Can Journalists Get Religion?

How many divisions does the pope have? Stalin’s the one who asked, but reporters would have shared his scorn. The press’s rule of thumb was this: A lot of churchgoers read the paper, and there’s no need to risk offending them. So give them their harmless folklore, while the hounds of journalism chase serious matters.

Pope John Paul II and the liberation of Poland challenged this disdain for the power of religion to shape news. The Branch Davidians challenged it. The end of the cold war challenged it, as ideological states broke into ethnic nations distinguished by their faiths. The rise of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson found too many editors without a clue.

Now journalism has set out to undo its ignorance. The summer ’93 issue of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation journal chose the theme “God in the newsroom.” The Freedom Foundation First Amendment Center released a study called Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media. The Columbia Journalism Review, the American Journalism Review, and Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists, have all recently examined coverage of religious stories.

And in Evanston Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and the adjacent Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary are jointly establishing the Center for Religion and the News Media. The center will serve three general functions: as (1) “a national information service on religion”; (2) “a place for creative dialogue . . . between religious leaders and media professionals”; and (3) an opportunity for each school’s students to enroll in the other’s courses.

The first new course open to both student bodies was “Religion and Public Issues,” offered last spring. The students formed groups that examined news stories for their religious side. To the bewilderment of Medill professor Robert McClory (a former priest who’s also a Reader staff writer), one group analyzed the police sweeps at the CHA. “I could not for the life of me think of any religious dimensions to the CHA sweeps,” says McClory. But the students “got into a discussion of where the churches were, and whether they were promoting the sweeps or not. You get into questions of rights and property and justice–which have a religious dimension.”

The principal architect of the Garrett-Medill center is Garrett alumnus Roy Larson. A former religion editor at the Sun-Times who’s now retiring as publisher of the Community Renewal Society’s Chicago Reporter and Catalyst, Larson’s been designing the program since late last year. We asked him what its value will be to religious leaders.

“I just don’t think they can function well if they don’t understand the dynamics of the society in which they’re trying to function,” Larson said. “There’s a good biblical grounding for this–the old scriptural notion that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. You can’t minister to a world you don’t understand and don’t love. I think for many religious leaders the world of the media is a kind of intimidating world, a kind of hostile world, a world in which they do not feel at home. As a result I think religion doesn’t get the kind of sophisticated, in-depth coverage it should. Of course we’re not talking in the parochial sense, the churchy sense, but religion as a dimension of every story. Bosnia, Kevorkian, biomedical ethics–there’s a religious dimension, and often it’s not dealt with. And if it’s dealt with it’s dealt with in caricature and stereotypes.”

We thought of the futile efforts of various clergy opposed to casino gambling in Chicago to be perceived by the media as anything more than naive do-gooders. And we wondered if journalism would rise to the level of theological discussion or if theology would dumb itself down for mass consumption. “I’ve always hated the kind of theology where theologians write for other theologians, just as modern poetry is bedeviled by poets who write for a small coterie of other poets,” Larson responded. “Theology was never meant to be precious.”

We asked him to nominate a story that has suffered from an underreported religious dimension. The Balkan wars, he said, and then digressed.

“To me, about the best journalist anywhere these days is Serge Schmemann, who covered the Moscow bureau for the New York Times the usual number of years. If you go back and look at his stuff you just know this is the work of a man who is not just a good journalist but someone who knows the culture and society of the world he’s writing about. It’s no accident that Schmemann’s father was the distinguished dean of Saint Vladimir’s Theological Seminary–Russian Orthodox–in New York. There’s a depth and texture in his stories because he understands the dynamics of that culture. It’s in his bones.

“But in the former Yugoslavia,” Larson went on, “you have the three major religions contending there. And if I were back doing the beat one of the things I would be trying to find out is if there’s anything going on that in any way resembles the religious movement led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. Are there any religious people in any of the religious traditions standing over and against their own culture and calling it to task? The old biblical notion of prophecy I don’t think is very well understood. It’s not forecasting the future. It’s speaking over and against the conventional wisdom. It’s revealing what has been hidden.”

