Religion & Ethics Newsweekly follows advice: 'respect the religious impulse'

Robert Abernethy at anchor desk

Besides organized religion, Abernethy's show deals with ethical issues in daily life -- and in White House affairs.

Originally published in Current, Sept. 14, 1998

By Joellen Perry

Surely by now we all know every word of the ballad of Bill and Monica. The ever-churning media machine has made sure to bring us every wisp of development and every hint of prurient interest in the Lewinsky story.

"Our approach," says Bob Abernethy, executive editor and host of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a PBS-distributed weekly newsmagazine, "is that there are tremendous ethical issues that all of us will confront as we try to make sense of what's going on."

Come again? Ethical issues? You mean no hashing and rehashing the facts of the matter, the DNA on the dress and the number of people misled?

"For us, the facts are the various teachings" of philosophy and religion, says Executive Producer Gerry Solomon. "We apply these to the facts of the story."

The program's angle on the presidential doings included an appearance by Dr. Donald Shriver, president of Union Theological Seminary, who probed the nature of lying, of adultery, and of forgiveness. The Clintons' Methodist pastor from Washington, the Rev. Philip Wogaman, was also a guest. "We try to go to the philosophical and ethical traditions, and to religious leaders," to help viewers construct a framework for considering current events, says Abernethy.

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been applying philosophical and religious perspectives to current affairs and popular culture, in addition to covering issues and events relating to religion, since its public TV debut last fall. An unprecedented $6.6 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, the program's sole funder, enabled the staff to celebrate the show's one-year anniversary by making plans for another 52 episodes.

Though the program is a production of New York's WNET, most of its nearly 20 staffers are headquartered in Washington, D.C., where Abernethy lives. The series is produced at the Reuters broadcast center, and by contract has valuable access and rights to all the news service's international footage, says series producer Ricki Green.

Since the program's launch, station carriage has increased 35 percent, to approximately 190 of the country's 348 public television stations, reaching 68 percent of the country. Some stations have declined to it pick up, saying they're not interested in carrying religious programming, according to Green.

But the producers say they're committed to covering religion rather than preaching it. The Newsweekly carves an original niche for itself in the history of spirituality on television. "It's journalism, not televangelism," says Abernethy, who heads a staff with considerable journalistic experience. Clarifying this distinction has been a high-priority challenge, says Green. "We've all been very frustrated at the difficulty of making people aware of what this show is."

In format and style, the show presents itself as a traditional newsmagazine. Abernethy anchors the program from behind a generic crescent-shaped desk that, except for a sunrise-hued backdrop radiating words like "spirituality" and "ethics," could be the centerpiece of any newscast. He opens each episode with a hard-news rundown--a papal trip to Cuba, a speech by the Dalai Lama, recent developments in polygamy laws. Longer features follow, examining religious trends, profiling prominent spiritual leaders and showcasing ways in which ordinary people incorporate their faith into their lives. Lay experts like religion historian Martin Marty appear on the show alongside spiritual gurus such as rabbi and bestselling author Harold Kushner to provide commentary, context and conversation.

Since the Newsweekly feeds on Friday afternoons for nationwide broadcast throughout the weekend, it's a challenge to break news on the show. "We wish," says Abernethy, "that our feeds were closer to when the show is aired--but within these limits, we try to be just as topical and on top of the breaking news as we can." Staff members keep an ear on religious newswires during tapings until the show feeds. Once in the first season, the Friday taping proved providential; Ricki Green recalls that Mother Teresa's death on a Friday enabled staff members to interrupt taping of a roundtable discussion to report the news of her passing just before it fed.

"One of my personal goals," says Solomon, "is to be able to break news more often." Recently, the program overcame the obstacle of its Friday feed with "pretty incisive reporting, ahead of everyone else," according to Solomon. He says they're currently preparing an exclusive scoop regarding an upcoming seismic shift in religious leadership.

"Fairly portray the search"

"Because religion is first in the title," says Solomon, "the bulk of the stories have to do with issues in organized religion." Many stories investigate religious controversy. First-season episodes included a discussion of whether terrorism contradicts the fundamental tenets of Islamic faith, and a profile of a deeply spiritual Catholic woman who works as a lay minister but cannot, according to recently reaffirmed Papal doctrine, fulfill her desire to join the priesthood. Plans for season two--which premiered last weekend with a producer-generated list of the century's 25 most influential religious figures--include a profile of Orthodox Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces and an examination of the religious roots of the claim that gays can convert to heterosexuality.

Acknowledging the fuzzy divide between religion and ethics, the program doesn't attempt to draw too fine a line between its two title subjects. Coverage of ethical issues--the ethics of downsizing, of politics and of assisted suicide, for example--often overflows onto religious territory. Such instances become opportunities to probe "how religion influences ethical considerations," says Solomon, noting that "the ethics with which many of us were raised are grounded in religious principles."

