Religion In The News - Spring 1999

Religion on the Small Screen

By Andrew Walsh

Fretting over how and how much to cover religion is a time-honored journalistic pastime. And during the 1990s, an in-house consensus has developed that readers and viewers want both more and better coverage of the ways in which religion shapes American life and defines its increasing diversity.

On the print side, that’s meant bigger investments, with more reporters and editors assigned to the beat, scores of new sections that feature "faith & values" and plumb the varied depths of "spirituality," and, sometimes, even a greater commitment to put religion stories out front, on page one, or on the cover.

In broadcast journalism, the same concerns have been registered, but there’s been less movement. It’s not that television and radio journalists don’t cover the religious dimensions of the news; of course, they do. Archives are full of good coverage of papal trips, the scandals of the televangelists, and other Big Event stories.

But broadcast outfits work with smaller staffs, fewer specialists of any kind, and (unless you’re CNN or MSNBC) less "space" for stories of all sorts. Budgets are also far tighter than they once were, especially in the network news departments.

A suggestive comparison: According to the Religion Newswriters Association, there are more than 100 journalists assigned full-time to cover religion for newspapers and magazines. An additional 150 or so have substantial part-time assignments in the field. In all of national broadcast journalism, there are two full-time reporters (one at ABC News and one at National Public Radio). Perhaps five local television stations have reporters assigned chiefly to cover religion.

It’s this disparity--and the small volume of savvy religion coverage that is its unavoidable result--that has produced "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," a half-hour newscast focused exclusively on reporting developments in religion and ethics, which is now mid-way through its second season on the Public Broadcasting System.

The program, which is now broadcast on 190 stations nationwide, is the brainchild of veteran NBC correspondent Robert Abernethy. It is produced for PBS by WNET in New York and wholly funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the nation’s largest foundation, which has strong commitments to both improving public understanding of religion and supporting religious endeavors.

"Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" is a serious and substantial venture that reflects the mainstream network roots and news sense of its creators, Abernethy and Gerry Solomon, the New York-based executive producer who has extensive experience as a network news producer. As a news program, it’s a 1990s mixture of PBS’s "News Hour" (a news summary, round-table discussions, relatively lengthy and analytical reports) and the anchor-driven network nightly news shows of the 1960s through the 1980s.

The show stands or falls on Abernethy, whose style is avuncular and who radiates a blend of curiosity, knowledgability, and professional skepticism. Not a bad formula for religion reporting. He also brings a palpable love for word play and a wry touch. The program, for example, opened its second season in September with a fairly hard-hitting story on Champions for Christ, an aggressive evangelical organization for athletes, which has been the subject of complaints by NFL franchises. Abernethy closed the show with a puckish verbal setup about religion and baseball that faded into a clip of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago warbling a solo version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

The producers of "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" presume not only that religious diversity is a good thing but also that viewers are curious about the religious beliefs and practices of others, an insight that other American journalists are still, by and large, struggling to assimilate.

Regular viewers of "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" are exposed to the endless variety of human belief and practice. A typical show from the first season offered reports on religion and sports, assisted suicide, the 50th anniversary of Washington, D.C.’s non-denominational and socially activist Church of the Savior, and the Mexican Catholic celebration of the Day of the Dead. "From the very beginning we wanted to be a news program covering all religions, all approaches to spirituality, with no preaching or televangelism," Abernethy said in an interview.

This pluralist approach, which is actually the most typical one taken by mainstream journalists covering religion in the United States, yields a broadcast that often does a better job with religion than with ethics. Religion coverage hops sure-footedly from issue story to profile to feature on a particular practice or ritual. It’s interesting to zip from a portrait of a Trappist abbot in South Carolina to an explanation of Ramadan to a report on Promise Keepers.

But the pluralist perspective works considerably less comfortably when dealing with ethics, where relativism, or at least multiple viewpoints and the clash of different values, can blunt the force of ethical and moral discussions. The program works gamely to address a wide range of ethical dilemmas: from the struggle to ban landmines to physician-assisted suicide to issues raised by new fertility technologies and the reproductive process. But other than announcing the existence of a dilemma, it’s hard to get traction in the pluralist mode. After all, what one person sees as a moral disaster may be another’s cherished liberty.

Coverage of the Clinton scandals, which occupied considerable air time on the program last year, mostly in news briefs and panel discussions, most often circled around the question, "When will it end?" Typical of the genre was a glum exchange last August between Abernethy and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. Speaking a few days before the president’s famous non-apology, neither Abernethy nor Dionne could see any way out of the stalemate, on either the political or moral fronts. While not inaccurate, it wasn’t a very insightful discussion. What’s needed is a little more expertise. In general, the program is light on the kind of academic input that could raise the level of discourse and insight appreciably.

At many other moments, however, the reports on "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" take spectacular advantage of the emotional and narrative possiblities of television. A particularly outstanding three-part series last summer followed a middle-aged videotape editor for CNN on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Reported by Anisa Mehdi, herself a Muslim, and a Muslim camera crew (the all-Muslim effort made the piece possible, since non-Muslims are not allowed to approach Mecca), the piece tracked Abdul Alim Mubarak from Maplewood, New Jersey to Mecca and back.

The pieces placed Mubarak, an engaging, sincere, and ultimately wonder-struck pilgrim, at the center of the spectacular rituals of the hadj with more than two million fellow Muslims in Islam’s holy city. Despite the awe-inspiring scope of the scene in Mecca, with hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously at worship in vast sacred spaces, perhaps the most illuminating scene came as Mubarak walked around his Maplewood neighborhood talking quietly and movingly about the impact of the hadj.