Religious people engaged in prophecy tend to be overlooked unless they’re gunned down in Central America. Could part of the problem be that what they’re doing is what journalists are supposed to be doing too? J-school students who trace their roots only to colonial publisher John Peter Zenger might learn from seminarians that their task is immemorial.

Loss of Loss of Innocence

When did America lose its innocence? In 1959? There’s a piece in the Village Voice on Robert Redford’s new movie, Quiz Show, and according to Redford, the scandals that year were “the beginning of the erosion of our public trust.”

In his review Roger Ebert agreed. “Charles Van Doren lied on a quiz show, and then the standards that created that quiz show went on to infect ever-widening circles, until Oliver North could lie to Congress, and then run for it.”

If that’s when innocence began to rot, it rotted slowly. A shrewd article in the latest American Journalism Review examines the Cuban missile “crisis” of 1962. It argues that Kennedy had political reasons to exaggerate the threat the Soviet missiles posed. JFK scammed us all, and an innocent press corps went along.

But soon Vietnam cost America the last of its precious innocence. Or was it Watergate? Or was it just last week when the last pure rite, the World Series, died?

But hold on. There’s no way America could have emerged innocent from World War II. Or from the Depression or Teapot Dome. Or the flu epidemic of 1918. And what was the Civil War if not national innocence drawn and quartered?

When Ronald Reagan ran for president on a promise to restore lost innocence, he must have had something more exalted in mind than the time when a white man could trust his quiz show.

Isn’t the idea that the people began to lose their innocence in 1959 innocent as can be? Perhaps the remarkable thing about American innocence is the people’s ability to resurrect it in order to keep losing it over and over again.

We turned to Studs Terkel seeking answers. Being 82 now, Terkel can take the long view of American innocence. If there was a moment when it vanished he’d have noticed.

“We lost it long long ago, for Chrissake,” Terkel bellowed. “We lost it when Andrew Jackson was honored. You talk to an American Indian–Ramona Bennett with the Puyallup tribe, and her grandmother telling her, great-grandmother telling her, ‘There they come along, the cavalry, with their Winchester in one hand, Bible in the other, and the Indian women holding a shawl over their kids’ faces before the guns start coming at them.’ Andrew Jackson. And so our innocence was lost long ago! We never began in innocence! Redford’s a nice guy, but he’s way off.”

Ignorance, however–that there’s plenty of. It’s a hot commodity, not least because it looks a lot like innocence. “That’s the whole point of it too,” Terkel mused. “‘I don’t know history. So how can I be guilty?’

“You see, we’re also living in a time of antihistory. It’s as though we’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease. There is no past. We have the sound bites that come on–15 seconds of wisdom–and then it’s forgotten. Kids are born, without any fault of their own, with no sense of past. There isn’t any past. The kid says, ‘I wasn’t born yesterday,’ and I say, ‘You weren’t. You were born this morning.’ Because there is no yesterday. That’s part of the horror of our day.”

He went on, “We’re talking now about black kids who put down other kids who are bright. They say, ‘You want to be like whitey?’ That’s probably true too to some extent. But it’s us! ‘Egghead!’ You know, for years. That’s part of it too. As far as innocence goes, Jesus! When were we innocent?”

But this was just one man’s opinion, and he hadn’t seen Redford’s movie. Others might say innocence died with Look Who’s Talking Too, clearly the work of cynics.

News Bites

From our notebook:

The Village Voice shows signs of sinking in froth under editor Karen Durbin. The Redford issue sports a front page that’s one big pinup of the dimply actor-director. And the article itself, by J. Hoberman, hits this bottom: “Wearing a snug T-shirt and chinos (the previous interviewer was with The Ladies Home Journal), he matches the decor of his relaxed, haute Navajo offices at Radio City.”

Roy Larson’s last day as publisher of the Chicago Reporter and Catalyst is October 1. Each magazine’s editor–Laura Washington and Linda Lenz respectively–will then take on publishing duties as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.