How media messed up the Rapture: As soldiers lay dying

How media messed up the Rapture: As soldiers lay dying May 25, 2011

Several years ago when I was working as a local reporter I arrived at the news office around 6 a.m. to find a woman sitting on the curb, the back door of her 60s-era van wide open. There was a sleeping bag, clothes and some sort of round satellite dish in the back. It was a moment straight out of Woodstock.

She stood up as I approached. Her brown hair was long and straight, parted down the middle Peggy Lipton style. She was wearing jeans and Birkenstocks, sans the socks. She moved in a hurky-jerky fashion.

Uh-oh, I thought. Got us a live one here this morning.

Since it was so early, the doors to the newspaper were locked. I knew the copy desk fellas would be inside, along with the sports desk and our news editor. We were an early afternoon paper. The newsroom would be buzzing but others employees wouldn’t arrive for several more hours.

It was just me and the lady standing between me and the front door.

Can I help you? I asked.

Yes, she said. I need to talk to a reporter.

I’m a reporter, I said. I’d come to regret that later. I should have told her that I was the Merry Maid come to clean the bathrooms.

In a rush of words, she explained to me that she had inside information that America was about to be destroyed and that we needed to do something about it immediately. I half-expected her to rip off her shirt and show me the gold-letter “S” emblazoned on her chest. Surely this woman thought I was her Lois Lane.

I hadn’t yet had a cup of coffee or a doughnut. I was a little foggy-brained in my response.

Uh. Come again, tell me how you know this? I asked.

Satellites, she explained. She’d heard the voices over the satellites.

Did I mention I’m not all that tech savvy? I didn’t even have a television in my home during those years. No telling what kind of voices a person can hear coming over a satellite.

Even so, I had a pretty good inkling that the lady I was speaking to wasn’t right in the head. Still, who am I to argue with the cosmos and crazy ladies? I listened to her story spill out. She was near tears, sick with worry, and I thought about my editors. Men both of them. They were all the time sticking me with one nasty job or another. Sending me where no man dared to go — to county meetings and jail cells. Besides, I reasoned, it really wasn’t up to me to decide whether the decimation of America is a newsworthy story or not. That was certainly a call the news editor ought to make.

So I invited the woman in, directed her to the boardroom, and offered her a cup of coffee. As wired as she was already, a little caffeine wasn’t going to harm her. Then I went in search of the editors, whistling all the way like Happy the first of the seven dwarfs.

Why did you invite that woman in? the editors chided me when I told them there was a lady waiting for them.

Apparently, she’d met them at the door too, but they’d both given her the brush off.

I played dumb.

Oh. You mean there’s something wrong with her? I asked. I thought she was just excited. I mean if I knew for certain America was being destroyed I might be a little discombobulated myself. (Did they see my smirk?) She told me that she’d heard the CIA discussing this over the satellite. Don’t you think if the nation is collapsing we ought to run a story in advance?

No! the managing editor said. Frustrated, he stormed off to the boardroom. I’ll handle her.

Sitting in my corner cubicle, I fought back laughter. Score one for women!

I hadn’t thought of that lady with the antenna atop her van in a very long time. Not until last week while listening to NPR’s Morning Edition.  I’m an admitted NPR  fan. I started listening back in the days of Bob Edwards and consider the few essays I’ve done for them to be some of the highlights of my writing career. NPR may be left of center but at least they deliver the news in a sensible fashion. There’s none of that yammering or yelling that Rush and Beck are so prone to do. Or Maddow and Olbermann.

Rarely does NPR sensationalize the story.

But even they fell victim to wiley-old Harold Camping.

May 21st is the Rapture. A time when Christians believe they will be swept up in the sky…

NO! NO! NO! I yelled. My hair wrapped in Velcro curlers; my body in a towel. Not EU TU RENEE MONTAGNE!!!

This is in no way disavowing the damage done to people by the misguided and obviously manipulative Camping. His Family Radio has been raking in the millions off the fears of the unsuspecting. There are religious organizations all across this nation making false promises to those in search of a better life. Send in your seed faith money, says the preacher on the Inspiration Network, and just see what God will do!

