Anyone who knows their religion-beat history knows this byline -- George W. Cornell of the Associated Press.
When he died in 1994, the national obituaries called him the "dean of American religion writers" and that was precisely the role that he played for decades, especially for those of us who broke into the religion-news business back in the 1970s and '80s.
However, when I did a series of interviews with him in 1981, for my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ("The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets") he simply described himself as the AP's religion writer for all of planet earth. How would you like to try to handle that job? (The Vatican bureau didn't count, he explained, because editors tended to view that as a political and international-news bureau.)
George had a private tradition in which, every year, he analyzed the Associated Press list of the world's top 10 stories and counted the ones that -- seen through his veteran eyes -- were built on facts and history rooted in religion. He never saw a year with fewer than five of these stories, he told me, and frequently there would be more than that.
Ah, he explained, but were the religion facts and angles in these stories (a) covered accurately, (b) presented in a way that could be understood by the general public or (c) covered AT ALL?