On The Religion Beat In The News Media

Happy Trails, Dave!

The first time my parents ever saw my name in print after I came to Washington, D.C., in l974 was in a front-page story in the Bethlehem (Pa.) Globe Times, their local evening newspaper. It was a criticism of the recently enacted “clemency program” for Vietnam War resisters which had been implemented by President Gerald Ford.

I was working for the United Church of Christ at that time and had been thrown into the fray over whether this program was a reasonable response to the needs of tens of thousands of Vietnam-era opponents of the war. Frankly, I thought it fell far short of the complete pardon given by Ford to his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace a few weeks earlier.

That paper used the wire services of United Press International, at that time a very viable alternative to the Associated Press. The author of that piece was David E. Anderson, a reporter who had as his beat, not the White House or the Supreme Court, but a catch-all called “social issues.” It seemed that anything controversial was a “social issue.”

Dave seemed to like my quotes a great deal, and for many years I became a regular source of “print bites” I guess that’s the print equivalent of broadcast “sound bites.” When his stories ran, other newspapers and radio stations would see my name and call me for more comments. You might say Dave Anderson “created” me as a media presence. Some people are probably happier about that than others.

I recently had a chance to see Dave at a going-away party sponsored by his current employer, the Religion News Service. He has been the editor of this important source of news on the religion front for the past seven years, after serving an earlier stint there as the service’s Washington correspondent. (He was also the “religion” beat journalist for United Press International when that wire service decided to cover the subject as more than an adjunct to social conflict.)

Dave will still be doing some writing for RNS, but he is moving with his family to Plentywood, Mont., as demonstrated by a small pin on a large map of the United States displayed at his reception. Plentywood, pop. 2,061, is a tiny outpost of civilization in the midst of farms and ranches in the northeastern corner of Montana just south of the Canadian border. Its major claim to fame (other than Dave’s imminent arrival) is that it was once a stop on the Outlaw Trail.

A very large number of Dave’s friends and colleagues showed up at the reception. In talking to many of them, I heard echoes of the same compliment: “Dave was a seminal figure in creating the idea that you could have a full-time job covering religion.” Indeed, it is not only wire services that have religion reporters now, but all major newspapers and plenty of medium and small papers do as well.

What’s also so fascinating to me is that many journalists now spend much of their career in the realm of the spiritual and really enjoy it. Folks like former New York Times religion writer Gustav Niebuhr, current Washington Post religion writer Bill Broadway and the Associated Press’s Dick Ostling were at the reception. Bob Abernethy and Kim Lawton of PBS’s “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” were there as well.

The Religion News Service itself now has a stable of full-time writers, as well as correspondents and stringers around the world. RNS reporters Adelle Banks and Kevin Eckstrom are regulars on our media contact list. Mark O’Keefe, the new chief honcho at RNS, is someone I’ve been speaking to for years, most recently when he was a reporter for Newhouse News Service (and before that as religion writer for the Portland Oregonian and the Virginian-Pilot).

Obviously, many of these women and men don’t write primarily about separation of church and state, but we talk to them when they do. And their broad background in religion gives them a tremendous leg up on other journalists who just take a skinny dip in the spiritual waters when an assignment desk somewhere gets desperate to cover some religious angle.

It is a good idea when media outlets, print or electronic, are willing to give one or more of their employees an opportunity to get an in-depth understanding of the role of religion in American life. Many of these journalists have also done fine pieces on humanism and atheism as well, as those philosophies make profound critiques of the religious impulse.

As I was about to leave the reception, I spoke with Dave again that evening. He commented that in packing up his stuff for the move, he came across a picture someone had taken of him interviewing me at a big Washington, D.C., rally to oppose the return of military conscription back in l979. Ironically, I had just found the same photo in trying to sort out some of my stuff (which was accumulating so fast we were at risk of having to move to Montana just because we wouldn’t have had any space to sleep).

Almost simultaneously, Dave and I uttered the same words: “We sure had more hair then.”

I wish Dave and his family the best as they head west. I hope we can stay in touch. And I hope he sends me a picture of him milking a cow. Then I’ll know there really are “second acts” in American life.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.