Work that Rolodex

rolodexWell, the Judas Gospel story, the one that was supposed to shake the foundations of Christianity, seems to have passed away rather quickly. Christianity was similarly unfazed by the week’s reports that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think, and that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, not Joseph. Let’s see if Christianity implodes under the allegation that Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up.

The Judas Gospel thread had a number of comments. I wanted to share a few because they highlight a problem that reaches beyond the National Geographic public relations incident. I had questioned why all of the stories about Judas quoted the same narrow group of scholars. Amy Welborn shared her thoughts:

I’m guessing that the consistency that we see in the press stories are on this are due to nothing else than dependence on the press packet. The voices in the stories are all “consultants” and experts to the project. [Donald] Senior and [Craig] Evans are both in the program.

Reader Matt agreed that reporters on this story suffered from limited Rolodexes. He explained a bit more about how reporters get their sources:

I’ve worked at two newspapers. Every reporter at these papers had lists of experts provided by different sources. Stanford University made sure that each reporter had actual Rolodex cards to be filed by topic. For instance, there was an economics card with the names and phone numbers of several professors good for a quote. San Jose State’s College of Sciences and Arts published a little booklet titled “Knowledge Resources for Journalists” with the same kind of information. (Every election Dr. Terry Christiansen from the Poli Sci dept is interviewed on TV at least once.) One of my colleagues had a list of experts published by U.C. Berkeley stuck on her cubicle wall. Does Holy Cross or St. Vladimir’s or Biola or Franciscan of Steubenville publish similar lists and get them into the hands of reporters?

And everyone knows that Elaine Pagel’s agent is Royce Carlton. Royce Carlton makes money by getting bookings for their clients. They need to keep their client in the public eye and make sure that she is available to reporters covering any story related to any of her books or speaking topics. Does anyone know who Archbishop Dmitiri’s agent is? Or who is Harold O.J. Brown’s agent? Or who is Scott Hahn’s agent? How would a reporter reach these people? Does the average reporter know that these people, who would offer a different view than that of Pagels, even exist? I doubt it. The economic incentive to get their names out is not as great as it is for Pagels.

We reporters have our go-to sources. And we love it when a good public relations firm helps us locate folks who can speak coherently and competently, particularly when we’re approaching a deadline. But, as we saw, there are pitfalls with this. A wide variety of sources, especially for complex religious topics, helps reporters avoid embarrassing themselves like many of them did in promoting National Geographic‘s magazine sales and television show.

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  • paddyo’

    I have read with relish the frothy (in a good way) discourse over the “Judas Gospel” here on GetReligion the past week or so, and I agree wholeheartedly with Mollie and TMatt that limited Rolodexes played a big part in the overhyping of what it was that NatGeo announced with this find.

    But may I suggest that the sideways sniping at NatGeo for its “publicity stunt” and “public relations event” is rather misplaced?
    In the end, this was an archaeological find of important proportions — meaning, the artifact itself, NOT the disputed religious point of view expressed in its newly translated words.

    As a career journalist, I’d look at NatGeo’s news release and timing as obvious and perfect. C’mon now, what on Earth (or in Heaven) is wrong with announcing this discovery just before Holy Week? I think too many defensive-knee-jerky people are reading way too much into this — that NatGeo did this on purpose purely to provoke some kind of pre-Easter religious battle and, thus, hype sales.
    How about, simply, that it’s a great time to announce the discovery of a provocative, ancient text attributed to the leading “other” key player in the Passion story?
    Yeah, sure, of COURSE the timing helps sales. So what? We ALL do that in the news biz ALL the time. It’s called a “news peg.” It’s called “sweeps.” It is the “Why now?” reason that we run spring training baseball previews in, well, spring.
    “Why now?” is, in fact, a critical question that many editors (certainly my own) must ask daily when faced with more stories competing for shrinking newshole or airtime. Against that test, I applaud NatGeo for savvy promotion, not suspect scholarship. In my reading of the news release and background links, NatGeo never claimed this newly found document would cast the rest of Scripture into doubt. Others suggested that — and shoddy reporting by those of us with the faulty Rolodexes only amplified that view by neglecting to ask and answer the “So what?” question that could have put all this in badly needed context.

  • Mollie

    Paddyo’ –

    I think you raise some excellent points. And I committed two errors in my two posts about this. One, I agree that this is a really cool find and the translation of said Judas Gospel is awesome.

    Two, I don’t blame Nat’l Geo for trying to get publicity, I blame the reporters for just reprinting the press release and the angle that National Geo chose. But I did not make that clear in either of my posts.

    Having said that, I do think Nat’l Geo could have — and should have — presented their find with much more balance and integrity. I come from one of those families with 50 years worth of the magazine on our bookshelves. I’m sure my confidence in the magazine was always too high, but it sure dropped this week.

    But you raise great points and thank you.


  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I’m not sure a Rolodex is all that necessary to get feedback and viewpoints on religious and faith issues. Last time I checked the Yellow Pages were full of churches with clergy that. I’m assuming, should be qualified enough to offer an education viewpoint. We read, compared, and discussed extra-Scriptural literature and why it wasn’t in the canon in the seminary. I can’t remember if the “Gospel of Judas” was one of them (“The Gospel of Thomas” was an interesting read and I was tasked with reading and reporting on “The Shepherd of Hermes”).

    As for releasing this news on the cusp of Holy Week, nothing new. Every year I can expect the major NewsMags to offer aan article (often front page to boot) about Jesus or the disciples or some such. Most experts quoted will be of the liberal variety. But this also gives me an opportunity to witness to people who normally don’t read the Bible itself but have read or heard about these “new” findings and then ask me questions. At that point I have an opportunity to set the record straight, one-on-one.

    A seminary professor often said, “People will believe anything as long as it’s not in the Bible.”

  • C. Wingate

    I tend to wonder whether the press feels any embarassment. After all, the “Pagels and Ehrman show” fulfills the most important qualification for getting the thing in the paper: the “man bites dog” angle. Go with the correct story (ancient document of interest to scholars only) and the story doesn’t run.

  • C. Wingate

    While I’m at it, I should mention two columns on the money angle:

    The new profits of Christianity from the Boston Globe
    The Gospel of Judas: The text, the scholarship, and the scandal from Slate

  • Fr Joseph Huneycutt

    Wait. Jesus’ father was JOSEPH?

  • Mollie

    Fr. Huneycutt,

    Sure! His adoptive father — or foster father is probably a better way of putting it.

  • http://n/a Greg

    Whatever you think of the press release the program on the nat geo channel was unballanced. At one point the impression was given that Irenaeus was more upset by the fact that Judas was made into a hero than by the gnostic version of God and Creation. Now certainly Irenaeus would have been upset by any variation from the canonical gospels but the more serious issue would have been the gnostic understanding of God and Creation.

  • Herb

    Given the descending level of biblical literacy even in this country, it didn’t seem out of place to give a reason “for the hope within us.” Too many people will make the wrong conclusions if those of us who trust Scripture don’t say why.