Nailing down a reporter’s passion

empty anchor deskLaila Kain’s very long article in the Hartford Courant‘s NE magazine on the departure of longtime television news anchor Steve Bunnell from the news business to the evangelism business is a great example of what can be done when a journalist gets a whole lot of space to fill and a whole lot of time to fill it.

There are some very good sections in the 3,100-word article that draw Bunnell’s reasons for leaving the anchor chair for the pulpit, but I found a lot of it to be relatively ho-hum material, including how Bunnell puts on his makeup before a show and the happy yelps of his children as they play in the backyard pool. This is a great story that needs telling, and I think it’s great that NE devoted so much space to it. I just wish the editors had tweaked the focus in a couple of areas.

Maybe this is just me, but I would have liked to hear more about Bunnell’s theology and how his passion changed from the news business to the pastorate. In particular, why is he going to Touchstone Christian Fellowship, a new church in Sacramento?

There was also a lot about politics, which is fine, but I’m not that impressed with Bunnell’s liberal evangelical beliefs. Kain seems to believe that a liberal evangelical is some sort of oxymoron that needs detailed explaining. She’s probably correct for the average reader, but I think she betrayed her surprise in less-than-necessary dramatic writing:

Bunnell fiercely believes in the Fourth Estate’s watchdog role, reads the U.S. News & World Report regularly and New York Times online. He watches PBS and jokes about the “fair and balanced” reporting on Fox news.

If stereotypes were true, he could be the poster boy for the liberal press.

Except for his faith.

As an evangelical Christian, he believes in the urgency of saving souls in this fallen world — nonbelievers being doomed to Hell, a real and everlasting conscious punishment.

In evangelical thinking, one is spared this fate or saved through Jesus Christ and personal conversion, enriched by the study of a Bible believed without errors.

As one among the saved, Bunnell prays daily and studies the Bible constantly, accessing it on his Palm Pilot. To prepare for his new profession, he listens to sermons on his iPod while running and on his computer at work. A longtime fan of Christian music, he is married to Shirley Bunnell, a well-known Christian singer/songwriter and recording artist.

If religious stereotypes held, Bunnell should be an advocate for the religious right.

Except for his politics.

In truth, Bunnell votes Democratic, bemoans the role of religion in politics, and has been a critic of the Iraq war “from the word go.”

Not the typical evangelical, nor the usual newscaster.

Bunnell’s political beliefs are interesting, but again, not earth-shattering. They certainly need explaining, but rather than telling us what news outlets Bunnell prefers, maybe tell us how his daily readings of the Bible affect his outlook on the world? What is his favorite Bible verse? Favorite philosopher? At what point in his life did he become a Christian, and how did that affect his outlook on being a journalist?

The second part of the story that I found fascinating was Bunnell’s discouragement with the news business. This is where I felt Kain was at her best, as she documented the litany of abuses Bunnell believes the news media inflict on the public:

“We have a friend who won’t let her kids play on her front lawn because she thinks it’s too dangerous. Why? She watches the news. I tell her violent crime is lower than when we were kids. Does she believe me? I don’t know.

“It’s like that shark summer when some station in Florida saw ratings spike with a shark story. Before you knew it, there were shark stories in every market. Truth was, the record of shark attacks that year was lower than normal. You’d never know it from TV.”

Across the business, Bunnell says, the driving force is ratings: the higher the number of folks watching, the higher the advertising rates, the better the bottom line. Across the nation, stations think the way to win viewers is with an increasingly sensational selection of stories and a constant, urgent sense of big, breaking news.

“In truth ‘breaking news’ is whatever has happened, whether it’s big or not,” he explains. “The point is to make it feel big. If we can fool viewers into thinking it’s big, then they’ll watch and we’ll make more money.

“Really, I can’t do this any more. In good conscience, I have to ask: Does this amount to selling my soul?”

In reading the article, I definitely absorbed the feeling that Bunnell is a burdened man. He is burdened for the nation, the news business, himself and Christians in politics. Bunnell’s passion really shone through. It reminded me of a piece out of Sports Illustrated on why some famous athlete decided to hang it up early to do something more significant.

The article concludes with this quote from Bunnell: “It’s very sad for me. I mourn for the business, and frankly, I mourn for our nation.” Well, I would like to mourn over the quiz that accompanied the article. It’s sadly revealing.

