Journalism

Russian Roulette

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot point blank in the head with a pistol in the elevator outside her apartment last October. The gun was placed by her side, indicating yet another contract killing. Traveling to Russia immediately following her murder, I spoke with Politkovskaya’s friends, as well as high-level Western diplomats, who describe a pernicious cycle: Independent media is essential to fight corruption that is saturating government, security forces, and courts. But without clean government, security forces, and courts, there is no protection for independent journalists. Politkovskaya was the 12th reporter murdered since 2000.

Politkovskaya was considered untouchable. She had received the 2005 Civil Courage Prize, the 2004 Olof Palme Prize, the 2002 Courage in Journalism Award, the 2000 Golden Pen Award from the Russian Union of Journalists, as well as prizes from the Overseas Press Club of America, Amnesty International, and others. I knew her within the Initiative for Inclusive Security, incubated at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which brings women peace experts to the attention of policy makers at the U.S. State Department, World Bank, United Nations, and other powerful institutions. But, ultimately, international acclaim and high-level connections were not enough to protect her.

“Who’s next?” asked her colleagues. As wealth continues to grow in Russia—worldwide, Moscow is now the most expensive city in which to live—Politkovskaya’s death has spread a dense chill over the public space, where abuse and corruption should be exposed. Even more dangerous than formal censorship is protective self-censorship among Russian reporters and political analysts, say diplomats. Still, “Politkovskaya” has become a rallying whisper—code for the Putin administration’s swing toward fascism, according to another journalist, who adds, “Russia has forgotten the meaning of sin.”

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Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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Reporting Through the Grapevines

We all know that truth is the first casualty of war. And during the flooding of New Orleans in late August and early September, we often heard descriptions of the Crescent City as a war zone. So, as the murky waters from Hurricane Katrina recede, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that much of what we were told during those horrible days simply wasn’t so.

If, like me, you were glued to the tube for much of that horrible week, you knew that armed gangs had the run of the Morial Convention Center. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people were dying in the shelter of last resort at the Louisiana Superdome. Rape, even of children, was rampant. Snipers were firing on rescue helicopters and emergency vehicles.

If all you know is what you see on TV, you still believe those stories. But if you had the determination to stick with the Katrina story all the way through September, as it receded to the back pages, you eventually learned that none of the facts in my second paragraph were true. And even then, if you’re out in the boondocks of a minor media market, you had to wait for the word to seep through via the Internet.

So it was that I didn’t realize how much Katrina rumor and hyperbole had entered the hard news stream until late October, when the online news daily Salon published a detailed accounting by Aaron Kinney. For instance, as Kinney tells it, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a story on Sept. 6 reporting that National Guardsmen had seen 30 or 40 bodies in the convention center’s walk-in freezer. A guardsman was reported to say that one of the bodies was a 7-year-old girl with her throat cut.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2006
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A Clarion of Justice

1965 was a stirring year for social change.

1965 was a stirring year for social change. The power of the civil rights movement was at its height, and the hope and threat of social change (depending on where you sat) was riding high. It penetrated unlikely lives - including a retired fundamentalist white missionary couple in the tiny town of Savannah, Ohio. The first issue of Freedom Now, the magazine that would become The Other Side, rolled off a secondhand press in Anne and Fred Alexander’s basement that year.

Three months ago, on the brink of its 40-year anniversary, The Other Side magazine ceased publication. In between those bookends a remarkable legacy was created.

Behind the Alexanders’ homegrown effort was the stalwart belief that if white Christians were told the truth about racism, they would repent and change their ways. Instead, the couple’s work became largely irrelevant to their targeted constituency (fundamentalist white Baptist Christians), but it was embraced by a new generation of radical young evangelicals who learned of the magazine through John, the Alexanders’ son, then at Wheaton College. A few years later, a group of impassioned young seminary students in Chicago would crank out their first issue of the Post-American, a modest publication that would become Sojourners.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2005
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Road-Testing The Purpose-Driven Life

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I’ll never forget the day I read a book.
It was contagious. Seventy pages.
There were pictures here and there,
so it wasn’t hard to bear, the day...I read a book.
- Jimmy Durante

Who better to set the tone for our special issue on books than a 1950s-era singer who, unlike celebrities today, sang fully clothed. (Jimmy Durante’s schnoz was bad enough, so you gotta figure the audience had absolutely no interest in seeing his navel.) Of course, if you’ve never heard of Jimmy Durante then you’re obviously too young to have experienced classic American music, or the other joys we older people take for granted, such as shaving our ears.

