Throw the book at us, please

By today's establishment standards, WORLD must be judged unethical

Issue: "Bailing Out," June 14, 1997

As our cover story shows, Zondervan and the International Bible Society, under pressure from the Southern Baptists and Focus on the Family, have come a long way. However, many questions remain.

One involves journalism. After WORLD first exposed the Stealth Bible project (March 29), Zondervan filed an ethics charge against WORLD with the Evangelical Press Association. I puzzled over the initial accusatory letter, for there were no specifics. It appeared we were unethical merely because we had blown the whistle, loud enough for folks to hear. I laughed off such a frivolous charge.

But then some details from a book about journalism history that I wrote a few years ago came flooding back into my mind, and Zondervan's full accusation arrived. It contained the charge that "WORLD seemed to be unconscious of its duty to protect the good names and reputations of Zondervan" and its allies. That's when I realized Zondervan was right. By the sad standards of what passes for Christian journalism in many places today, WORLD acted unethically.

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By this I don't mean just that we sometimes miss teaching moments. Remember our story last month about how one Christian college, Bethel, made a student feel like a hick because she opposed watching in class a movie with vivid sex scenes? Since the student's parents sued the college, we should have given them the opportunity to answer theological questions about the use of lawsuits against fellow believers. 1 Corinthians 6 examines what happens when "one brother goes to law against another-and this in front of unbelievers. The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already."

For that omission I apologize. But the ethics charge goes deeper, because it cuts to the heart of what Christian journalism is and should be.

To get into it, here's a brief history lesson. (Don't worry, there's no multiple choice test at the end.) In England during the 1500s and 1600s, and in most of its American colonies during the 1600s and early 1700s, the role of journalists was to do public relations for the king, the royal governor, or the Anglican state church. Journalists (often Puritans) who undermined public confidence in these individuals or entities were seen to be acting unethically.

Some of those Puritans, however, had a different vision for journalism.

They placed God's honor above the PR needs of earthly powers, and they believed that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Ethical journalism, they believed, means building God's kingdom by telling the truth

They did not believe that those who were doing wrong should be propped up. You can imagine the official response, especially by those who saw themselves as righteous. Unethical! they cried. Some Puritan journalists were killed. Others had their cheeks branded or their ears cut off (so they would not be able to hear any more news). There is a great cloud of journalistic witnesses made up of men with names that are now forgotten but should not be: John Stubbes, John Hodgkins, Alexander Leighton, William Prynne, and John Twyn are some of my favorites, and each has a story too long to go into here.

Nourished by the courage of such martyrs, the tree of Christian journalism grew and flourished in America during the late 1700s and early 1800s, by which time three-fourths of American newspapers and magazines were Christian, and hard-hitting articles were not unusual. My favorite magazine from the 1830s, McDowell's Journal, exposed early abortionists and businessmen who rented out their buildings as brothels.

That was then, this is now-and ironically, in much of latter-day Christian journalism, public relations has triumphed. WORLD should not have had to expose the Stealth Bible project; many other Christian magazines, with larger staffs and greater resources, could have done so. Fighting for God's Word, however, means not only upsetting feminists, jeopardizing advertising pages, and taking a lot of heat, but also (temporarily, we hope) reducing public confidence in Zondervan and the International Bible Society.

So, by the public relations standard, WORLD did act unethically. But I do not apologize for that. If telling the truth is unethical, we hope to be unethical next month, and the month after, and the month after that.

The good thing about ethics charges, by the way, is that they provide parents with a powerful disciplinary tool. Since my wonderful wife wrote the Stealth Bible exposé, I can now tell our children, "Better obey your mom. She's been brought up on ethics charges. No telling what she might do."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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