Features
Krieg Barrie

Back to the journalist's lane

Biography | Exposing scandal takes perseverance and fortitude, but seeing our corruption leads to seeing God’s grace

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

Paul was called to look at and write about some rotten stuff at times, and so are journalists

It’s been more than six months since my last installment, but we’ve had a busy political year in which, happily, I could just be a journalist. This year’s campaign reminded me of the time I strayed from my lane in 2000 and became involved with George W. Bush’s presidential campaign—but, as I noted in our June 2 issue, by the end of 2001 compassionate conservatism seemed dead in the water, and I could get back to the WORLD lane again.

Let me explain about lanes. “Callings” may be a better name, but the football season is still going and some fans remember how Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 14 tied a National Football League record with a 108-yard kickoff return. Jones took the kick in the end zone and initially went up the middle of the field. One member of the kickoff team saw an opportunity to tackle Jones early, so he headed to intercept Jones near the 10-yard line—but Jones veered to his right and ran into that vacated hole.

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Had the ambitious tackler stayed in his lane, no touchdown. Kickoff team players learn they must be disciplined. Paul similarly instructed Corinthians, Ephesians, and others to stay true to their God-given lane assignments (1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4).

What was WORLD’s lane? As part of my refocus on WORLD early in 2002, l went back to basics, looking at what our journalistic predecessors had concluded when they read the Bible and sought their lanes. They started with Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” They believed that “all” means “all,” and that put them crossways with the reigning job description of a journalist during the 16th and 17th centuries: Make the king and royal officials look good. 

A brave New York editor, John Peter Zenger, pioneered a new approach for journalists in 1735 when he criticized a corrupt royal governor who stole from Indians and from other colonists. Zenger did it because he was a Christian whose first allegiance was to the objective truth of the Bible—and he did not back down even when jailed. When a jury refused to declare him guilty, he returned to editing. 

The year after the Zenger case, Virginia Gazette editor William Parks also exposed corruption, including the stealing of sheep by a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Threatened with prosecution, Parks used the Zenger defense of truth-telling: When he produced court records showing the accusation to be accurate, prosecutors dropped the case against him.

Christian journalists increasingly saw exposing corruption as part of their calling. As residents of the 13 colonies began to view themselves as Americans, Samuel Adams wrote in the Boston Gazette, “There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly TERRIBLE to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a FREE PRESS.” Isaiah Thomas, editor of the Massachusetts Spy, wrote that, without a free press, Americans would have “padlocks on our lips, fetters on our legs, and only our hands left at liberty to slave for our worse than Egyptian task masters.”

George Wisner, editor of America’s circulation-leading New York Sun during the 1830s, was a Christian who understood, “The abundance of news is generally an evidence of astounding misery, and even the disinterested deeds of benevolence and philanthropy which we occasionally hear of owe their existence to the wants or sorrows or sufferings of some of our fellow beings.” Wisner ran moral tales concerning the consequences of seduction, adultery, and abandonment, and wrote that he had received “much complaint” from some readers—but he thought naming names of moral offenders was an important deterrent. 

All these Christian editors understood that we need to become aware of our own corruption to see God’s grace, and if we make readers aware of sin we do them a service. They were aware of Matthew 18’s injunction concerning personal offenses—“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault …”—but emphasized that those were private offenses (“sins against you”) rather than instances of community-affecting corruption such as stealing from the temple treasury. 

This distinction was even evident in the title of the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. A news publication, Christian editor Benjamin Harris pointed out, should emphasize public occurrences, not private affairs, unless those affairs have public ramifications. A minister’s adultery, for example, affects a congregation much more than the waywardness of a regular congregant member. For people in public positions who are supposed to model virtue and elicit trust, every offense has public ramifications.

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