WJI Times Observer
Case in Point column
Last weekend (12/8) Kathy and I went to a Christmas party at a friend’s apartment here in New York. The party was for Christian journalists and media types here in the Big Apple. During the evening, I was in a conversation with a friend at the party and he said something to the effect that isn’t it true that WJI is known to have Republican Party leanings? The comment was innocent and the context was evangelical engagement in cultural affairs. (We were talking about the National Association of Evangelicals and its “Call to Civic Responsibility,” which we agreed was a fine statement of core values.) My friend’s comment about WJI and the Republican Party was made with the implication that the institute’s presumed conservative views were a negative factor in Christian journalism circles and that being associated with WJI entailed baggage that many Christian journalists didn’t want to carry.
As I thought about our conversation and that particular sentiment expressed, I thought it was misled since the institute has no political litmus test for speakers, teachers or students. Yes, we do have a corporate connection to World magazine (a conservative magazine of news and opinion), and we do have a rather forthright statement of faith, and I have conservative political convictions. However, the institute is not a worldview academy in the strict sense nor is it a school of opinion or advocacy journalism. Rather, we attempt to teach basic journalism practices in the pursuit of investigative, accurate, verifiable and fair stories that are suitable and prized in the mainstream, supposedly non-partisan press.
As I thought about our conversation more, I began to think that something needed to be said about the intellectual atmosphere that gives credence to a statement that would mark a purposefully Christian institution like the World Journalism Institute as something to be shunned or at least associated with privately in the Christian journalism community.
Let me explain: The institute has been holding courses since 1999 and we were working on it a year before that. During that time we have had numerous Christian journalists working in the major mainstream media newsrooms decline to teach or even speak to our students, or if they did participate, they wanted their presence to be private - unlisted on our website. The reason always given for this attitude is professional – the risk in being associated with either a Christian journalistic organization or the risk involved in being associated with the World Journalism Institute. I have remarked elsewhere of my early heavy-handed and sharp language concerning the intersection of Christianity and the calling of journalism so I bear some blame for the skittishness of some journalists about WJI. However, those words are years in the past and I have learned a bunch about the culture and practice of American journalism since then. But even if I had not learned anything, the hesitancy of so many journalists who are Christian and who have been placed in commanding newsrooms in the country is hard to appreciate.
I have yet to be told by a Christian journalist in a major market newsroom that they are ashamed to be associated with a particular newsroom because it is staffed by anti-Christian columnists, editors or publishers. Survey after survey shows that major metro and national newsrooms are dominated by a left-leaning, anti-religious bias. The bias may be uncoordinated, but as Aaron Wildavsky (no evangelical!) argued over 20 years ago, the egalitarian, anti-religious bias is pervasive in national media newsrooms. Indeed, at wonderful parties like I attended last weekend, those Christians who labor in such anti-Christian workplaces are extolled, congratulated and embraced – even as they hunker down in the tall grass when it comes to publicly identifying themselves as Christian journalists. I was once told by a well-known journalist that it wasn’t Jesus that ashamed her, but my interpretation of Jesus that ashamed her. That’s fair, but I haven’t seen her name associated with any other purposefully Christian journalistic organization or event for years.
To be fair, some of these Christian journalists at the elite media have been told to stay away from Christian organizations for fear of being labeled “biased.” And I have seen the nasty harassment that can happen to Christian journalists in national media organizations once they are known as believers in Jesus. So the danger is real. I understand that other minority journalists in their newsrooms have not been so shackled in participation in outside events.
I appreciate prudence and professional delicacy and give room for that. However, at a certain point, well-placed Christian journalists have an obligation to publicly proclaim their loyalty to Jesus and be prepared to mentor and encourage younger journalists on their way up the professional and slippery journalistic ladder. At some point, these journalists need to suck it up and trust the sovereignty of a God they privately proclaim to worship.
For years, I have found it ironic that free-thinking journalists who have a profound problem with my evangelical/Calvinist worldview and who call me a “theocrat,” a “Christianist,” a “dominationist,” a “loony from the boonies,” just to name a few, have come to our courses and spoken to our students in a gracious, winsome and provocative manner. If they had a problem with publicly identifying with us as a “WJI speaker,” I haven’t known about it. I have wondered what their colleagues think about their anthropological visit to the evangelical zoo known as the World Journalism Institute.
Our teachers and speakers are the best in the business and our students get a remarkable education and exposure to some of the best reporters and writers in America. Our program is not severely diminished by the refusal of certain Christian journalists to teach or speak. The shame is that both we and those journalists could be better if they came out of the tall grass.