But before I lapse completely into missing the good old days (which were before my time), let’s focus on the main topic at hand: books, and the fact that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid reading them.

If you’re like me, you get most of your information from supermarket tabloids or comic books, the kind where heavily-muscled figures, speaking cryptically in word balloons, solve the world’s problems the only way they can: with righteous anger and vigilante justice. (What do you expect from people who survived, say, a freak laboratory accident that left them with super-human strength and, in the case of Lizard Man, a really bad skin condition? They get cranky.)

Occasionally, however, I have ventured somewhat deeper into the realms of literature, enough to have some clear favorites.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2004
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The Rest Of The Story

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We’ve all seen the annual surveys of public trust in the professions. Every year, journalists, like politicians, slide a little closer to the bottom of the heap. There’s no mystery about journalism. Consider the recent story-fabrication scandals of Jayson Blair, Jim Kelly, and Stephen Glass. Think of Rick Bragg admitting he didn’t go where he said he did. Remember CBS’ venerable Dan Rather apologizing because he and his crew didn’t check out their sources. Few will doubt that journalism, like politics, is in crisis. But why?

A century ago, Joseph Pulitzer spoke eloquently of journalism’s bottom line as the public good. Today, we might well ask how many journalists think of public good as the end purpose of their reporting. Certainly Blair, Kelly, and Glass weren’t thinking that way when they made up their stories. Perhaps Bragg wasn’t either when he juggled being in two places at one time. Was Rather thinking of the public good when he rushed to air his story on questions about President Bush’s National Guard service? The bottom line in each of these cases wasn’t the public good, it was a calculated effect—to get the story first, to make it colorful, to grab an audience.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2004
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Why Daniel Pearl Died

The tributes are worldwide and legion; by all accounts Daniel Pearl was a funny, intelligent, and compassionate guy, possessed of a fair mind. His 12-year career with The Wall Street Journal took him to ports throughout the world. He also occasionally played fiddle with the Big Hillbilly Bluegrass Band at a bar in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Those who use pens to record facts and observations, question policies, and expose wrongs help us make sense of the world. They create a set of words in which truth, or at least one sliver of it, can exist. Pearl—because of his chosen profession—likely thought he could add to our understanding of global events by sitting down at a Karachi restaurant with the sheik of an Islamic extremist group.

Of course, risks are part of a journalist's job, and—as in other front-line work—some journalists have paid the highest price. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Pearl's death brings to 52 the number of journalists killed on assignment this year. He also joins an immensely larger list of those whose faith is a factor in their deaths. Pearl may have been in Karachi as a journalist, but to his kidnappers the fact that he was Jewish was reason for his brutal murder.

Pearl's killing is a reminder that pursuing truth doesn't guarantee your safety in this world. But it also shows that it is a good—and essential—calling to ask questions, and to keep asking them.

Molly Marsh is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2002
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Wanted: Insiders

A Washington Post ombudsman once tried to explain the stereotyping of evangelicals by a Post reporter who described them as "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." The ombudsman wrote that the problem for most journalists is that "we don't know many of these people."

Imagine how well such an excuse would go down with, say, African Americans. How long would a newsroom remain all, or mostly, white if an excuse like this were offered to explain racial insensitivity? Yet, most newsrooms are absent of any serious, practicing Christians who could not only report moral and spiritual dimensions with insight and sensitivity but also get the language right so as not to offend readers and viewers.

Christians can help turn this situation around by not treating the media as a monolith. They can meet with editors and news directors, offering themselves as resources whenever stories with a religious dimension come up. They can help editors see a religious angle to a story that might not immediately suggest itself. Positive attitudes and letters to editors praising good coverage and suggesting how poor or no coverage can be improved will enhance the likelihood that editors and other media decision-makers will be more open to story ideas and religious resources in the future.

Nothing will work as well as believers deciding that journalism is a worthy calling in which Christians can serve with dignity and integrity. There is nothing like having an "insider" in the newsroom to improve the quality of religious coverage and sensitivity.