Despite the major attention given to organized religion, Solomon contends that, since it is a news program, "nothing is off-limits." The first season explored atheism, Scientology and the Celtic-based Wicca belief system, which Solomon likens to witchcraft. "There are many ways to search for spirituality," says Solomon. "Our job is to fairly portray the search."

Abernethy developed the program with this determined objectivity in mind. He felt strongly that the Newsweekly, in order to be a news program, would need to cover the full range of American approaches to spirituality. He worried, however, about audience tolerance for diversity regarding so intimate a subject. "I was concerned that people deeply committed to their own faith tradition might be resentful of, or uncomfortable with, our coverage of other religions." Abernethy aired his concerns to Richard Land, a member of the show's 29-person advisory board and president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "He said, 'As long as you respect the religious impulse, you'll be all right.' And that's what we try to do," says Abernethy.

Contrary to his initial apprehensions, Abernethy says, respecting the "religious impulse" in all its incarnations has become one of the show's most popular characteristics. Audience response indicates that viewers especially appreciate stories that show how others practice their faith, that depict people in acts of worship. Scenes of Hindus squirting each other with colored water for the festival of Holi, or of an observant Jew who binds himself to God each morning with leather straps and small boxes filled with prayer sheets, also help to "demystify and remove stereotypes about religious practices," says Solomon. "This was not our first intent, but this is what happens."

One program that provoked enormous audience response, say the producers, featured an African-American Muslim man making his first Hajj to Mecca, followed on his faith's obligatory pilgrimage by a reporter. "We knew, when we started," says Abernethy, "about the tremendous power of well-produced pieces about people doing remarkable things with their lives because of their religious faith. We knew that, but we didn't know how powerful it would be."

In the beginning

In the mid-1990s, Abernethy--a longtime NBC News correspondent--was approaching the end of a five-and-a-half-year assignment in Moscow and mulling over the kind of work he wanted to pursue upon his return to the States. He'd covered religion before and found it fascinating, even taking a leave from NBC in 1984 to attend Yale Divinity School. Returning from Russia 10 years later, he says he "had a corporate obligation" to take his idea for a religious news program to NBC, but never felt that the show as he envisioned it would succeed on a commercial network. NBC evidently agreed, and Abernethy took the idea to WNET.

With WNET's blessing, Abernethy sought funding for the show from the Religion Division of the Lilly Endowment, a private family foundation based in Indianapolis. Says Abernethy, "they knew immediately what we were talking about. They knew it had to be a news program." Sole supporter of the series since its inception, Lilly's latest commitment of $6.6 million represents the largest amount its Religion Division has ever awarded to a single project.

The recent grant "put aside a significant amount for advertising and promotion," says Solomon. Publicity plans include placing ads--which entreat audiences to "See the news in a different light"--in the religion sections of general-circulation newspapers, as well as in religion periodicals like Christianity Today and Jewish Monthly. Public radio underwriting credits for Lilly, which supports religion reporting on NPR as well, also close with mention of the Newsweekly. "We think our core audience is people of religious conviction. That's the audience to whom we'll devote much of our [advertising] effort," says Solomon.

The show is pulling an audience of near-average size, with a 2 rating. Most stations in the top 25 markets air the show on Sundays--which creates a singular complication for this program, as it often conflicts with church-time. "Many people say they'd watch it if it weren't on Sunday morning," says Solomon. The show's producers did request that stations in areas with high Jewish populations avoid airing the program on the Sabbath, but didn't anticipate the Sunday morning squeeze. "We'll keep working on that," says Solomon.

The cumbersome title represents another hurdle. "The name, we all acknowledge, is terrible," says Green. Still, "it has to convey that it's a news program covering religion, not a religious program." During discussions of what to call the show, two camps formed, one lobbying for descriptiveness and another clamoring for a catchy but vague title, such as "Perspective"--which ultimately became the tag for the show's discussion segment.

There was also a separate discussion on the wisdom of using the word "religion" at all, says Abernethy, for fear it might scare people off. Preliminary market research revealed, he says, "that it didn't matter at all."

Though it's easy to imagine ratings-conscious doubters who would expect the Newsweekly to fail, friends of the show have numerous theories suggesting that it will build a loyal audience and a long run on PBS. A recent study for the First Amendment Center concluded that Americans, who "overwhelmingly say that religion is an important part of their daily lives," are hungry for more and better media coverage of religion and spirituality.

Newsweekly's producers

Abernethy, at right, proposed the Newsweekly after five years in Moscow for NBC. Also pictured: Series Producer Ricki Green, Executive Producer Gerry Solomon and Managing Editor Kim Lawton.

Ricki Green notes that "Baby Boomers are suddenly thinking about mortality" and other theological issues. Representing one-third of the current population, she says, "this group has shaped the trends of the nation since it was born." Highlighting the show's focus on religious diversity, Green also says the influx of immigrants carries an interest in faith from their homelands.

"We want any station not carrying us to carry us," says Abernethy. He hopes that the grant money directed toward publicity will help--forgive the phrase--spread the word. "If we do that, and if the program keeps getting stronger and stronger, we'll be all right," he continues. "We'll be around for a while."



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