It’s certainly worked for CEO David Cerullo. Inspiration Network pulls in a reported $100 million yearly. Cerullo takes a salary of $1.5 million. Most of the ministry’s monies comes in the form of donations. Bilking the blindly faithful is a common practice in America, home of the red-white-and-blue-bloods. And church people aren’t the only ones getting taken — Bernie Madoff continues to draw the praise of many for his ponzi scheme. His prison sentence is more like a trip to the day spa. He retains a prison consultant and entertains the adulation of fellow prisoners.

By comparison, Camping’s earnings are petty cash.

So how is it Camping was able to draw the sort of media firestorm usually reserved for Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga?

Because today’s journalists aren’t doing their job.

There was a time not-so-very-long ago, back before Twitter and Facebook ruled the airwaves, that a person had to have established credibility before a reputable journalist would even consider interviewing them, much less making their story headline news.

Those days are long over.

Now if it’s trending on Twitter, it’s headline news.

Today’s news is determined not by content and/or credibility, but by what everyone is talking about on Facebook or Twitter. It’s like the old party line on steroids.

Let a town be devastated by a tornado and for the next five days journalists are tracking every dust devil stirring across the country. If they live in places where even dust devils are rare, they drum up stories with headlines like, “What if…”

We journalists have done this to ourselves. We’ve trashed our own credibility. We’ve sold our souls over to tabloid TV. With newsrooms slashed to the bone, we’ve substituted investigative, smart journalism for the cheap and quick.

The Rapture is sensational.

Harold Camping is an old fart.

It’s like showing up at the Liar’s Club at the local diner, recording the conversation of every wise-ass in attendance, and then headlining the nightly news with opinion and calling it news.

It’s not news.

It’s entertainment.

Harold Camping is the news anchor’s way of taking the cheap shots at Christians worldwide. It’s not smart journalism. It’s not even good journalism. It’s lazy reporting.

According to the Army News & the VA, our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and our veterans are dying at the rate of 18 suicides a day and Harold Camping’s Rapture headlines on NPR? Over the past couple of years, we’ve lost more troops to suicide than we did to combat. That’s news. That ought to be headline news all across this nation. It ought to be the thing that we worry about. It ought to be the thing we are preparing for. It ought to be the thing that consumes us.

But, oh, yeah.

Suicide is so damn depressing. Who wants to talk about that?

It’s much more fun to mock old men and the misguided.

Shame on you, NPR. Shame on all you journalists who gave voice to Harold Camping while soldiers lay dying by their own hands.

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  • Rose Marie Morton

    This is heartbreaking about the suicide rate. I know there are efforts made by the troop support programs to offer help, but depressed people might not be able to ask for help. Sleep deprivation from nightly PTSD episodes must play a part in this tragedy. My heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to all military men and women returning from deployment.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      PTSD victims are asked to self-report. When soldiers come home they are given a form to fill out and asked if they suffer from any PTSD issues. A yes answer can affect their chances at promotion. Go figure.

  • Brava, Karen. So well said!

  • I was going to gush about your writing again. And then I realized, that’s probably getting old.

    So…great topic, agree wholeheartedly, love NPR too (even when they exasperate), etc.

    (And the writing is top-notch.) Couldn’t resist.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I only wish you were an editor at O magazine or the New Yorker.

  • WandaV

    PLEASE keep this on the front headlines since NPR and CBS and Fox and CNN et. al., won’t.

    God bless you for your clear vision and voice.
    You rock.

    BTW – who WOULD Jesus bomb anyway?
    BRING THEM HOME – NOW!! [ahem, deep breath…]


    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thanks, hon.

  • Mike Morehouse

    Karen, as always no bs; no sensationalism; just great writing that challenges us; convicts us; and causes us to think and hopefully act.


  • Your words speak to my soul …
    I long for the type of journalism that called to me so long ago. Remember this story? ~ No matter what – I will not give in to sensationalism and the Lady Gaga-ism of pseudo-news.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thanks for providing the link, Gary. It’s a wonderful column that so clearly addresses this same issue. Blessings on you and your hard work. So proud of you.