The program can also rise to the occasion when covering complex news stories. } I say this with confidence based on "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly’s" coverage of the complicated dispute now taking place in the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, a situation that I know at first hand. News Editor Kim Lawton’s report in the July 10 edition of the program presented the complex story, which has not received extensive press coverage, with an even and discerning hand. Interviews with major players, including Archbishop Spyridon George and his major critics, conveyed the central disputes and revealed a lot about both the poisoned atmosphere and the personalities of the players. You couldn’t ask for more from a single dispatch.

A lot of energy goes into the program’s coverage of important religious festivals, feasts, fasts, and holidays. So far in the series there have been significant pieces on Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Buddhist, Jewish, Bahai, Hindu, and Muslim celebrations, with events like Kwanza, National Bible Week, Halloween, and the Day of Prayer for Oppressed Persons thrown in for good measure. These are clearly popular pieces, with Abernethy repeatedly mentioning on air that viewers ask for more. Here again, the visual impact of good television upgrades what is otherwise one of the oldest standbys of religion journalism, the moment when every religion reporter sits at the keyboard and writes, "Today, millions of Xs all over the world celebrated Y...."

This taste for the exotic is reflected in other ways. In the first 69 shows, mainline Protestants were the focus of only four reports and white Evangelicals six. By contrast, there were six segments on Buddhism, 11 on Catholicism, seven on Islam, 20 on Judaism, and five on African-American churches.

The program’s anthropological/reportorial view of religion also reflects another not wholly inspiring journalistic tradition: a tendency to allow subjects to tell their own stories relatively free from the comments and criticisms of others.

A story, for example, on the large number of Jews practicing Buddhism carried only the faintest sense of how violently conversion is criticized by some other Jews. The story in the February 28, 1998 program focused on Roshi Glassman, a Zen abbot in California who converted to Buddhism in the early 1970s, but still retains strong contacts with Judaism. Chief Correspondent Maureen Bunyan reported that 30 percent of American Buddhists are Jews who practice "Buddhaism," apparently feeling comfortable practicing both religions and not seeing themselves as abandoning Judaism. But the reporter did not think it necessary to move outside the circle of those who deal calmly with both religions for comment. The result was a kind of pulled punch.

In a report last August on the Angel of Hope Church, a recently founded Disciples of Christ congregation in Forth Worth with gay and straight co-pastors, reporter Judy Valente focused almost entirely on depicting the worship and views of members, with very little commentary from outsiders. The extent of explicit criticism was limited to one Texas Disciples of Christ pastor reading in a low key voice a few verses from II Corinthians that condemn homosexuality.

Even a story on the Shroud of Turin, the alleged burial cloth of Christ that was displayed again in Italy last year, gave far more time to believers than to skeptics. "Modern science and faith continue to collide in the search for truth," Mary Alice Williams intoned at the beginning of the report, which turned out to be largely an interview with former skeptic Ian Wilson, who had just published The Blood and the Shroud, a book that argues for the shroud’s authenticity.

A report on "the Passover Seder from a Woman’s Perspective" provided only the perspectives of Jewish women who are reshaping ritual and theology to emphasize the full equality of women. Again, that’s an important story, but not one that illustrated clearly the degree of controversy involved.

But not all groups merit the right to tell their own story their own way. A piece by Paul Miller that aired on December 5, 1997, opened with a long shot of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon presiding over one of his trademark mass weddings of Moon-matched brides and grooms. Virtually the first words out of Miller’s mouth dealt with the rapid shrinkage of the Unification Church’s membership in America (to a level perhaps as low as 3,000, in contrast to the Church’s claims of 50,000). Miller is perhaps the program’s most consistently "hard news" reporter, and the piece on Moon and the Unification Church was perfectly above board. But it suggests that there are still some designated bad guys in "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly"’s cosmology. Foremost among these are intolerant governments and bad corporations.

Since debuting over the past year and a half, the program has clearly built up a head of steam. It has evolved technically, adopting a much-improved new logo, abandoning a conference table for a more typical anchor desk, and structuring its programs to include slightly fewer major stories each week One of the real pleasures of watching the program involves savoring a skillful piece of reporting and editing that’s given five to eight minutes to make its point.

Some skeptics think the program reflects a kind of mainline Protestant bias that’s well in tune with the ethos of the Lilly Endowment that funds its operation. Not, to be sure, in the old Time magazine style of lavishing attention on every Presbyterian or Episcopalian in sight, but rather by producing reports seemingly tailored for the consumption of tolerant, curious Mainliners. But it’s hard to see a better, broader vantage point from which to scan the horizon.

Others have wondered whether it’s really an advance to have a program devoted solely to religion and related news. But in a television world full of cable channels devoted to cooking or wild animals and a schedule full of "news magazines" devoted to sports and country music, it seems churlish to complain about a "religion news ghetto."

So "Religion and Ethics News-weekly" is out there on 190 stations doing, if not exactly the Lord’s work, a pretty good job. It’s biggest problem may be finding a favorable place on the schedules of the nation’s local public television stations. In my hometown the program is broadcast on Tuesdays at 11:30 p.m.: Late Night with Bob.

Those responsible for the show would like it to reach that educated, influential segment of the American market who watch the "News Hour" and "Masterpiece Theater" and listen to "All Things Considered"--what counts as the American intelligensia, the "thought leaders." Clearly, the powers-that-be in local public television don’t think this subject matter is ready for that audience’s prime time. But the program is there and those interested in religion and the news can find it.

[ Religion In The News
   Vol. 2, No. 1 - Spring 1999 ]