effort with the staff of Beliefnet (our BlogHeaven partners). CEO Steven Waldman has written a personal tribute to Jennings and, yes, we noted the original headline on the piece — hailing the anchorman as a “journalist who ‘got’ religion.” Beliefnet has also posted two excellent Q&A interviews from the past few years, linked to prime-time specials hosted by Jennings about the lives and legacies of Jesus and Paul. I used a quote or two from these interviews — with attribution, of course — in my Scripps Howard News Service column this week.

In these talks, Jennings offered glimpses into his own progressive, some would say postmodern, approach to Christian faith. What is crucial to this blog is that — to one degree or another — he successfully made a left-of-center argument in favor of aggressive, accurate, balanced coverage of issues rooted in organized religion, faith and spirituality. His appeals for improved coverage were based on journalism, not Christology. He was very clear about that. The goal (preach it) was and is improved news coverage, not some kind of covert evangelism for any religious perspective either left, right or agnostic.

Here is a piece of what I wrote in my Scripps Howard column today:

Jennings grew up as an altar boy in Canada. He knew the rites and the rules, learning that most Anglicans — clergy and laity — agreed to disagree about doctrine. It was OK, Jennings told Beliefnet.com, to say, “I’m not sure. I believe, but I’m not quite so sure about the resurrection.”

Over time, his globetrotting career turned him into what church researchers would call “a seeker” — even though Jennings disliked that trendy word. He declined to answer when asked: “Have you ever experienced anything that you believed was miraculous?”

To hear him tell it, a funny thing happened to Jennings the journalist. The more he wrestled with his faith, the more he discovered he was interested in how faith shaped the lives of others. He began seeing religious ghosts in news events, first in the Middle East and then in middle America.

Journalists strive to report the facts, he said. But it’s a fact that millions of people say that faith plays a pivotal role in their actions and decisions. This affects the news. Can journalists ignore this? During a 1995 speech at Harvard Divinity School, Jennings quoted historian Garry Wills making this point.

“It is careless,” Jennings read aloud, “to keep misplacing such a large body of people. . . . Religion does not shift or waver. The attention of its observers does. Public notice, like a restless spotlight, returns at intervals to believers’ goings on, finds them still going on, and with expressions of astonishment or dread, declares that religion is undergoing some boom or revival.”

Journalism that ignores, twists or mangles the facts about faith is bad journalism, said Jennings. In the end, this gap between most journalists and most Americans is a threat to the future health of journalism.

The goal is better journalism. Period.

And all the people said: “Amen.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • ceemac

    Interesting to note that from what tmatt wote Jennings had a positive church experience growing up.

    Which brings up a question that I have wondered about as long as I have been reading this blog.

    Has any study ever been done of the religious background of elite journalists?

    Those journalists that are likely to ignore or be hostile to religion. Were they exposed to any sort of religion as a child? Do they remember that experience fondly?

    I am not a journalist. I am a Christian. For those who care about labels I could be described Post-Liberal Barthian Universalist sort.

    But I also describe myself as a “Refugee from Southern Revivialism.” I have been know to make reference to the Taliban Baptists.

    So if I were a journalist I am sure that attitude about my religious upbringing would impact my work.

    Thus my question original question: Has any study ever been done of the religious background of elite journalists?

    For example I believe Cronkite and Rather grew up in Texas. They had to have had a major exposure to Southern Revivalism (early 20th century style.)

  • http://www.vdare.com/fulford/index.htm James Fulford

    Here are links to a couple of excerpts from the Harvard Divinity School Speech.
    Faith and Media(Archive.org)

    Faith and Media(Geocities)

    Larry Moffit, UPI

    Here, from the Moffit piece, is the gist:

    “I have only recently come to understand how complicated and inadequate, and occasionally horrifying, media coverage of religion has been… I would venture to say that in the overwhelming majority of newsrooms in America there is an appalling ignorance of religion and faith.

    “You can find a religious angle on every beat… politics… medical reporting… education… family and social issues… When it is done right, the added dimension of spirituality resonates with the audience to a surprising degree.

    “We must stop treating religion as if it were like building model airplanes, a hobby, not really fit for intelligent adults. The sooner we do, the sooner we will have greater grasp of our nation. And what journalist could ask for a bigger story?”

    If you have a paper copy of the whole speech, I suggest scanning it and putting it up on GetReligion.

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  • http://www.christianengineer.org jpcarson

    from the post:

    “The goal (preach it) was and is improved news coverage, not some kind of covert evangelism for any religious perspective either left, right or agnostic.”…

    “The goal is better journalism. Period.

    And all the people said: “Amen.” ”

    Is it reasonable to contend that trustworthy – ethical, competent, and accountable – journalism/journalists advance God’s will for society? Does advancing the goal of better journalism also, even if unknowingly, advance God’s will?

    If not, why should people say “amen” to the goal of better journalism?

  • http://guildedlilies.tripod.com/index.html Steve Nicoloso

    Is it reasonable to contend that trustworthy – ethical, competent, and accountable – journalism/journalists advance God’s will for society? Does advancing the goal of better journalism also, even if unknowingly, advance God’s will?

    Who could doubt this? Assuming of course that being trustworthy, ethical, competent, or accountable are virtues, and that journalism is not intrinsically evil.

  • http://www.christianengineer.org Joe

    If the final goal of excellence in journalism (including excellent treatment of religion angles in relevant stories), by the Christian worldview, is to advance God’s glory, I suggest the “Get Religion” blog “get religion” by saying so.

  • Jeanne

    Beliefnet.com did an interview with Barbara Walters last year. According to the interview, Barbara Walters has no religious training and does not practice a religion. She stated that she didn’t come from a religious family. Click here to read the interview: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/181/story_18118_1.html

    I’m not sure what kind of religious background Dan Rather or Tom Brokow had.


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