The recent death of a newsman drew some unlikely praise from those who admired him. And it wasn't just for his skills as a writer and reporter.
McCandlish Phillips was also a religious man who left The New York Times at the top of his game to become an evangelist.
In his obituary, the Times said that Phillips had written one of the paper's most famous stories — revealing that a Ku Klux Klan leader in New York was also an Orthodox Jew. But the obituary also highlighted another characteristic that made Phillips stand out in a secular newsroom:
"An evangelical Christian, he kept a Bible on his desk and led prayer meetings for like-minded colleagues (there were none when he joined the paper, he noted ruefully) in a conference room off the newsroom.
"He refrained from smoking, drinking, cursing and gambling, each of which had been refined to a high, exuberant art in the Times newsroom — the last of these to such a degree that at midcentury the newspaper employed two bookmakers-in-residence, nominally on the payroll as news clerks."
Is that still a rarity today?
Carl Cannon, Washington editor of RealClearPolitics, thinks so.
"Although the number fluctuates, some 40 percent of the American people describe themselves as evangelical Christians. Yet in traditional U.S. news organizations, print or broadcast, such believers are a rarity," Cannon wrote in his first installment of The Problem with the Press. "The news coverage tends to reflect this disconnect. Evangelicals are often dismissed, particularly in political reporting, as exotic; or, worse, as a menace to civil society."
To make a case that budget cuts and a lack of Bible literacy has affected the quality of religion reporting, Cannon detailed examples of coverage during Holy Week that were "so inaccurate and off-key that they comprised a kind of impromptu 'Gong Show.’ ”
Another writer, Matt Lewis, agreed that a diversity of faith in the newsroom is important.
"Media outlets who want to understand America should at least have a few journalists hanging around who share — or at least, aren't hostile to — the Christian faith," he wrote in This Week.
He mentions several prominent news organizations with Christians on staff, including the Washington Post, USA Today, New York Times and Huffington Post, whose faith informs them. Lewis quotes HuffPo's senior political editor Jon Ward:
"(M)y identity is not based in how many bylines I have. It's not based on how many times I've been on television or how many people see my face or know about me. Of course, writers are driven by ego. Of course, George Orwell said that. My identity, though, is, I'm a sinner saved by grace. That's my identity."
Phillips apparently felt the same way. At age 46, he left journalism to work full-time in the ministry. He helped run the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a small Pentecostal church in New York City that he helped found.
But he continued to influence generations of journalists through the World Journalism Institute, which is affiliated with WORLD News Group, a Christian news outlet.
Emily Belz wrote in Worldmag.com how she and others were touched by Phillips' skill and sincerity. Among them was Russ Pulliam, a WORLD board member, who met Phillips in the 1970s while working for the Associated Press in New York City.
“I didn’t even know how to say, ‘How do we bring a Christian worldview to our work?’ ” Pulliam recalled. “I know for a number of younger Christians in journalism he was a friend who gave us guidance. He could go write a story and he would bring biblical principles to bear in it, and in such a subtle way. And The New York Times editors would love it.”
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