WPost Style manages to print an interesting EWTN story

Whenever your GetReligionistas pick on the Style gods at The Washington Post — primarily with our pronouncements that alternative points of view are good things in features about controversial issues (perfect example here) — there is always someone out there in comment-pages land who tells us to lighten up and get real.

After all, why should anyone expect the traditional rules of journalism to apply back in the once-fluffy pages of the Style section, even when the ace writers there are dealing with subjects of national and global importance. Right? Who needs to hear from the other side when you are dealing with issues of culture, as opposed to the real world of politics?

Call me crazy, but I still like to hear from critical, informed, worthy voices on the other side of controversial issues, especially on religion-news stories. It doesn’t matter to me whether the feature story focuses on people and institutions on the religious left or the religious right. It’s even nice to read a diversity of views when things are going on in the middle.

Every rare now and then, the Style gods do one of their profiles of someone on the conservative side of things. These reports are rare, since conservatives, one can only assume, very rarely do colorful, creative, edgy and stylish things. Nevertheless, we had a big Style report on a pack of conservatives just the other day and, to my shock, the report was very low-key and respectful.

In fact, I thought it suffered from a severe lack of commentary by Catholic liberals who, trust me, would have wanted to discuss the news hook for this story. Why? Because we are talking about Mother Angelica and we’re talking about news in Washington, D.C.

They’ve long delivered the Good News. And now, simply news.

The Eternal Word Television Network, which, from an unlikely start in the garage of an Alabama monastery, has become one of the world’s biggest religious broadcasting operations, is bulking up its presence in Washington this summer by starting its first evening newscast.

The live, half-hour show, scheduled to start next month, is a major step for the Catholic broadcast company, whose message is typically expressed through devotional talk shows, replays of Mass and religious education programming such as series on the Eucharist or the saints.

By planting a stake in Washington — in an office space near Capitol Hill — EWTN hopes to raise its profile on issues where religion converges with public affairs: abortion, contraception, stem cell research, immigration, the death penalty, terrorism and repression of Christians abroad.

“It’s a deliberate choice to be in the midst of everything,” said Michael P. Warsaw, EWTN’s president and chief executive. “We hope it has an impact on policymakers and the inside-the-Beltway crowd.”

Now, believe it or not, this story does not contain a single word of commentary — on or off the record — from some of the logical Catholic liberals who reside in this town. I can understand Vice President Joe Biden or Rep. Nancy Pelosi taking a pass, but where is E.J. Dionne or the always quotable Father Thomas J. Reese?

But while I was surprised that this feature didn’t seek some of the liberal Catholic voices that were sure to be critical of EWTN, it made me happy by seeking out at least two first-rate authority voices who could actually provide needed input on the subject at hand. That would be the potential audience for the show and how the news might be filtered by the doctrinal views of its leaders.

Methinks these are good questions to toss at all cable-news operations, these days.

One of the voices is rather obvious. The second showed real initiative and insight. So who are we talking about?

Experts on media and Catholic affairs said EWTN will fill a void, because there is no other daily news TV program that is pitched to the estimated 75 million Catholics in the United States. And while the network’s guests include a steady diet of those who represent the conservative wing of the church, EWTN does not stoke right-wing fury like a Fox commentator.

“EWTN has a lot of people on its air, and they don’t all sing from the same songbook,” said John L. Allen Jr., a Vatican authority and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

EWTN’s influence, and presumably that of its newscast, derives in large measure from its devoted audience and sheer reach — there’s hardly a place on Earth its signal does not go. Exact viewership numbers are impossible to know, especially because it’s available in more than 140 countries and territories. Nevertheless, said Allen, EWTN is “the biggest game in town in the Catholic-broadcast universe. The big prize is trying to get on their air or get them involved in what you are doing.”

And what about the actual content of the show? The team working on this feature reached way outside the DC Beltway and tapped into the knowledge of a many who has been at the top of religion-news scholarship since the 1980s.

Bravo!

Stewart M. Hoover, director of the University of Colorado’s Center for Media, Religion and Culture, described EWTN as “a general-interest Catholic service, though with a clearly conservative-traditionalist bent” that would appeal to an older and conservative viewership.

Hoover said he monitored EWTN’s coverage of the papal transition earlier this year. “They didn’t seem so much like a hard news service as a soft-feature framing of the events,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I’d expect their news service from Washington to be similar: Catholic, traditional, tending to soft-pedal controversies in place of serious advocacy on issues like opposition to abortion, et cetera. I’d expect the Bishops Conference to get a lot of attention, too.”

“Will it be the Fox News of Catholicism or religion? I’d doubt they’d be that strong or strident,” he added. “More likely a gentle, dolorous, pious framing of events with strong coverage of Catholicism and its presence in U.S. public culture. Some of the impulse is to try to recreate the Fulton Sheen era,” referring to the bishop and Catholic media star of the 1950s and 1960s.

So what is my point?

First of all, I simply wanted to note that seeking input from critical, informed and worthy voices is always a plus, in journalism. Why run virtual-PR stories? What’s the point of doing that?

Second, the next time you are reading a totally one-sided Post Style section piece about some trendy liberal subject — something like the views of gay and transsexual Muslims — ask yourself this simple journalistic question: Who are the two or three authorities on the other side of this issue, or authorities whose expertise is universally accepted, who could have been interviewed to provide balance and additional information? We’re talking about the equivalent of people like John L. Allen Jr., Stewart Hoover or John C. Green.

There are tremendous voices out there on a host of topics, with perspectives all over the map — contrarian voices even. Journalists simply have to want to find them. For some reason the Post Style gods are more driven to do that on some subjects and not on others. I wonder why?

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.

  • Jerry

    Terry, you attacked a straw man not what I wrote. I never wrote that politics is the only serious part of a paper. What I was referring to can easily be seen by comparing two sections such as http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith stories

    The countries most and least tolerant of homosexuality

    Five years of injustice: The plight of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran

    Muslims reflect on the Holocaust

    with http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style

    BBC America’s haunting “In the Flesh,” in which a zombie teen returns to normal life.

    Imagine being the richest woman in America.

    The gallery’s Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet sells for more than $33 million, shattering expectations.

    Carolyn Hax: Senseless, damaging argument over what to name a baby

    So let me repeat myself. I don’t have any expectations that a part of WaPo that includes a review of a TV show about zombie teens returning to normal life to properly cover serious subjects.

  • Matt Swaim

    Speaking as a producer of EWTN radio content, I can tell you that most of us think of ourselves as evangelists rather than journalists, if that helps frame the conversation.

  • tmatt

    Jerry:

    By the way, you are not the only person who sees the Style section as a semi-European news/advocacy news zone.

    Meanwhile, I think the WPost editors think you are wrong — because they keep putting long news features in Style about national and global issues.

    I think the WPost editors think I am wrong with my assumption that these stories should consistently be reported in a journalistic manner, as opposed to “New Journalism” manner.

    So let’s open the Style section today.

    First up, major news feature on the First Lady and her heckler.

    Major story on Rep. John D. Dingell.

    Hard-news arts story on the shutdown of the “bubble” project at the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian.

    Nope. No news on the front of Style today.


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