News Intelligence Analysis
From AJR, March 1998 issue
Pat Robertson's J-School
Regent University wants to train Christian journalists to counteract liberal media domination. But after completing the curriculum at the Virginia campus, many students conclude journalism is simply no place for a Christian.
By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.
The cover story of the Hampton Roads Christian is a grabber: "Allure of the occult" is the headline, artfully arranged over a shadowy face of evil illuminated by a single candle. In the background lurks the symbol of Satanism, the pentagram.
The Christian, the student-produced monthly news magazine of Regent University's School of Journalism, serves 17,000 readers in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area with church news, financial and legal columns, arts features and serious reporting on social and political affairs. But this journalism is unlike anything produced by student reporters at mainstream journalism schools.
"This is "Christian journalism," an answer to what many Christian conservatives consider the anti-religion bias of the mainstream media. From the pristine Georgian campus of Pat Robertson's Regent University in Virginia Beach, students and faculty are trying to carve out a Bible-based approach to news, looking at "contemporary issues from eternal perspectives," as Sheila Dorn, editor in chief of the Christian, puts it.
"Allure of the occult" tells the story of Satanist and vampire cults in this corner of Virginia. Student journalists Dorn and John David Kudrick turn to police detectives who track occultists, professors who study Satanism and news clippings about witches' covens in the area to write about what the inside headline calls "The evil that lurks in the darkness."
Nowhere in the 1,200-word story is there any attempt to speak to a Satanist, witch or vampire. The
editors never even considered such an effort. It would have been, they say, un-Christian.
"We want to show our faith in every story," says Dorn, a tall, cheerful 26-year-old in flannel shirt, jeans and workboots. "We're not an investigative paper."
"We're saying, 'Hampton Roads, this is out there, you should know about it,' " Kudrick adds. "Our purpose in this story is to say we think this is something detrimental. It's a fallen world and we're in the end times."
The Christian is a brightly designed, decently edited paper. The writing can be stiff and formulaic, but the editors seem to know their audience. There's not much in the way of news in the paper; most of those items are relegated to a "Prayer Watch" column that sums up major developments (changes in the front office at Regent, the latest on the partial-birth abortion debate, a couple of Pentagon and Capitol Hill notes) and then asks readers to pray for the players, be they senators, law enforcement officials or university administrators.
You won't find any reporting in the Christian on Robertson or the controversies surrounding his media empire. Would the paper ever criticize their school's founder and chancellor? "I doubt it," Dorn says. "Would you write something bad about your publisher?"
"He can cut us off in a minute," Kudrick adds. "But also, he's a Christian brother. Do you need to cast him in a bad light?"
Kudrick, an imposing 25-year-old with a mostly shaven head, thick moustache and a get-up that's black from shirt to boots, fancies himself an aspiring Christian novelist. To the disappointment of their professors, neither Kudrick nor Dorn has the slightest intention of seeking work in newspapers or broadcasting, whether mainstream or Christian.
Few students at Regent do. And this is the central paradox of Regent's J-school: Created by Robertson as one more arrow in his quiver of weapons against the perceived bias of the political and media elites, the school recruits a steady flow of committed Christians many of them drawn to Virginia Beach by glowing promotional announcements on Robertson's "700 Club" TV broadcasts. But after they've gone through the curriculum, many emerge more convinced than ever that journalism is no place for Christians.
"The media will always be the viewpoint of the world, not of God," says Kudrick, who came here for graduate school after earning a bachelor's in theology at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, one of Regent's primary feeder schools. Ultimately, Kudrick wants to become a minister. "I don't read a newspaper; I don't watch TV news; I don't listen to the radio. It's been a long time since I've watched the news, and I don't feel it's affected me detrimentally. You have to be aware of Satan's schemes."
"The whole profession of media it takes a peculiar person to be in it," says Dorn, who is interested in social service work and missionary endeavors. "I studied journalism for a long time, and I decided I don't want to be in it because you have to be so aggressive and spend so much time talking to victims, microphones in faces. I thought, 'I'll never make it.' "
Terry Lindvall winces when he hears about his top journalism students' attitudes toward their field of study. Lindvall a founding member of Regent's faculty, president of the university from 1993 until last fall, and now teaching in the communications school considers the widespread student antipathy toward journalism a failing of Regent.