Cal Thomas' weekly column is syndicated in 520 newspapers by Tribune Media Services.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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Truth Held Hostage

For much of the 30 years that I have been in some of America's top newsrooms, religion was treated like those klutzy galoshes our parents forced on us during heavy snowstorms. We knew we were supposed to leave them outside the door. Bodies were welcome, minds were fertile territory, but matters of the soul—the deep stuff of faith that determines what people will live for, die for, and go to war for—were off-limits. The most dead-end beat in the newsroom was religion. Too often it meant Saturday church-reporting—little more than "feel-good" items to wrap ads around. People complained that journalists and editors were squeezing out the essence of their experiences by editing out their religion, or by refusing to report faith's role.

One of the most arrogant displays of religious censorship I saw was in 1990, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Czech president Vaclav Havel gave a speech where he advanced the idea that a God-centered spiritual revolution was a huge contributor to the fall of communism. I read the speech as it came over the Associated Press wire, eager to see such a disparate view finally showing up in the press. Most of the public, however, never had the chance to savor the remarks because much of the media, including The New York Times, edited out all references to the impact of spirituality.

How far we have come. I now worry more about faith being trivialized and God being reduced to an irrelevant sound bite than about religion being forced to hover outside newsroom doors. Some editors now understand that the wall of separation between church and state should be more gossamer than concrete. And still others now understand that soul and spirit are so instrumental to the human condition that to deny their reality ensures that truth will be held hostage.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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To Quicken, Arouse, and Inspire

Not wanting to lose all credibility as a populist, I want to risk my credentials by criticizing for once not "the media elites" but "the people." Those elites may have some anti- or post-religious biases—not a few spend their lives attacking what they thought the faiths that shaped their childhoods were about—but they are also in business. They like to produce what will sell.

Listen to them for a while, and they will rightfully complain that "religious people" are not a sufficiently intense audience. Publishers get letters to the editor about religion stories only when the correspondents are aggrieved about treatment of their own. They produce valuable programs or print-media series on faith and get too few viewers and listeners, too few readers. Why emit signals if too few pick them up? Are religious people less curious about religion generically and other religions, faith, and spirituality in specific instances than they are about sports, fashion, the markets, secular news?

Poetry magazine used to banner Walt Whitman's line to the effect that "to have great poets you have to have great audiences." To have great religion coverage you have to have great response groups.

How to improve it? Clerical and lay leaders in all the faith communities have to help develop them. I've seen Sunday worship bulletins that notify members that a Baptist or Lutheran or Catholic Hour is on a local station at 5:30 a.m. Sunday; watch it, listen to it. But there's no mention of, say, a Bill Moyers TV series that poses the great issues. There may be a dismissal of a film that has a blasphemous intent—there are such, and they merit dismissal—but do synagogue and church groups gather to study the themes of the many good films that treat religion in complex and ambiguous ways?

Any efforts to quicken, arouse, educate, and inspire audiences and readers will pay off, and the elites will find new reason to pay attention to "religious people."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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The Spotlight Will Find You

Much of what is best about religion does not need journalism to thrive. Probably the most impressive people in the world of religion are those whose faith motivates them to take on tasks others would regard as hopeless. They work in neighborhoods, schools, and prisons, with the poor, the sick, the dying. Many of these people go out of their way to do their work outside the glare of the media. They would do what they do whether anyone ever heard of them or not. Perhaps they understand instinctively that the brief glow of journalistic attention ultimately doesn't mean much in the struggle they have chosen to take on.

I worry a bit about those in the world of religion who seem eager for media coverage. I wonder if what they are really seeking is political power. And yes, I am very wary of the intersection between religion and politics. Six years of covering religion has only heightened my concerns on this subject. I am not entirely comfortable with any political candidate, whether Jewish, Catholic, or evangelical Christian, arguing that the country needs to return to religion to restore its moral life. Too much evil is done in the name of religion for me to accept that statement without an argument.

A photo hanging on the wall of my office captures a special moment in my career as a journalist covering religion. I am walking across the campus of the University of Virginia, clutching a microphone in my hand, with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, two men who have been part of important political struggles with compelling moral lessons. Both understand the power of the media and spend a lot of time in the glare of the spotlight. Did they seek it out? Or did it find them?

If the cause is compelling, if the movement big, if the struggle is important, the spotlight will find you. You won't need to seek it out.

Lynn Neary is a National Public Radio correspondent.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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