Pod people: Talking personal history on the religion beat

Pod people: Talking personal history on the religion beat April 21, 2013

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:

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 … 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.”

So that’s what was going on in the first decade of my column.

But times have changed. Today, the role that religion plays in major news stories is even more obvious than it was then. As the great historian Martin Marty once told me, soon after 9/11, the issue today isn’t whether religion touches some of our major news stories, the issue is whether there are any major stories that are not — to one degree or another — touched by the power of religion in the real world.

Today, as the old business models for producing news crumble, the dominant truth is that opinion is cheap and producing real, hard, solid, independently reported information is expensive.

Thus, the big idea today is that religion is, essentially, all a matter of feelings and emotions. Who needs balance, accuracy, history and perspective? When writing, well, on faith all one needs is a choir of voices offering their opinions about clashing religious perspectives. Who needs real news? It’s much easier to turn everything into a series of op-eds by writers that editors feel comfortable publishing.

By the way, this argument fits in quite well with the journalism gospel according to retired New York Times editor Bill Keller, which proclaims that there is no need for tolerant, urban, educated journalists to offer balanced, fair, perhaps even accurate coverage of moral, social and religious issues, anyway. By all means, click right here to read about that or view the Keller remarks over here.

That’s the age we’re in right now — historically speaking.

Enjoy the podcast.

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