It is a joy and an honor to join GetReligion, as this site has done much to shape my understanding of the dynamics involved in news coverage of religious issues.
I am a very traditional religious believer with a decidedly unorthodox background. I am also a journalist. Put that together and some people think I'm controversial, especially those with long memories who remember when, as a new Christian convert, I was outspoken on issues relating to sexual morality and abortion. Nearly 10 years ago, that outspokenness -- along with an error of misplaced zeal -- lost me a newspaper job, as I'll relate here momentarily.
But here is the bottom line: having put in years in New York City newsrooms, not to mention decades as a rock music historian, I know the value of a free press, and I want to see mainstream journalists produce accurate, fair, balanced reporting on faith issues. That's why I am here at GetReligion.
New York City is in fact my birthplace (technically: Mom was rushed from New Rochelle to a Brooklyn hospital) and raised Reform Jewish -- sort of. Although I was a bat mitzvah, I was also exposed to various New Age practices after my parents' divorce, as my mother explored the Seventies religion smorgasbord.
During my late teens, I lost my faith and became an agnostic. My faith had not been well grounded or fostered; moreover, I had suffered an evil -- childhood sexual abuse -- that led me to doubt God's love for me.
I found solace in music, especially the oldies. During my twenties, in the 1990s, I was a rock historian, writing for Mojo, Salon and New York Press, among others, and interviewing artists such as Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson and Del Shannon. I specialized in writing liner notes for compact-disc reissues of Sixties pop artists -- the more obscure, the better. Last year, New York Times Magazine freelancer Alexandra Molotkow did a story on my work researching one such artist, Curt Boettcher. ("Edifying," said GR's Mollie Hemingway.)
In December of 1995, when I was 27 and living in Hoboken, N.J., a Los Angeles rock musician I was interviewing by phone, Ben Eshbach of the Sugarplastic, mentioned he was reading a novel by an author unfamiliar to me: G.K. Chesterton. Afterwards, I picked up a copy of the novel, The Man Who Was Thursday.
Here is a clip of me from around that time, interviewing Jonathan Richman (beginning with a question that his drummer, Tommy Larkins, suggested I ask).
Intrigued by The Man Who Was Thursday, I began to seek out all the Chesterton material I could get my hands on. That eventually led me to seek out what had inspired the author, and so I attempted regular reading of Scripture, including the Gospels. Finally, there came a day in October 1999 when I opened the Bible and it was no longer just black-and-white words on a flat page. The words became alive -- God speaking to my heart. So I got baptized at a local Adventist fellowship whose pastor kindly agreed to my wish for a "generic" baptism, rather than one that would include the Adventist baptismal vows.
As I church-hopped in search of a faith community, I found professional community in New York City's conservative media underground of the early 2000s (and believe me, it was very underground at the time). My Virgil was Matt Berke, then managing editor of First Things, a great Jewish religion journalist I met in early 2001 on the NJ Transit Midtown Direct train. Matt told me about the Fabiani Society, a monthly social gathering of conservative journalists sponsored by the Manhattan Institute. (He had a gift for connecting people; he also introduced R.R. Reno to First Things. Reno is now the journal's editor in chief.)
The journalists and other creative folk I met at Fabiani, including James Taranto, introduced me to the blog world, which was still fairly new in 2001, and helped inspire me to start my own blog, The Dawn Patrol. But it was actually one of my old friends from the music biz, Irwin Chusid, who helped me get into mainstream journalism, by introducing me to masterful New York Post copy-desk pro Joshua Tanzer.
Through Joshua, who had authored such classic headlines as "Martha Stewart stock falling like a bad soufflé," I obtained a tryout at the Post copy desk in early 2002, and the rest is headline history. (That last link will take you to the headline of mine that won first place in the 2004 New York State Associated Press Awards for "Brightest Headline.")
I can't remember when GetReligion first entered my consciousness, but I do recall the day in February 2005 when I merited (some might say demerited) two posts in one day: Jeremy Lott's "Darkness at Dawn" and tmatt's "Dawn of the Deed: Was the mistake fatal?" The posts popped up after a profile of me by George Gurley in the New York Observer detailed how I was fired from the Post after altering a story -- adding additional information to offer some balance -- in a way that reflected my pro-life sympathies.
The issues surrounding my firing were complicated by the fact that the specific reason Post editor-in-chief Col Allan cited to me for the dismissal was not that I made the unauthorized changes, for which I apologized. Rather, he said to me, "I'm very concerned about your blog."
At that time, I was using my blog, The Dawn Patrol, to launch trenchant (and, I now regret, often personal and un-Christian) attacks upon Planned Parenthood, feminists and others with whom I disagreed on culture-war topics.
At that time, tmatt observed,
In the newspapers where I have worked, the changes she made would have been considered on the pushy side, but not fatal. They are right at the point where you should clear them with an editor, or the reporter, if you can. No way you get fired for this stuff. The blogging on company time issue is something else -- a whole new source of tension between journalists and their bosses.
Just for the record, even if tmatt is right that my offense was not fireable, it was wrong. I realized that at the time it came to light, and apologized; I realize it more clearly now. The right thing would have been to manifest my concerns to those in charge. Given the reigning environment at the Post (in tmatt's words, "not a culturally conservative newspaper"), I would still have lost my job, but my conscience would have been clear.