"Our job is to shake them out of themselves, and show them that the cross sits in the public square," says Lindvall, a boyish 49-year-old with an infectious giggle and just enough of a love for the bawdy to disarm any visitor expecting Robertsonian holy pretense. "A lot of the students come to us through the '700 Club,' and they do have that sheltered background."
Many Regent students have grown up attending Christian schools, listening to Christian radio, dancing to contemporary Christian music, and driving in cars emblazoned with "I Don't Believe the Liberal Media" bumper stickers. To some extent, Regent maintains that atmosphere: Lindvall says that until 1993 faculty members had to have their intended spouses approved by the university, and Regent only last year stopped requiring students to sign a pledge that they would not drink alcohol. Students are still forbidden to use tobacco anywhere or to drink on campus.
Journalism professor John Lawing, for many years an editorial cartoonist for Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, reacts even more harshly to the student-editors' attitudes, and particularly to Kudrick's pride in his news-free life. "Oh, how could we let such a cretin into the program!" Lawing exclaims. "It's the omphaloskepsis syndrome, where people like to look at their own navels. Our students sometimes think if someone says something you disagree with, they are an enemy of Christianity."
The J-school faculty, devoted Christians all, generally do not share their students' view that the media conspire to portray religious Americans as crazed simpletons. Lindvall, for one, thinks non-Christian reporters cover Christian conservatism more fairly than Christians.
But getting that across to Regent students has proved problematic. The professors want, as Lindvall puts it, to open their students to the world and "explode their minds." Toward that end, professors have brought to campus speakers such as Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff.
Reaction has been mixed. When J-school professor Douglas Tarpley taught Hentoff's book "Freedom for Me and Not for Thee," one student "waved the book in my face and said, 'What would Pat Robertson say if he knew you were making us read this?' "
Tarpley replied that the founder would applaud it in the spirit of education. That said, many Regent professors are quick to state that while Robertson remains the school's primary drawing card, he is, as Lindvall says, "a blessing and a curse. He's such a lightning rod, and as a result, there is a prejudice against us." Some faculty describe Robertson as a magnet for students who are dead set against any perspective other than that in Scripture.
Robertson has said that in 1977, while eating cantaloupe and cottage cheese at the Disneyland Hotel, he had a vision instructing him to launch a graduate school on the campus of his Christian Broadcasting Network. CBN University started with Robertson's money and name as its only assets. In 1989, it jettisoned its original moniker, and today Regent has 1,750 students (70 in the J-school) and thanks to a gift from Robertson of Family Channel stock that soared over the past five years a $300 million endowment.
Now, Regent plans to open branches of its journalism and government schools in the next couple of years in Washington's new Reagan Center, which will house both federal agencies and private enterprises. The idea is to make Regent a national player, with members of Congress teaching its courses, C-SPAN covering its seminars, and alumni winning their share of top media and government jobs. "We would be the conservative J-school," Lindvall says.
Being in the capital will help, professors say, but the battle to open students' minds is still conducted one on one. Lindvall says there's been some progress since the early years, when one student in his course on Humor and Satire in Communications refused to read Chaucer's Miller's Tale "because it dealt with flatulence. She said, 'Are you going to force me to read a dirty book in a Christian institution?' "
So what is Christian journalism? Is it, as Robertson has said, an effort "to rebuild the wall of righteousness around America..despite the ridicule, despite the slander, despite the plans to assuage and cut off our message?" Is it, as professor Don Piper says, "just good journalism"? Or is it simply a matter of placing more devout Christians in the media workplace? And which workplace should that be mainstream newsrooms or the separate, Christian news world of CBN News, the USA Radio Network or Christianity Today?
Regent's statement of philosophy says the school hopes students will use their skills "to advance the kingdom of our Lord in all areas of journalism."
In Piper's broadcast news writing class, the professor, a theatrical fellow with a smiling but bracingly direct manner, reviews his students' leads. "The writing is not conversational," he says, looking over a stack of scripts. He picks one up and reads aloud: " 'For decades, Billy Graham has been preaching gospel around the world.' It's a yawner. What makes it so unappealing as a lead?"
"We know that already," one student volunteers.
Another lead: "Emotions are running high in Portsmouth." "Awkward," a student says. "Sounds clichéd," the professor adds.
