Hours before the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an ABC News colleague brought Peter Jennings a copy of “The Jewish Mourners Book of Why.”
“I found the explanation of Jewish burial so fascinating that I incorporated a good deal of it into my funeral commentary,” said the veteran anchorman, in a recent address at Harvard University’s Divinity School. “If my mail is a guide, the audience much appreciated it. Contrary to what many news executives have believed in the past, news of the soul is very much news.”
It’s been two years since Jennings raised eyebrows in major television newsrooms — including his own — by deciding that religion was worthy of full-time coverage by a journalist trained to handle this complex and powerful subject.
People still ask why he did it. The answer, obviously, begins with Jennings’ work in the Middle East, Russia, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and in the American South during the civil rights era. And in 1992, he said ABC crews kept returning from trips to Middle America with “this gnawing feeling that we were missing something if we didn’t talk to people about the effect that their religious beliefs might have on their presidential choice.”
Cutting to the bottom line, Jennings has, several times, said that American Agenda correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer’s religion reports — 27 so far — have drawn more audience response than any other subject covered on ABC’s World News Tonight.
“It is ludicrous that we are the only national television network to have a full-time religion reporter,” he said. “Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by us — politics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen.”
As a veteran CBS News producer once put it, the typical TV journalist is only interested in religion when the story is about “politics, pageantry or pedophilia.”
Thus, most media reports ignore religion and appear to focus on the lives of “a nation of body doubles” — people who have the bodies, but not the souls, of typical Americans, argues journalist Scott Morris. This is one reason the nation suffers from a condition he calls “Cultural Disconnect.”
Naturally, many religious people claim that America’s media elites are on the cutting edge of a savvy conspiracy to hurt the faithful. This only adds to the confusion.
“But there is no such conspiracy,” notes Morris. Instead, it helps to think of those who cannot grasp religion’s power as “severely handicapped, in terms of their ability to understand America. They have eyes, but the cannot see. They have ears, but they cannot hear. American life appears to them as a bizarre pageant where people succumb to inexplicable motivations.”
Jennings wasn’t this blunt. But he did say some ABC staffers believe he has become “positively pedantic” about finding a spiritual angle in news stories — from higher education to prime- time TV, from medicine to criminal justice. Wehmeyer’s work has inspired so much comment that “inside the network, some people have been uncomfortable dealing with the issues she confronts, or with the language of spirituality that she often uses,” he said.
Nevertheless, Wehmeyer will be a full participant in ABC’s team covering the 1996 elections, said Jennings. Also, full-time campaign reporters have been assigned to cover the Christian Coalition and the Nation of Islam.
Meanwhile, each new religion story sets off another wave of reactions — most positive, but some negative. “So many people,” said Jennings, “seemed spooked by religion.”