God is My Co-Author

Media

Okay, maybe the sound of prayer issuing from a journalist�s mouth is not so bizarre � what reporter on deadline hasn�t beseeched a higher power? But this was different: in a bland khaki-colored room deep in the bowels of the Empire State Building, fifteen aspiring journalists sat in front of their laptops with their heads bowed. �Thank you, Lord, for loving journalism,� intoned the morning�s instructor, an AP reporter who would soon give a lesson on constructing leads. �Thank you, Lord, for cherishing words, for loving good, clear writing.�

They were all evangelical college students taking part in a month-long summer seminar of the World Journalism Institute, a J-school with a mission to prepare young evangelicals to enter the mainstream media universe.

The students, here in New York from as far away as Lookout Mountain, Georgia (population: 1,581) and schools like Vision Bible College in Marsing, Idaho, are mostly in their early twenties, clean cut, earnest, and deeply religious. They laugh at the notion that they are a cadre of religious zealots being trained to infiltrate the newsroom and violate the sacred doctrine of dispassionate, objective journalism. Yet the students themselves aren�t entirely clear just how the journalistic and spiritual parts of their identity fit together. Are they evangelical journalists, or just journalists who happen to be evangelicals?

Robert Case II, who directs the program, has his own answers to these questions. A former philosophy teacher at Central Washington University, in 1997 he was on the board of God�s World Publications, a publisher of evangelical newsletters and books, and helped conceive of, as he puts it, �a boot camp for aspiring journalists of faith.� The institute opened in 1999, and the next year Case moved from Washington State to Asheville, North Carolina, to run it.

Case is a charismatic man with a football player�s neck and gray hair closely buzzed, and was dressed, the two times I saw him, in red, white, and blue suspenders and shiny black and white wing-tips. He doesn�t come off as particularly fanatical, and his initial objective for the institute does not sound radical.

He thinks evangelicals have closed themselves into what he calls a �ghetto� of their own making. They have fled mainstream culture rather than engage it. But if evangelicals expect to be depicted fairly and fully by the elite media, Case says, they need to get their hands dirty and play a role in the institutions that define the larger culture. This doesn�t mean he wants journalism to be done differently. He just wants enough evangelicals to be at places like The New York Times and The Washington Post so that reporters begin to see them as living, breathing people and not backward bible-thumpers.

�The homosexuals are our role model in this,� Case says. �They had the same problems we do twenty, twenty-five years ago � a despised minority hiding in the closet, and all the stories in the media looked to point out their weaknesses. They overcame this by integrating into the mainstream.�

Case�s other, longer-term objective is, by his own admission, more controversial. It is to bring �an evangelical or biblical perspective to the newsroom.� Case thinks that evangelicals, seeing the world as they do through the ethical and moral lens of religion, could make much-needed adjustments to journalism�s focus. The institute was not necessary fifty years ago, he says, when �Judeo-Christian values were regnant in America and something like Roe v. Wade would never have become an issue.� But now that we live in a �postmodern, post-Christian world,� Case says, newsrooms are once again in need of a moral compass. He doesn�t want to dismantle the principles of good journalism, which, he says, are �eternal.� He doesn�t want to evangelize. He just wants the �religious aspect of life� to be articulated in stories, and for issues like abortion or gay marriage to be framed in a way that allows for more than just a secular perspective. It boils down to this: �Most of the elite media are tone deaf to religious concerns,� Case says. �They just don�t see the value to any issue that has a flavor of religion. A secularist will always ignore the religious side of life and way of thinking. Evangelicals won�t.�

Case insists that his vision doesn�t involve trampling on journalistic objectivity. And the content of his courses reinforces this. The two times I visited the seminar I saw standard J-school instruction, all nut graphs and inverted pyramids. I heard no talk of using journalism as a tool for evangelical propaganda.

But once I spoke with the students, it became clear that the divide � between the imperatives of their faith and those of their chosen profession � was much blurrier for them than Case�s vision assumes. One afternoon, over a lunch of bologna slices on hamburger buns with ketchup, four students told me how journalism was a �calling� for them. As Adam Belz, a blond twenty-year-old who attends Covenant College in Georgia, put it, �God is the originator of reality, so knowledge of him is knowledge of reality. If I look to God as the source of truth, that helps me in my profession.�

All acknowledged similar motivations for choosing journalism. But they also insisted that, more than anything else, it was the love of writing that had made them want to be reporters. And then I asked what they would do when, in the course of their reporting, they met someone who was impoverished or hungry or in mourning. Would they be able to keep from bringing Christ to this person? This was a tough one. They debated for a few minutes. But the conclusion was unanimous. �All the teachers tell us to not mix faith and work, not to use your position to tell everyone about Christ,� said Lauren Jones, twenty, a journalism major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. �But if we care about people, have a burden in our heart for them, we cannot hold in truth which is within us.�

