Eye to eye with Mother Teresa (farewell to Scripps)

A couple of weeks ago, I flew the black religion-beat flag here at GetReligion to mark the announcement that the Scripps Howard News Service was closing its doors. That was rather stunning news for me, since — to one degree or another — that meant the end of the weekly “On Religion” column that I had written for that wire service for more than 25 years.

The end? At the very least, it meant saying good-bye to many readers who had been reading my column in papers that were linked to the Scripps list, which was taken over by the McClatchy-Tribune organization — which declined to keep my column.

However, there was always a chance that someone else would keep the column alive, especially the folks behind the Newspaper Enterprise Association, which for several years has been sending my column to 600 or so smaller- and mid-sized newspapers in North America. And that, I am happy to report, is precisely what happened.

While we are still working out a few details, I will keep on writing the column for the Universal Uclick company, which many GetReligion readers would know by its former name, the Universal Press Syndicate. I am also happy to report that it appears that some of the Scripps newspapers that have carried me for so long (Hello readers in Knoxville!) will be picking it up from Universal.

So this week I wrote my last column for Scripps Howard, but not my last “On Religion” column. I’ve got that same old Wednesday deadline coming this next week. Turn, turn, turn.

Still, this was an ending of sorts and I wanted to mark that for the readers that I would be losing.

What to say? After all, I had already written a 25th anniversary column last year that said what I wanted to say (Hello retired editor Harry Moskos in Knoxville!) about why I think the religion-beat deserves respect and support in the mainstream media. I didn’t want to write that column all over again.

So I did something different and addressed the question that I have heard from readers more than any other over the past quarter of a century:

Who is the most remarkable person you’ve met while covering religion? That’s a tough one. The Rev. Billy Graham or novelist Madeleine L’Engle? Who was the more charismatic positive thinker, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale or actor Denzel Washington? What was more amazing, seeing Chuck Colson preach inside a prison on Easter or Bono lead a Bible-study group at the U.S. Capitol?

And the answer?

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Pod people: Deja vu on global persecution of Christians

As a rule, I don’t discuss the contents of one of my new Scripps Howard News Service columns here at GetReligion. However, from time to time I need to do so in order to describe some of the content of a new podcast in our GetReligion “Crossroads” series with radio host Todd Wilken & Co.

This is one of those weeks. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Meanwhile, this week’s column for Scripps grew out of all of the reading I did writing a recent GetReligion post on the subject of the recent wave of persecution being inflicted on religious minorities, especially Christians, in Egypt, Syria, Kenya and Pakistan. That post included a link to an early post — a very GetReligion-esque essay — by a senior editor (M.Z. Hemingway to be precise) at the new webzine called The Federalist.

As I worked on that GetReligion post, I kept having flashbacks to an earlier Scripps column I wrote long ago on the same topic (“Persecution: The power of apathy“). Eventually, that’s where I decided to start this week’s column:

Churches were burning in Pakistan, while African Christians died and radical forms of Islam threatened monasteries, sanctuaries and villages in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

That was 1997. Human-rights scholar Paul Marshall kept hearing one question over and over when he addressed this rising tide of persecution: Why didn’t more American Christians protest as their sisters and brothers in the faith were jailed, raped, tortured and killed?

Some Christians, he said, were distracted by apocalyptic talk in which persecution was a good thing, a sign that the end of the world was near. Others weren’t that interested in violence on the other side of the world that threatened believers in ancient churches that looked nothing like their own suburban megachurches.

“The result is a stunning passivity that calmly accepts such suffering,” said Marshall, in an interview for an earlier column for Scripps Howard News Service. “Perhaps this … could be justified if we were dealing with our own suffering. But to do this with the suffering of another amounts to theological sadism.”

That was 1997. Marshall had just co-written the groundbreaking book “Their Blood Cries Out,” with journalist Lela Gilbert. Since then, I have worked with both of these writers in global projects about religion-news coverage.

After I filed the column, an editor emailed back a logical question. I had used the punch phrase, “That was 1997″ twice. Was that intentional or a typo?

Very intentional, I replied.

In fact I spent about an hour trying to find a clear, concise way to set up the haunting similarities between the religious persecution scene in 1997, which led to “Their Blood Cries Out” and developments in the past year or two that led to Marshall, Gilbert and Catholic lawyer Nina Shea writing their new book, “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.”

I found the similarities between the events, and thus the column, from 1997 and the waves of bloody headlines — often from the same nations — from the past two weeks to more than haunting, but downright agonizing. More on that in a minute.

So are some GetReligion readers thinking logical thoughts as I spell all of this out? Thoughts like, “Well, of course, Marshall, Shea and activists of their ilk think this is a front-burner issue. They are conservative Christians and we all know that conservative Christians see persecution behind every rock.”

That’s part of what I found so haunting. Many media people were already saying that back in 1997.

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Pod people: Talking personal history on the religion beat

Granted, 25 years is a rather long time, especially in the Internet age.

Nevertheless, I was taken a bit off guard this week when Issues, Etc. host Todd Wilkin asked me for whatever “historical perspective” I had gained on religion and the news during my 25 years writing the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard Newspaper. We had planned to do a “Crossroads” podcast about the column’s anniversary a bit earlier, but then the Divine Ms. M.Z. Hemingway and the whole Dr. Kermit Gosnell affair took control of cyberspace. What can you do?

So we got around to talking about that 25th anniversary column — click here to read it — a bit late.

Still, a “historical perspective”? Well, yes, I am starting to take on a bit of a Grampa Walton look these days, which cannot be helped. I mean, time passes. But the wording of Todd’s question had me cracking up right from the get-go.

I won’t bore readers with a long summary of the podcast (listen to it, please), but I will make note that the key to our discussion is that a quarter of a century is a long enough time that the column (a) predates the World Wide Web and (b) began during the era before the real crash in advertising revenue at the nation’s top 25 or so newspaper markets.

Why does that matter? That means the column was founded back in the days when there were quite a few more healthy, regional and big-city newspapers that had full-time professionals working on beats such as fine arts, science, movies, television and even religion. In fact, back in the ’90s, it was quite easy to see that religion-writing was on an upswing.

The number of professionals on the beat was higher, there for a few short years. NPR put a quality professional on the beat. And, in the world of network television, the late Peter Jennings was even starting to talk sense. Consider this material near the top of a 1996 Scripps column:

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