The class like much of Regent's curriculum is indistinguishable from what might happen in a secular J-school, but for the books that sit at Piper's fingertips. One is "Air Words," a secular broadcast writing text; the other is the Holy Bible. What makes Regent different is the constant presence of Scripture, in overtly religious courses such as Religion and the Press or Writing for Christian Publications, and in standard news writing classes as well. "What goes on in the classroom is not that different," Piper says. "The only real distinction is that a worldview drives the way we seek truth. In our worldview, God does ordain the steps we take. Each of us as reporters approaches a story with our own bias. Through your worldview, you can still tell the story from your perspective."
If this weren't Robertson's Regent University, one might be excused for thinking these the words of a New Journalist or a refugee from a '60s alternative paper. The notion that objectivity is a false god, that bias cannot be eradicated from a journalist's brain but should be embraced in each reporter's own style, is the essence of the critique of journalism that has emerged from the left over the past generation. Now it's at the heart of conservative Christian journalism, too.
But Regent's faculty, like Christianity itself, speaks with anything but a uniform voice. Piper, for one, believes Christians should cover Christians. "Yes, sometimes a person who's never been in a house can peer through the window and see things that a resident doesn't see," the professor says. "But most of the time, it's people in the house who know that place best."
So it follows that black reporters should cover black life and women should cover women's issues, right? Not so fast. Some Regent professors condemn that notion outright. Lawing tells his students that while they might add an extra dimension to religion coverage, it's wrong to assign a reporter simply because of background. "Journalism is dead if Christians listen only to Christians," Lawing says. "Journalism is a pluralistic enterprise, or it is nothing."
Bob Slosser, a former New York Times national desk editor who is Regent's most experienced journalist, walks a middle ground, telling students in his writing course that while any journalist should be able to handle any story, it sometimes takes a Christian to understand the nuances of a complicated religious subject.
"Most of the time, the really good press people in the national media get things right," says Slosser, who served as Regent's president from 1984 to 1990. "What they are liable to get wrong are things that are terribly important to a Christian. Some Christians will oversell the Christian point of view. But while this may be something of a cop-out, the complexity of the world has increased. I'd like a Christian journalist to bring their knowledge to a story."
What unites Regent professors is disappointment over the decision by most of their students not to go into journalism at all, and among those who do, to avoid secular journalism and work instead for a Christian outlet. Professors tend to blame that on the students' sheltered backgrounds. Students say their reluctance stems from the incorrigible antipathy of mainstream journalists toward Christians.
Robertson is also frustrated that more Regent graduates don't find their way into the major news organizations. "There's never been any thought that our people should go into a narrow focus on evangelicals," he says. "The concept of the whole university is leadership to change the world. I don't think our journalism department has been beefed up enough. I want to be the best. I don't think we're the best yet."
Mark O'Keefe, a Regent alumnus who is often cited by the school's faculty as the shining example of what a Christian journalist can be, says the problem lies in part with Regent's program. O'Keefe, who covers religion and social issues for the Oregonian in Portland, says Regent simply does not provide the practical training available at major J-schools.
"The program was big on theory and weak on practical training," says O'Keefe, 37, who got his master's at Regent after working for UPI for two years. "They envisioned this as a program for people like me, who understood the basics and came back for the Christian perspective. That's not who they got. I loved the theory, but a lot of those students needed Journalism I."
While at Regent, O'Keefe landed a part time spot covering high school sports at the Virginian-Pilot, then parlayed that into a full time job as an education reporter. Eventually, Editor Sandra Mims Rowe approved O'Keefe's proposal to create a religion beat, noting that "I know there's going to be some raised eyebrows."
Any skepticism in the newsroom quickly evaporated and reemerged over on the CBN/Regent campus, where Robertson went ballistic over O'Keefe's stories chronicling CBN's expenditure of $2.8 million on a vitamin and cosmetics company in which Robertson owned half the stock. A CBN employee told O'Keefe he'd "turned from good to evil," Robertson's Christian Coalition threatened to ban the reporter from covering its events, and Robertson publicly denounced one of his own alumni.
Robertson is still steaming. "That particular reporter was so biased," he says. "It's like he was on a vendetta to destroy us."
O'Keefe had warned the founder not to expect any favoritism. "He didn't quite seem to understand that," O'Keefe says. "I really felt I was fulfilling the purpose of Christian journalism, which was to be a truth-teller, no matter what the cost."
In Oregon, where O'Keefe followed Editor Rowe, he finds himself playing the role of the Great Contrarian, advising editors not to link the Oklahoma City bombing with Muslims, or offering an alternative view on coverage and play decisions. O'Keefe says he's been accepted by his newsroom peers, even if some still apologize if they notice he's around when they're cursing.