Belz jumped in: �If salvation and heaven and hell are at stake,� he said, �it�s going to be necessary for me to say something.�

Case would not be happy to hear his students sounding like missionaries. Earlier this year, Jack Kelley, the disgraced USA Today reporter, brought some unwanted attention to the World Journalism Institute that made its mission look more fanatical than Case would like it to appear. Kelley, a Pulitzer finalist in 2002 for coverage of international terrorism, was arguably the highest-profile evangelical journalist in the country. �I feel God�s pleasure when I write and report,� Kelley was quoted as saying in the May 2001 issue of Connection Magazine, an evangelical publication. �It isn�t because of the glory, but because God has called me to proclaim truth.� He was slated to speak at a luncheon during the summer seminar this year. But when his editors at USA Today discovered that he had fabricated more than a dozen stories during the past ten years, Case told Kelley he could still speak if he used the occasion to explain his misdeeds. Kelley declined and Case removed him from the list of speakers. In the meantime, through the magic of Google, many bloggers looking for information on Kelley found their way to the institute�s Web site and its mission statement, written six years ago by Case.

The sprawling, angry statement, peppered with biblical citations gave the impression, Case now says, �that we wanted to create a theocracy in the newsroom.� A typical line: �There was a time when the major newspapers of this country reflected the truth of God�s existence. But because we Christians did not fight for God in the newsrooms, these cultural institutions went the way of the flesh.�

Case says he is �ashamed� of the mission statement�s militant tone. It cost him a few of his instructors and guest speakers, whose connection to the institute, and thus the mission statement, circulated on the Internet. People like David Cho at The Washington Post, Rod Dreher at The Dallas Morning News, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty at NPR. Many wanted nothing to do with WJI anymore, Case says. Some just wanted their names removed from the public list. Case immediately replaced the mission statement with a more benign version that he now says should have been there all along.

But this raises the question: What kind of journalists does Robert Case really want to produce? Evangelical crusaders or quality reporters indistinguishable from any other? There is one man Case raises up as a shining example for his students to emulate: John McCandlish Phillips. To younger journalists, Phillips�s name might not ring a bell, but for the eighteen years he worked as a reporter for The New York Times, from 1955 to 1973, he was considered one of its very best writers. Gay Talese, who was at the Times during the same period, has said of him, �There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.�

He also was, and still is, a devout evangelical who kept a Bible on his desk at the Times �as a statement of who I was and what I believed,� he says. He doesn�t like the term Christian journalist. He sees himself rather as a journalist who happens to be Christian. �You are not out on a campaign for a conversion of souls; you are out on a very direct campaign to get information for an organ of public knowledge,� Phillips told me.

His work at the Times was distinguished by a fine, almost sensual attention to detail that was the envy of other journalists. He wrote features that depicted ordinary people with the richness of Technicolor � a Brooklyn high-school principal who was also a ragtime piano player, a homeless man and his social life at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and, famously, a Jewish boy from Queens who became an American Nazi and a Ku Klux Klansman. But in the newsroom, Phillips largely kept his distance from fellow reporters, staying clear of the gambling and heavy drinking that engaged some of his colleagues after work. He says it�s an �absurdity� to think there should be any contradiction between being both an evangelical and a professional journalist. �I found them rather well coordinated,� he says.

His belief played a role in his work only insofar as it provided him with God as a �helper� as he searched out facts. �Exercising faith in a living being who cares is not an exercise in futility,� Phillips says. �God simply is with those who repose their trust in him. I was given advantages in reporting all the time that I could not have had apart from a living trust in the living God. I would go to a news scene. There would be fourteen other reporters. It would be a confusing scene, hard to know your way through it, who was who. Again and again and again, I would come back with more story than other reporters. Yes, I was acutely alert, but I was also given advantages.�

Phillips teaches at the institute for free, as opposed to the $250 an hour most instructors receive. He doesn�t talk to students about theology. Rather, he tells them what books to read, tries to inspire them about the newspaper life, challenges them to be keen observers of the world � advice one could imagine hearing from any legendary journalist.

Phillips typifies the first half of Case�s vision, a gifted reporter sustained by his relationship with God. Ultimately, though, the kind of journalist the institute strives to produce might be found somewhere between the staid model Phillips presents and the religious idealism of the students. First, endeavor to be extraordinary journalists, Case insists to his charges. Then, he tells them, you will have earned the right to bring your evangelical perspective into the newsroom, and offer an alternative to the godless and cynical atmosphere that he and most evangelicals believe predominates in the press.

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