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.”

It’s the culture (and something else)

There is only one way that this pro-life Democrat can respond to the following little story in The Washington Post: Duh. You think? You think there’s a reason that people of various social groups keep voting against their economic self-interests? Here is the money quote about new data collected by Democratic strategists:

. . . (The) bad news: “As powerful as the concern over these issues is, the introduction of cultural themes — specifically gay marriage, abortion, the importance of the traditional family unit and the role of religion in public life — quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics at the national level,” the study said.

Read it all. Hey Dan Balz, do you think this study deserved a bigger story?

Nicolosi and the Times, round IV

And now we return (music cue: a swirl of soap organ) to the continuing story of Hollywood screenwriter and Act One educator Barbara Nicolosi and her telephone dialogues with the principalities and powers at The New York Times.

It seems that America’s newspaper of record has discovered that the former nun can sling soundbites with the best of them, when it comes time to write about issues of faith and Hollywood. Thus, reporters keep calling her and Nicolosi — a friend of this blog — keeps posting her notes about these chats at her often riotous blog called Church of the Masses.

In the latest chapter, a Times reporter is looking for Christian responses to the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster (we assume it will be that) based on The Da Vinci Code. The twist here is that Sony is trying to find a way to make this movie less offensive to non-gnostic Roman Catholics and other Christian believers who are not into goddess worship.

So let’s tune back in, as Nicolosi chats up the reporter:

When the journalist called me I asked her, “Is this piece going to be fair, or a typical NY Times Christian-hating kind of thing?” The journalist expressed horror at the suggestion that Christians feel like The Times hates them. “Yeah,” I said wonderingly, “we kind of do.”

I didn’t have a lot of hope for the piece because at one point in our conversation, we had the following exchange . . .

Barb: I heard that the studio execs behind The Da Vinci Code are worried that some Christians are going to put them on a hit list. Someone claimed to have gotten death threats during the making of The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s so ridiculous. We aren’t the ones who throw bombs.

NYTimes Reporter: (paraphrase) Well, there are as many Christians out there throwing bombs as Muslims. Look at all the bombings Christians do of abortion clinics.

I didn’t take it further because, well, it was such an astoundingly bizarre statement that I — for once — was rendered mute. Here’s what I would have said if I could speak at the moment: “HUH!!? ARE YOU FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME?! AS MANY CHRISTIANS THROWING BOMBS AS THE HOURLY SUICIDE BOMBING NUTJOBS WHO THINK KILLING MAKES GOD SMILE?! ARE YOU SMOKING CRACK?!” . . . or something erudite like that.

Actually, Nicolosi does give credit where credit is due. She thinks the piece by reporter Sharon Waxman turned out pretty good — which means accurate and balanced. All kinds of smart people show up in this piece, even Amy “Open Book” Welborn. Bravo.

Minute of your time, archbishop?

A great hard-news lead care of Associated Press reporter Garance Burke. Methinks this story is not over. Mitre tip to Open Book, of course.

SAN FRANCISCO — Archbishop William Levada, soon to be the highest ranking American at the Vatican, was welcomed to his final Sunday Mass here by thousands of admiring parishioners, a few critics and a subpoena compelling him to testify about sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

Would Dallas readers care about creation?

I need to wrap up some unfinished business from last week, which was a busy one. So let’s take a flashback to a major story.

Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows what it means when a reporter briefs an editor about what happened in an event or an interview and the editor says, “That’s not all that important. Just do some bullets and put it at the end of the story.”

Bullets are those little stars, bold dots or other graphical devices — “bullets” — that copy desks put in to break up the leftovers that may or may not make it into the final editions of the newspaper. Just look for the telltale words “In other business.” Then come the bullets.

With that in mind, compare the following leads from major newspapers about President Bush’s interview with a cluster of Texas journalists, the interview that veered into his thoughts on God, science and education.

Here is the Los Angeles Times:

Advocates of an alternative to the theory of evolution took heart Tuesday from President Bush’s remarks that “both sides ought to be properly taught” in public schools.

Nicely done. Now, here is The Washington Post:

President Bush invigorated proponents of teaching alternatives to evolution in public schools with remarks saying that schoolchildren should be taught about “intelligent design,” a view of creation that challenges established scientific thinking and promotes the idea that an unseen force is behind the development of humanity.

As Texans would say, that’s close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.

This was a big story, so there are many other newspapers we could take a look at. But let’s check out how The Dallas Morning News covered the story, since that is such a powerful newspaper in the state of Texas — home to George W. Bush and a couple of zillion other people who care deeply about this issue (just ask the people who publish school textbooks).

Here is The Dallas Morning News’ lead on this hot story:

WASHINGTON –- President Bush expressed “complete confidence” in adviser Karl Rove on Monday, offering the first public endorsement since his embattled aide’s name surfaced as one of the administration officials who may have had a hand in unmasking an undercover CIA agent.

