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Issue Date:  August 26, 2005

Unsensational TV show keeps blood pressure low

'Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly' defies market expectations


When “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” first appeared in 1997, I suspect that among those who noticed it, a good many said, “Isn’t that nice! But there’s no demand.”

Religious drama on television tends to focus on the sensational -- angels, devils, miracles, mystics, uptight priests, tough nuns and the end of the world. When it comes to religious news, on the big stories like the papal death and election the secular media provide spectacular coverage. On ethical issues with religious dimensions, such as the Terry Schiavo case, the record is mixed.

But anchored by an experienced, low-key TV newsman, Bob Abernethy, “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” has come up with more than enough news for more than 400 shows on 280 PBS stations. He has won more than 65 awards and held an estimated 550,000 viewers a week.

The show’s success is due both to the improvement in religious journalism on TV, public radio and in print and to the show’s strict adherence to a formula modeled on the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer”: introduce news items, focus on two big stories, an interview or profile, and summary.

“Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” has not created “buzz,” partly because it deals with controversy so evenhandedly that chances of the viewer’s blood boiling are zero. About seven years ago (NCR, Feb. 27, 1998), I wrote that “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” would be stronger if it did more investigative reporting and had a more clearly defined point of view. That is still true.

Nevertheless, more has been happening than meets the eye. This summer I watched seven live shows or tapes and spent hours on the Web site (, reading interviews with personalities familiar to NCR -- John Allen, Tom Roberts, Fr. Bryan Hehir, Fr. Tom Reese, Dave Gibson and others -- and checking topics like the Iraq War (122 items), torture (28) and civilian casualties (15), which standard diocesan papers tend to pass over as not sufficiently “religious” news. The TV program and Web site, which includes cross-references and bibliographies, become a precious library for research.

Recently “Religion & Ethics News-Weekly” has focused on women’s clinics that offer sonograms in order to dissuade women from choosing abortion; United Airlines’ decision to declare bankruptcy and cut back on pension payments; Tony Hall, ambassador to the United Nations’ humanitarian agencies and a former Democratic congressman from Ohio who works to bring food to the starving people of the world; the split within both the Supreme Court and the scholarly community on the meaning of “separation of church and state”; and college students’ use of “smart pills” (amphetamines) to help them “ace” their exams.

In interviews the correspondents draw out each case’s religious or ethical angle, carefully developing each side, leaving it to the viewer either to rejoice that a woman who came to the “women’s clinic” thinking it was an abortion clinic changed her mind when she saw and loved the human form of her child or to agree with the Planned Parenthood spokeswoman who charged that the unwary client had been manipulated by religious ideology. Oddly, it seems to me, they present the “smart pill” case as one of justice -- is it fair that rich students have more access to brain boosters than the poor? -- rather than of academic integrity and the risks of messing with drugs.

There is no conflict over Tony Hall’s mission. His Presbyterian evangelical faith survived the tragedy of losing his 15-year-old son to leukemia. Today, appalled by man’s inhumanity to man, knowing that his efforts are but a “drop in the bucket,” he pours himself out for the suffering poor. If he didn’t, he says, “there would be one less drop.”

In a disappointing feature, Mr. Abernethy interviewed Deborah Potter, a former news anchor turned ethicist, on the Valerie Plame case. Ms. Potter discussed the decision by The New York Times’ Judith Miller to go to jail rather than disclose to the special prosecutor who leaked Ms. Plame’s identity as a CIA operative. In the “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” analysis, the ethical tension was simply between law and individual conscience. But, as Jacob Weisberg wrote on, this is not what Thoreau and Martin Luther King had in mind when the individual conscience stood against the state. Confidentiality is a value in journalism, but does it outweigh obedience to law, the public interest and loyalty to one’s country? Shield laws are meant to protect whistleblowers, not criminals. But in this case, Ms. Miller and Robert Novak are protecting a source who unlawfully ruined the career of an innocent woman. I wish “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” had treated those questions.

The Emerging Church is a broad, amorphous movement that says it is geared to meet the needs of younger people alienated from traditional religion. “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” has given a platform to its star evangelist Brian McLaren, a former English teacher who knows how to “raise questions” about religion as if the questions themselves were religious experiences. A DJ booms out a mix for a worship service. At a church called Solomon’s Porch, couches are arranged in a circle as in a furniture store display room, symbolizing a “relationship” not available in a church with pews. Heaven and hell? Yes, they are questions. He frustrates correspondent Kim Lawton by refusing straightforward answers.

New Testament scholar John Carson calls the Emerging Church nothing more than individualism, a refusal to face the fact that the scriptures do say some things that are true. Mr. McLaren struck me as a flimflam man, but the program lets the viewers decide.

I contrast “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” with David Brancaccio’s “Now,” also on PBS. Mr. Brancaccio, Bill Moyers’ successor, knows Public Broadcasting’s conservative board members are salivating to catch him being “liberal,” but “Now” still approaches its stories with a journalist’s skepticism and critical intelligence. I’m sure Mr. Abernethy would reply that issues of religious belief and what’s right and wrong in ambiguous situations are so sensitive that only his format would survive in today’s media world. He may be right.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 26, 2005

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