Count me in

Down these mean streets reporters must go

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

Enterprising journalists need to be a bit like the fighter pilots depicted in a 1984 movie, The Right Stuff. One of my favorite lines comes when Alan Shepard is told that becoming an astronaut is "dangerous. Very dangerous." His instant response: "Count me in."

That's what we hear at WORLD as well. When our international editor, Mindy Belz, the mother of four young children, had the opportunity last month to take a potentially dangerous trip to Sudan, she said, "Count me in." The rest of us were concerned, but Mindy is called to be a reporter and reporters have to take reasonable risks, so we left the decision to her and her husband. God is good: She came back safely. Mindy wrote the excellent cover story for last week's issue, and she has more in this one.

Domestic dangers are not so dramatic, but they also abound. How can we show that God saves sinners if we refuse to show the breadth and depth of sin in the world? At least two letters to the editor that I receive each month quote Paul's injunction in Philippians 4:8 to think of noble, pure, lovely, right, and admirable things. But, as I've noted before, Paul could not have meant that we are to think exclusively about those things, or he could not possibly have done the missionary work he did among towns reeking of idols and perversion. Did he have to encounter sin and depravity? Yes. Was his work dangerous? Yes, very dangerous-and he always said, "Count me in."

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At WORLD, we have covered ugly examples of sin, such as sexual molestation in schools, importation of prostitutes/slaves, and partial-birth abortion. Some people cancel subscriptions when we run such stories. But here's the type of letter we now receive frequently: "My heart was broken by your article. Thanks for printing this 'hard to read' information. Because of it, God has called me to prayer and action like never before."

Our culture writers are called to visit areas physically safer but spiritually more hazardous. At church gatherings we may get away with generalizing about modern culture's depravity, but at the University of Texas I have no credibility with students if I criticize a book or movie or song without having read or seen or heard it. Most Christians engaged in evangelism and cultural renewal are aided by a general awareness of what's influencing non-Christian neighbors; that's the main reason for our cultural reporting. Those called to cultural criticism need to wade through some bad stuff. Dangerous? Yes, so we look for writers who are exceptionally well-grounded theologically and are able to say in good conscience, "Count me in."

I spoke late last month at an impressive conference of Bill Gothard's Advanced Training Institute. It struck me that a secular liberal surveying that conference would be afraid, very afraid: The 15,000 Gothard folk at the conference are Christian marines, ready to storm the beaches and fight an American culture addicted to depravity. But some of these good parents hope to keep their children from exposure to a sinful world; I shocked some by proposing that parents of teenagers who are good writers deliberately expose them to (and then discuss) slices of cultural evil, including some bad movies. Exceptional writers who want to sway the world need to confront the world, and that means viewing a public arena strewn with rotten tomatoes and rotting corpses.

At WORLD, the production process for a weekly magazine moves fast, and my colleagues and I make hundreds of quick judgment calls each week. It would be easy to shy away from danger, but editing a news magazine worth reading is like being a contestant on the longtime The Price Is Right game show. The goal on that show: Get close to the retail price of an item without going over. The lesson of the show: You can lose either by playing it safe with a low guess or by going over the edge. At WORLD, our goal is to avoid blandness by having a certain edginess that adds interest for most readers-but sometimes we do go over.

For example, for our April 1 issue, in an article giving a behind-the-scenes look at baseball's spring training, I quoted Mark McGwire using a major-league obscenity. (We printed the first letter of the word he used, followed by dashes.) Such usage sometimes has news value: A generation ago, when White House tapes revealed President Nixon's foul mouth, that information was newsworthy because he had projected a different public image. But in retrospect, I could have conveyed sufficient information by simply noting that Mr. McGwire showed his ability to spit out an obscenity as easily as other ballplayers spit out sunflower seeds.

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