Nailing down a reporter's passion

empty anchor deskLaila Kain's very long article in the Hartford Courant's NE magazine on the departure of longtime television news anchor Steve Bunnell from the news business to the evangelism business is a great example of what can be done when a journalist gets a whole lot of space to fill and a whole lot of time to fill it. There are some very good sections in the 3,100-word article that draw Bunnell's reasons for leaving the anchor chair for the pulpit, but I found a lot of it to be relatively ho-hum material, including how Bunnell puts on his makeup before a show and the happy yelps of his children as they play in the backyard pool. This is a great story that needs telling, and I think it's great that NE devoted so much space to it. I just wish the editors had tweaked the focus in a couple of areas.

Maybe this is just me, but I would have liked to hear more about Bunnell's theology and how his passion changed from the news business to the pastorate. In particular, why is he going to Touchstone Christian Fellowship, a new church in Sacramento?

There was also a lot about politics, which is fine, but I'm not that impressed with Bunnell's liberal evangelical beliefs. Kain seems to believe that a liberal evangelical is some sort of oxymoron that needs detailed explaining. She's probably correct for the average reader, but I think she betrayed her surprise in less-than-necessary dramatic writing:

Bunnell fiercely believes in the Fourth Estate's watchdog role, reads the U.S. News & World Report regularly and New York Times online. He watches PBS and jokes about the "fair and balanced" reporting on Fox news.

If stereotypes were true, he could be the poster boy for the liberal press.

Except for his faith.

As an evangelical Christian, he believes in the urgency of saving souls in this fallen world -- nonbelievers being doomed to Hell, a real and everlasting conscious punishment.

In evangelical thinking, one is spared this fate or saved through Jesus Christ and personal conversion, enriched by the study of a Bible believed without errors.

As one among the saved, Bunnell prays daily and studies the Bible constantly, accessing it on his Palm Pilot. To prepare for his new profession, he listens to sermons on his iPod while running and on his computer at work. A longtime fan of Christian music, he is married to Shirley Bunnell, a well-known Christian singer/songwriter and recording artist.

If religious stereotypes held, Bunnell should be an advocate for the religious right.

Except for his politics.

In truth, Bunnell votes Democratic, bemoans the role of religion in politics, and has been a critic of the Iraq war "from the word go."

Not the typical evangelical, nor the usual newscaster.

Bunnell's political beliefs are interesting, but again, not earth-shattering. They certainly need explaining, but rather than telling us what news outlets Bunnell prefers, maybe tell us how his daily readings of the Bible affect his outlook on the world? What is his favorite Bible verse? Favorite philosopher? At what point in his life did he become a Christian, and how did that affect his outlook on being a journalist?

The second part of the story that I found fascinating was Bunnell's discouragement with the news business. This is where I felt Kain was at her best, as she documented the litany of abuses Bunnell believes the news media inflict on the public:

"We have a friend who won't let her kids play on her front lawn because she thinks it's too dangerous. Why? She watches the news. I tell her violent crime is lower than when we were kids. Does she believe me? I don't know.

"It's like that shark summer when some station in Florida saw ratings spike with a shark story. Before you knew it, there were shark stories in every market. Truth was, the record of shark attacks that year was lower than normal. You'd never know it from TV."

Across the business, Bunnell says, the driving force is ratings: the higher the number of folks watching, the higher the advertising rates, the better the bottom line. Across the nation, stations think the way to win viewers is with an increasingly sensational selection of stories and a constant, urgent sense of big, breaking news.

"In truth 'breaking news' is whatever has happened, whether it's big or not," he explains. "The point is to make it feel big. If we can fool viewers into thinking it's big, then they'll watch and we'll make more money.

"Really, I can't do this any more. In good conscience, I have to ask: Does this amount to selling my soul?"

In reading the article, I definitely absorbed the feeling that Bunnell is a burdened man. He is burdened for the nation, the news business, himself and Christians in politics. Bunnell's passion really shone through. It reminded me of a piece out of Sports Illustrated on why some famous athlete decided to hang it up early to do something more significant.

The article concludes with this quote from Bunnell: "It's very sad for me. I mourn for the business, and frankly, I mourn for our nation." Well, I would like to mourn over the quiz that accompanied the article. It's sadly revealing.

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