US media – caught in the headlights


In April 2004, a New York anchor, Peter Jennings for ABC’s World News Tonight, presented a three-hour documentary on Jesus and Paul: Word and Witness. My journalism students at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) were stunned that Christianity was getting such exposure on mainstream television.

My class for seniors on Race, Gender and Religion in the News was made up of close to a 50/50 mix of liberal leaning and conservative leaning students. Most liberal thinkers were offended. For want of a better argument, it seemed to them a breach of American church/state separation that Christianity be so favourably profiled. The conservative thinkers were amazed that what they perceived as liberal media would attempt a fair exploration of Christian religion without making it a caricature. It was these responses that evidenced to me the proceeding dethronement of fifty years of US, secular liberalism.

I was glad some of the students would not be pegged in either camp but handled the issue on its merits. They simply wanted to know: what was going on?

All agreed it was a new direction for commercial television. Yet it was no accident that it was Peter Jennings doing this, alone among the three major network news anchors to hire, for a short period until 2000, a specialist religion reporter. Perhaps his outsider perspective as a Canadian gave him a better view of the reality of Christian religion in ordinary American life.

The documentary hosted by Jennings, in Israel, was a cinematographer’s delight. But, the rambling script revealed the real challenge for journalism on American religion at this moment.

With one exception its many interviewed ‘experts’ were drawn from the margins of relevant Biblical scholarship. They seemed chosen by conforming to prevailing newsroom culture, rather than by the more objective criteria applicable to the field of study. And the audience, like my students, who admitted ignorance of the issues, received well-intentioned but dated and reduced populist notions of the integrity of the New Testament.

The problem of appropriate commentators on religion was magnified when NBC’s Tim Russert, the host of Meet the Press, and first among his peers, invited Reverends Al Sharpton, recent Democratic presidential nominee from Harlem, and Jerry Falwell, renowned leader of the Religious Right, to debate the nature of US Christian religion on his national Sunday morning show. It was predictably a bun fight, embarrassing to Russert and to journalism.

David Brookes, Jewish conservative commentator for the New York Times gave a response to this episode that equally stunned my class. With surprising empathy for US evangelicals he showed real knowledge of representative Christian leaders, who would best inform Americans on mainstream evangelical belief. He correctly named elderly Englishman John Stott ahead of Billy Graham as the ‘Pope’ of US evangelicalism.

My students wanted to know how was it possible that Brookes would be so respectful and so accurate in understanding the issues of a different religious community. I suggested that to make a conscious investment in understanding a religious tradition often leads to a respect for people who are sincere in other traditions, even if the conclusions differ or conflict.

Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City addressed this problem in 2002 when it offered a double degree graduate program in journalism and religion. The sea change came first with the storm of the September 11 religious terrorism. A reigning philosophy that disdains and lampoons ‘God talk’ had no way of computing the motivation of fundamentalists, nor of countering it. The inadequacy of this type of liberalism demanded a rethink. And helping the scholars to do this are journalists, closet Christians or religious minorities in the previous environment, now received grudging respect for their apparent expertise in making sense of religious issues.

In February this year at the Columbia J-School a conference was convened on the subject of religion reporting hosted by the Veritas Forum, a movement begun by Christian academics ten years ago at Harvard University. Ari Goldman, Dean of Students at the Journalism School and former religion reporter for the New York Times was a panellist. A keynote speaker was another NY Times star reporter and now Christian minister, John McCandlish Phillips.

As the rethink persists in mainstream academies of journalism it is also occurring with vigour in religious universities and monitored by Columbia J students and NYU’s

The second change, the re-election of George W. Bush, came like semi trailers on a freeway at night. And the media, still dazed by the lights, is responding to an apparently voracious appetite for stories on Christianity in the US. But, like Jennings’s documentary, with so little skill. For fifty years or more the subject was strangely regarded as irrelevant. The issue now is to address ignorance and clumsiness. And it’s not as if Christian belief ever waned in the US.

A commercial culture addicted to celebrities and controversy finds it hard to make the change with any integrity. Only Larry King of CNN has most consistently included the broad spectrum of US religious belief in his news commentary.

The public television culture of PBS, a similar viewing demographic to Australia’s ABC, persists in using secular historians as experts, without reference to religious history or theology to explain America’s present; a remarkable blind spot in a nation whose major journal of record, the New York Times, only a century ago bore the King James idioms of that generation’s largely Christian mindset. My class of 21-year-olds had never encountered their own religious history, and reading American journalism of previous centuries was for them a revelation of an American worldview that seemed more like visiting a foreign country. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Driving to the College, I listen to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, a drive-time news-in-depth program including a short compelling personal essay reflecting American life. In the past six months, I’ve discovered these now include reflections by Christians on living out their faith, and that’s also surprising. But sadly this comes as the most benign in a range of ideological directives from the new Bush appointed Republican Chairman of the board.

Coercion is counterproductive. Interest in religion seems natural to my students. When after a semester of investigating the McCarthy era, the Civil Rights era and the rise of women journalists, they had to write a feature story on how race, gender or religion is lived on campus over half chose to investigate religion. It suggests that religion is a perennial human issue, which begs the question why US journalism is only just now figuring that out.

On April 5, 2004, ABC aired a three-hour documentary hosted (and co-written) by Peter Jennings entitled ‘Jesus and Paul: Word and Witness’ .

ABC anchorman Peter Jennings discusses what moved him as he filmed a special on the life of Christ.

Columist David Brooks.

The Veritas Forum

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