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.”