  • This is sobering. I pretty much ignored the ridiculousness, but I’ve heard NOTHING about the suicides…

    Thank you for putting this out here…

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      The fact that you’ve heard nothing about these suicides only highlights the real problem, doesn’t it? That media isn’t doing it’s job. I bet you knox exactly what is going on with Lady Gaga, even if you don’t care.

  • Fred

    I appreciate very much your critique of the media. Your reference to 18 suicides a day is startling. Can you give a source.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Fred: If you click on the word combat above it will take you to the article about the VA’s look at this issue but here’s the link:

      There are several more sources out there to find the same information.
      Thanks for caring.

  • Journalists sliding down the slippery slope of idle dope have slithered into a shameful hope in no longer reflecting gravely and acting bravely.

  • Gloria

    Thanks for giving it to us straight and speaking up for those who are being forgotten.

  • If the journalism of today is the answer, what is the question? I maintain that we get exactly what we pay for in terms of the dollars or hours we spend. If the majority of readers here concur with your assessment of NPR’s choices, then the question follows “How many have let NPR know?” We are the most empowered people the world has known but exercise little of it. I’m 64 years old, and I have yet to meet one of my peers or any member of my extended family who ever bothered to write a single letter, either pro or con, re the Vietnam War. Postage was only 6 cents back then, and you’d think that over the span of 15 years most would have written multiple times, given the cost and the omnipresence of that war. So much for “of and by the people”.

    Here are some now old stats from Chuck Dean’s 1988-90 book “Nam Vet” in which he describes his journey to healing for self and help for other vets:

    *Of vets married before going to Vietnam, 38% were divorced within 6 months of returning.

    *Divorce rate for all Vietnam veterans is in the 90th percentile.

    *40-60% of all Vietnam veterans have persistent emotional adjustment problems.

    *Accidental death and suicide rate for Vietnam vets was (then) 33% above national average.

    *While 58K+ actually died in the war, over 150,000 had (as of 20 years ago) committed suicide.

    *500K had been arrested or incarcerated; between 100 and 200K were in prison or on parole.

    *D&A abuse problems ranged between 50 and 75%.

    *40% were unemployed and 25% earned less than $7K per year.

    From the current wars, we are now beginning to see them on the streets: young men self-medicating on more than marijuana and alcohol of yore. Their decline on meth is stunningly rapid.

    Recently, author Karl Marlantes was on public radio here to talk about his Vietnam novel “Matterhorn” now out in paperback. One statement was sobering. At a book signing recently a young couple came up. As he signed the book, the young wife started to cry. Her husband was shipping out again soon. Marlantes asked the young soldier, “Your second deployment?” “No, sir,” the soldier replied, “my seventh.”

    While somewhere around 80% of the names on the Wall were men not old enough to vote, I once took slight comfort in the ages of the KIA’s reported regularly in the paper: usually in the mid- to upper-20’s. No comfort, really. Maybe with only one tour under their belts, these later 20-somethings would do a little better upon return than the 19- or early-20’s vets of the Vietnam War. But with multiple tours for nearly all of them, I see nothing at all to be encouraged about.

    It’s mostly too late now, but I will suggest this in writing to the local newspaper editor (after I get my daughter’s car fixed today): in addition to name, age, rank and branch, hometown, unit and casualty info, I’d like to know this number for EVERY reported casualty: NUMBER OF DEPLOYMENTS.

    Thanks for the space.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thank you, again Roger. Appreciate all this worthy information. And you know I’ve written more than my share of letters, essays & emails, right?

      • I know you have, and thank you for every one!

  • Peg Willis

    “Today’s news is determined not by content and/or credibility, but by what everyone is talking about on Facebook or Twitter.”
    Very true. But very sad. I do my part by ignoring it. Maybe someone will notice that not all so-called Christians are so incredibly stupid. Maybe someone will begin to wonder, if this crap isn’t worth paying attention to, maybe there’s something else that is – like maybe real life. Maybe.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      That so many journalists referred to Camping’s small number of followers as “Christians believe…” as if we all believed Camping’s predictions. Sigh.