Wait a minute! Is this the same Bush press conference with that circle of Texas journalists? To answer that question, you need to do some digging. Sure enough, 15 paragraphs down into the story we get to those crucial words “On other topics, Mr. Bush” and the dreaded “bullets.” There are quite a few of them and there — not in the first, second, third or fourth bullet, but in the fifth — we learn that the world’s best known Texan

• Waded gingerly into the evolution vs. creationism debate, saying local school boards should decide whether to teach evolution or “intelligent design,” an alternative creation-of-life theory promoted by religious conservatives. “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes,” he said.

This was a mere one bullet ahead of Bush’s remarks about the summer weather in Central Texas. He still likes to visit Texas, even if it’s hot.

Something tells me that the average citizen of the Bible-Belt Mecca called Dallas might have been more interested in the God and science story than the average Dallas Morning News editor. You think?

I’m lost: Is adoption a bad thing?

silohuetteOK, I have read this story over and over and I cannot figure it out.

What, precisely, was The New York Times looking for in its investigation into the back stories of the adopted children of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and his wife, Jane, she of the Feminists for Life connection on her resume? The Dallas Morning News has the story, in large part because of the ticked off response to the Times investigation by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

A spokesman for the nation’s newspaper of record did fess up, sort of.

On Friday, the Times said no one had ordered an investigation of the adoptions, calling the inquiry part of a routine effort to “report extensively on the life and career” of a nominee for high office.

“Our reporters made initial inquiries about the adoptions, as they did about many other aspects of his background. They did so with great care, understanding the sensitivity of the issue,” said Times spokesman Toby Usnik. “We have not pursued the issue after the initial inquiries, which detected nothing irregular about the adoptions.”

So the journalists were, it seems, looking for evidence of illegality or shady doings in the adoption of Josephine and Jack Roberts, ages 5 and 4. Is that it?

Or is there some chance that they were trying to find something embarrassing in the private lives of two active practicing Catholics, who got married when they both were 41? They adopted their children four years later. You see, traditional Catholics are supposed to get married early and have lots and lots of their own children. That’s the ticket.

Help me out here. What am I missing? What was the goal?

The Dallas Morning News goes infrared and ultraviolet

There is a quite bizarre little feature in today’s edition of the celebrated Dallas Morning News religion section. It’s an almost random set of statistics about life in the whole red-blue age, with an emphasis on what the News calls the infrared and ultraviolet states — the really extreme examples of the two extremes.

Infrared America includes, in alphabetical order: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Ultraviolet America is California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, and the District of Columbia.

It’s kind of fun, but I still have no idea what the point of the exercise is.

First of all, the non-Borg (I assume, even with its new Reformed component) here at GetReligion never really thought much of the red state-blue state thing, since that really tells us more about the electoral college than it does about the American people. I do, however, think the key is the difference between red zip codes and blue zip codes. That’s where you can find the really interesting differences in beliefs and lifestyles, even in locations as stereotyped as, well, Dallas. There are blue zip codes almost everywhere and, right in New York City, there are some red zones. But I digress.

I also thought it was strange that the News didn’t really get into the “pew gap” issue in American political life, since that is the issue that turned up the flame under the red-blue pot in the first place. I would have, as always, appreciated some breakouts about people in Dallas and Texas, since that is where, I assume, most News readers live and worship.

But we do find out that ultraviolets have more education than the infrared and we learn, no surprise:

More “I do’s” among the red than the blue

Marriage is far more prevalent in infrared states. Nineteen of the 23 have a higher percentage of married adult residents than the U.S. average (Led by Idaho and Utah, at 62 percent each). Eight of the states with the lowest percentages are ultraviolet. (The lowest, by far, is the District of Columbia, at 36 percent.)

It’s a strange little feature. Are we supposed to chuckle or merely shake our heads in wonder?

Dionne’s salute to a “good cop”

lapd retiredHave any of you taken up my challenge to read the David Shaw series on abortion coverage? (Rather quiet on the comments front, in light of this barrage.)

E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post is thinking along the same lines — that the best tribute to the work of the late David Shaw is to read the man’s reporting. After all, it was about detail, detail, detail and awesome research. Here is the abortion coverage section of Dionne’s tribute, under the headline “The Media’s Good Cop.” Shaw was

. . . celebrated by many and derided by some for a lengthy 1990 report showing — conclusively, I think — that “the news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates.”

Shaw showed that abortion rights advocates “are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents.” His conclusion “that abortion is essentially a class issue in the United States” and that reporters reflected an upper-middle-class bias applies across a broad range of other questions. I’d argue that this bias points the media to the right on economic issues. What matters here is that Shaw had the essential trait of the best press critics: He could almost always see through his own biases.

Shaw took a lot of grief for his abortion series, but don’t think he was somehow “anti-feminist.” In 1991 he wrote a series on how the gender of editors affected coverage of stories on sex. Women, he found, tended to favor greater candor in reports on rape, AIDS and the private lives of politicians — and he pointed to a shortage of female editors.

Note that dead-on Dionne reference to the MSM’s elite roots pointing it left on culture and right on economics. Amen, preach it. At least that is what this premodern populist thinks.


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