I did enjoy a kind of parting shot -- but one that helped rather than hurt my employer. As I was heading out the door, behind the copy chief (who had tried to prevent my firing) as he chivalrously carried my proverbial box for me, I called out a headline to deputy chief Milt Goldstein, who was going to be in charge that coming Saturday, the day of a Donald Trump wedding.
A couple of days or so before my firing, while I was awaiting the axe to fall, I had an experience that led me to believe in the truth of the Catholic faith. Here is how I told the story to Marcus Grodi on EWTN's "The Journey Home."
It was not long before I was hired by the Post's main rival, the New York Daily News, which at the time had the upper hand in the tabloid wars. News editor-in-chief Michael Cooke learned of me through a brilliant profile by the New York Observer's George Gurley, "Eden in Exile." Loving my Post headlines and accepting my contrition, Cooke made me assistant news editor for the paper's national edition, which was soon to relaunch. (He also had me write the News' first-ever column exclusively devoted to online media, "Blog On," which ran for a few months but never really caught on.)
I will always be grateful to Cooke, as well as Martin Dunn (then Cooke's second-in-command; he later took his place), for giving me a second chance, and to Robert Shields, my editor at the national edition, who gave me the opportunity to prove myself.
Shields was also true to his name, shielding me from colleagues who distrusted me due to what I had done at the Post and on The Dawn Patrol. Under his gentle guidance, I did a general cleanup of my blog and reined in the polemic language.
In early 2006, an opportunity for a secondary assignment arose thanks to the kindness of fellow Newsie Jay Maeder, who just passed away at 67. Jay was stepping down from his post as editor of the paper's popular "Big Town" series of articles on New York City history, and recommended me to replace him. The recommendation seemed to me as a great gift of divine providence, because Jay hardly knew me, though he was aware of my reputation as a rock historian. Jay also provided the inspiration for what would be the new theme of the series under my editorship: everyday heroes, ordinary people who gave of their time and talents to make the city better.
At Shields' suggestion, "Big Town" was renamed "Big Town, Big Heart." It was my joy to edit the four-day-a-week feature for the first year of its relaunch. You can see how one installment of the column looked in the print edition here, and find links to all the columns from my editorship here. Around the same time that I began editing that feature, I was switched to the News' weekly editions for Brooklyn and Queens, for which I was deputy news editor.
I entered the Catholic Church in April 2006. Later that year, my first book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, became a sleeper hit, surprising everyone, including me. It was translated into Spanish, Polish and Chinese, and led to my giving more than 100 public talks on three continents. (I believe I hold the honor of being the only chastity speaker ever to have been invited back to speak for a second time at Georgetown University.)
My days at the News ended in June 2007 when I quit to work for a Catholic nonprofit in Washington, D.C. Various factors contributed to my decision. For some time, I had been made aware that a colleague (whose identity was never revealed to me) kept a file of printouts of volatile past blog posts I had edited or deleted. His plan, I was told, was to bring it up as Exhibit A if I were ever in line for a promotion. Additionally, at a time when I was receiving requests to speak on The Thrill of the Chaste, a supervisor told me I could no longer use up my vacation days one day at a time, as I was doing when I needed to give a talk: "Here in the newsroom, we don't take vacation days. We take vacation weeks."
Although there were many people at the newspaper who treated me with kindness, respect, and professionalism, it was clear that it was time to move on. I have great respect for people of orthodox Christian faith who can handle the tension of being odd-man or odd-woman-out in a newsroom, but my skin is not thick enough.
It was in Washington that I discerned a call to study theology, which I have been doing full-time since 2008. This past May, I graduated the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies with a sacred-theology licentiate, magna cum laude. The STL is a degree licensed by the Holy See that qualifies me to teach on the seminary level. I am now entering the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, to continue toward a sacred-theology doctorate, in hope of becoming a professor. My doctoral dissertation will continue the research I began with my STL thesis, "Love Unleashed by Dolor: St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Paul II on Redemptive Suffering in Light of the Resurrection."
In 2012, Ave Maria Press published my second book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. The book gives a Catholic spirituality of healing from childhood sexual abuse through the lives of saints who suffered abuse or other forms of trauma -- from Church doctors like Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, to lesser-known figures like Josephine Bakhita and Margaret of Castello. I also share my own story as a victim/survivor who has found healing through Christ and the Church.
My Peace has been translated into Spanish and Slovak (with a Polish translation on the way). In August 2013, I shared its message on EWTN's "Life on the Rock."
My next book, due in January, is a Catholic edition of The Thrill of the Chaste. Whereas the original was for a Protestant publisher and targeted to single women, the new version is aimed at Catholic men and women, offering a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to live chastely as an unmarried person in the Catholic Church.
So, my life has been quite a story; what's more, between my move to Illinois, new school, and new book, several new chapters will begin over the coming months.
Joining GetReligion is yet another chapter, a return to regular involvement in the mainstream journalism world. I look forward to getting into the rhythms and style of this blog and learning to find religion ghosts. My goal is to be at least as prolific as Mollie Hemingway, so that I might one day be called your "Ghostess with the Mostess."
(Sorry about the pun, but what do you expect from a former New York Post-ess?)