Last year, O'Keefe was a finalist for a religion writer job at the New York Times. At the Times, "there seemed to be a fascination about my background," O'Keefe says. "Far from being suspicious of me, I think it ended up being a positive."
O'Keefe is an anomaly at Regent, where administrators are hard-pressed to come up with other examples of alumni in the secular press. In the Christian media, where Regent alumni are more common, the rules are quite different.
"I wanted to work in a place where my point of view would be reflected," says Kelly McElveen, 26, a Regent graduate who is an associate producer for CBN News, the journalism wing of the "700 Club." "At CBN, we're neutral but with a viewpoint." If she's working on a story about fighting cancer, McElveen finds people who are trying to boost their immune system through prayer. To her, that's Christian journalism.
A typical week's news reports on CBN focus on the flaws of evolution theory, the notion embraced by some on the conservative fringe that Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was murdered, the legal debate over school prayer, and women's efforts to juggle career and family. While some CBN journalists say they approach their work with the same ideal of fairness as secular reporters, others are comfortable with Robertson's comments at Regent's first graduation ceremonies. Christian journalists, the founder said in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, will tell us what God is doing at that volcano.
"To be really hard-hitting is difficult for Christians," McElveen says. "Investigative reporting involves lying. Christian journalists feel a higher calling, to glorify God."
McElveen isn't interested in working for a secular outlet, but if she were, she says she'd be sure to assign a Christian to cover a story like the high school shooting in Paducah, Kentucky. "A Christian reporter would do a better job at that because that whole community's response was one of faith. Someone who's not a Christian would have a hard time understanding or communicating that."
The idea that Christians have a special ability to cover Christianity leaves secular journalism educators more than a little skeptical of Regent and its goals. (Regent is accredited as a graduate school, but the J-school has never applied for approval from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, according to the council's executive director, Susanne Shaw.)
"Who certifies you as a person of faith?" asks Sanford Ungar, dean of the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. "It's brave new world stuff. It's totally appalling." Ungar is unimpressed by Regent's emphasis on religion in journalism classes. "Would you train to be a doctor by taking
courses in the Bible?" he asks.
If Christian journalism simply means truth-telling in the way O'Keefe has interpreted it, fine, says Betty Medsger, author of "Winds of Change: Challenges Confronting Journalism Education," a Freedom Forum-commissioned study of journalism education. But if it means writing stories "to benefit a particular Christian view..then they should call it Christian public relations education." All journalists have a particular perspective based in part on their ethnic identity or beliefs, agrees Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter and onetime journalism chair at San Francisco State University. But she says journalists should be "informed, not controlled, by their prejudices."
t lunch at the Founder's Inn, the hotel on the Regent/CBN campus, the waitress recommends the crabcake sandwich as "Dr. Robertson's favorite." A group of J-school students have assembled to talk about their education. Some are right out of college, others are mid-career. Some are conservatives, others describe themselves as moderate. Some came to Regent because they or, in many cases, their mothers heard Robertson praise it on TV. Others sought an alternative to what they consider anti-Christian secular colleges.
The students say grace and tell their stories. For Jay DeLancey, a 40-year-old former military man who wants to become a journalism professor, Regent is an antidote to what he found as an undergraduate at North Carolina State. "There, I would think the professor was just trying to force liberalism on me," DeLancey says. "Here, if they teach me about objectivity, I'm more willing to accept that these are the standards of journalism." But DeLancey had hoped Regent would be more of an "indoctrination course. We should be activists just like professors at secular schools, but from the other side."
Many of the other students believe journalists should dedicate themselves to a fair accounting of facts rather than to pushing their own views, but one after another talks about their discomfort with having to tell stories of people with whom they disagree. It would be a lot easier to stay in the Christian media, they say.
Just then, Robertson, who lives in a house on the Regent campus, walks in for lunch. In his tweed jacket and suede shoes, he looks more like a country gentleman than a televangelist. The students fall silent as he passes by. A couple of students grouse that Robertson's association with Regent makes it harder for them to be taken seriously in the secular marketplace, but most respect the founder as a leader of their besieged and beleaguered community.
Robertson sits with his aides and has no contact with the students. But all conversation at the student table ceases when the waitress reports that the founder did not have the crabcakes this day. He chose a salad instead. l
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