Religion and journalism -- except for some very big stories like the Second Vatican Council, the death and election of a pope or the death of a popular saint -- are not, by nature, made for each other. News is change. It's the odd and the strange. It's conflict, celebrity -- whatever touches a large readership or audience with immediacy and emotion.
In Joseph Pulitzer's definition, news is "that which is talked about." So if an editor overhears three guys in gray suits on the commuter train gossiping about a politician and the item has not appeared in his paper, he's going to get his news editor on the cell phone.
The religious establishment prefers to mute its conflicts. Religion, which sees itself as the custodian of eternal truths, tends to resist change. Religious oddities -- like stigmata, Marian apparitions and visionaries -- can be an embarrassment to sophisticated churchmen who have made their peace with the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, the hierarchy feels more comfortable if it can govern in secret, make its decisions free from the intrusion of cameras, reporters' questions and public opinion. As a result -- except for when the religious and secular worlds intersect when the pope meets Castro or a bishop sires a child and the mother shows up on the chancery step -- religion is dull.
Finally, the journalistic mind is inherently secular -- skeptical, anti-authoritarian (though quite respectful of power) and it treats mystery as something to be exposed rather than held in awe. Indeed, as A.M. Rosenthal has written, this professional secular skepticism can add up to bad journalism when the media miss a big story. In November, for example, eight million Americans gathered in about 50,000 Protestant and Catholic churches around the country to pray for persecuted Christians around the world, but the secular press focused instead on one Chinese dissident getting out of jail.
All of which makes PBS's decision -- with an extremely generous $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment -- to float 39 nights of a weekly religious half-hour news and analysis program, "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," a timely and relatively bold experiment.
PBS does not describe the series as an experiment but as filling a need: After all, the Princeton Religion Research Center finds that more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God, 70 percent claim religious affiliation and 40 percent went to church last week. It does not follow from this, however, that TV viewers -- even the PBS audience -- want regular, intelligent discussion of religious faith.
The show's anchor, veteran NBC Moscow correspondent Bob Abernethy, is a member of the United Church of Christ who took a sabbatical in 1984 to study theology and social ethics at Yale Divinity School. He's convinced that, with the end of the Cold War, Americans are on a new search for meaning. That means the new religious revival -- which his program defines very broadly -- is news in the old-fashioned sense of change and "that which is talked about."
Based on my notes on about 10 programs between September and February, "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" is doing well what it set out to do. "It is not stealth evangelism," Abernethy told the Christian Science Monitor (Sept. 22, 1997). And to demonstrate that this show has real reporting, they have called into service experienced network correspondents such as Herbert Kaplow and Jed Duvall to don their trench coats and cover church news with the same seriousness they brought to big stories like national politics, the civil rights movement or Vietnam.
Modeled in structure on the "Lehrer News Hour," the "Newsweekly" presents a broad range of religious events -- a news summary at the beginning an "indepth" report or two, and a quick "Washington Week in Review"-style round-table discussion of a controversy. Although Abernethy himself is on a "spiritual …