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  • Jeff

    I live in a liberal small college town, and many know me as a pastor and writer in local papers; i’ve had half a dozen conversations since Sunday with nice (liberal) folk who ask me, cautiously, if i saw the NYT Sunday cover piece on a megachurch pastor who “took a stand” on conservative politics and lost some parishoners (as if losing a thousand here and there, and picking up a thousand or three later is unusual for megachurches). When i respond positively, they just glow over the amazing phenomena described there, until i get a few words in edgewise — “there’s a whole lot of that out there in evangelical churches. You wouldn’t know it from most newspaper coverage, but the neat ideological lines don’t follow Bible carrying practices or how many in the church read through the whole vexed Left Behind series.”

    There’s always a bit of bafflement to that, and then we usually go off on a discussion of flags in churches or whathaveyou. But the idea that most big, passionate about evangelism churches are not of one mind on politics, parties, or presidential candidates is always greeted with skepticism. When there’s sincere curiousity, i offer this: “do you really think all predominantly African-American congregations are on the same political page?” This is in Ohio, btw. That causes some very thoughtful staring at the ground..


  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I mourn over that quiz, but probably not for the same reason. According to the credit line, part of it came from Wikipedia. That a serious news publication should ever credit the Wiki as a primary source makes me sad. Use it? Sure. But trust it? Nope.

  • carl

    I can see why much of the in depth focus was on the media since it was written by a media person. But I could have lived with less lines like:

    “In the pews, people sing, some closing their eyes, others opening their arms in prayer. Outside, a silent breeze sways the trees from side to side.”


    It would have been nice to report what he would actually be doing in his new job other than pastor in training. Maybe a quote from his current pastor on the evidence of his call? Maybe a blurb on how being a reporter and having a bible study prepares you for ministry without formal education? Calvary chapel is pasionate about church planting, “Any plans to start your own? (The wife is a worship leader). All in all a good story though.

  • Chris Bolinger

    On the topic of evangelical Christians having different views on politics, ideology, and doctrine, I am amazed at how little publicity my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, gets. This is a denomination that encourages people to agree to disagree on a wide range of topics. Every Sunday, liberals and conservatives worship side-by-side in hundreds of ECC churches nationwide, including mine (which, like Jeff’s church, is in Ohio). So do people who have had their children baptized as infants and those who strongly disagree with infant baptism. If the press defined reality, then the ECC would not exist. Check it out at

  • Martha

    Re: that quiz – I’m not au fait enough with the fine differences between Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Mainline to groan over its simplifications, but I would certainly recommend a refresher course in Basic English:

    “Evangelicals believe in a literal Bible.”

    Yep, that there Bible sitting on the table over there: I believe it is actually and literally a Bible. Yessirree, that’s what I believe, that there is such a thing as a Bible. Really and truly, that it exists. Yup.

    I believe what they were attempting to say was “belief in the literal truth of the Bible” or “that the Bible should be taken literally” or even – pardon the theological term! – “inerrancy”.

    And can anyone explain to me why even serious American news articles all do the fluffy bunny stuff? What I mean is what dpulliam called “relatively ho-hum material, including how Bunnell puts on his makeup before a show and the happy yelps of his children as they play in the backyard pool.”

    Why do they *do* that? Are they all frustrated novelists? How many times have I read something beginning “It was a typical July morning in Smalltown, PW, as the paper boy cycled past and the only sound that broke the silence was the soggy plop of the local chronicle, “The Smalltown Argus and Farmers’ Advertiser”, landing in the paddling pool on the front lawn. Katie Anybody, a still-attractive 38 year old blonde mom of Suzie, 7, and Dwayne, 3 3/4, shook her head as she glanced out the kitchen window whilst making pancakes.”

    It takes the guts of a whole page before you get to what could have been said in the first paragraph: “The shooting of Joe Slimeball, local small-time thug, took place on 25th July at around 8:30 a.m. and was witnessed by Katie Anybody, a resident of Green Street, Smalltown, PW. A local man is currently helping police with their inquiries.”

    What is it with this desire to milk our sympathies by writing mini-moviescripts about the people involved? Just the facts, ma’am is good enough for me.

  • Kendall Harmon

    I am unclear about what aspect of the quiz made you sad. Can you say more?