  • Thanks, Karen. Great work as usual.
    The military suicide rate is shocking for several reasons, the most obvious being that more troops are choosing to kill themselves than are being killed by the enemy. But what should be just as disturbing is that no one has any idea how many military family members (spouses, parents & kids) are also choosing to end their own lives. Those numbers aren’t even tracked, though those of us in the military community almost universally believe that number is even higher than the active duty number. Just last week my husband’s unit had one soldier – the father of a 4 month old – kill himself and two others attempt suicide. And, from where I sit, things seem to only be getting worse.
    I heard from an Army psychologist recently that upwards of 60% of the recent Army suicides were married soldiers. And @AF Roger, a Vietnam Vet/psychologist who is hard at work on this issue told me that the current suspicion is that about 700,000 Vietnam Vets have killed themselves. How heartbreaking is that?
    Still, our headlines are filled with psuedo raptures and stories about the winners of American Idol and Dancing With the Stars. It’s no wonder 92% of military families surveyed said they think that Americans don’t understand or appreciate their sacrifices.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias


      Thank you for alerting me. I appreciate you and your family so much. But I have the utmost respect for you as a woman who tackles the tough issues. I only have to look at the hits the story I wrote earlier this week rec’d — 15,000 — and look at the responses this piece is getting to highlight the gap that exists between America and her troops .. and their families.
      It is heartbreaking.
      When you can name troops and families and veterans by name, when you can recall the stories of their pain, then all this moves from just being statistics to being real pain.
      I know and have written of suicides among the spouses. The DOD doesn’t track it because frankly they don’t want to know about it and certainly don’t want the public to know about it.

      • Karen and Rebekah: Thank you both. I knew that the numbers I reported would be low because they are so old. They were just what I could get my hands on quickly. And they don’t include things like the numbers of vet parents who lost unborn children during pregnancy or the birth defects some were born with, the burdens born by the children and loved ones of veterans.

        On Monday, I will again have the honor of reading an original memorial poem at the Oregon Vietnam Veterans Memorial, my 13th year. In terms of evocative language and imagery, it will be the most powerful piece I’ve ever read there. It will be a great risk. But last Saturday as we prepared the beautiful grounds for this sacred event, I made my decision. I will go ahead. It’s not that the country runs the risk of forgetting the price we have asked our military families to bear. It’s that we by and large never knew and did not want to. We cannot forget what we do not know or see.

        If your 700,000 total is within even 6 digits of being accurate, we should not just take a brief time-out on Monday. The entire nation should spend the day in silence. Let us find a wall. And wail.

  • I was okay until the PTSD and suicide mention. Oh, miss Karen, you know, you know…

    How do we help? I don’t want another daughter to grow-up without her daddy.

    Golly, that’s all I have to say.


    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Oh, honey… I know. I know. You ask such an important question. I only wish I had an easy answer. But it’s not easy. None of it. The pain of war does not end when the bombing stops. You and I know that. So do so many other military families and our veterans.

  • Bill Ferrell

    Thank you for this commentary!!

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      You are welcome, Bill. Glad it spoke to you.

  • The number of suicides is absolutely appalling. Unable to grasp the devastation of these loses and to consider the families and the pain and suffering they bear each day is heartbreaking. May God help us .

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      As you know all too well, Mama.

  • rose blackwell

    Thank you Karin for keeping us informed.It just shows our goverment is not being honest with us.But then we all know that. In our paper today Fayetteville Observer page 5A small article- SENATORS TELL VA: REDUCE SUICIDES I did not know .But thanks to you I learn so much.We are in a sad state of mind in America……

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      We have so much learning still to do…

  • Very true and very much needing to be said, thanks. I wonder if even Christian over-reactions to ‘news’ stories like the one on Camping (and on Terry Jones), actually just buy into the lazy journalism that started the story in the first place. I blog and just couldn’t summon up the interest to post about Camping. Does huge Facebook, Twitter and blogging activity actually give more credibility to Camping & his ilk?