So what do you think of when you hear or read the word "evangelist"? Perhaps it would be better to frame the question this way: "Who do you think of when hear or read the word 'evangelist'?" I would predict that the average consumer of the news would give a simple response to the second question -- "Billy Graham." Truth is, Graham does fit the most common Protestant definition of that term. Here is a typical dictionary reference:
evan-ge-list ... Date: 13th century
(1) often capitalized: a writer of any of the four Gospels (2) a person who evangelizes; specifically: a Protestant minister or layman who preaches at special services
Now, with this in mind, consider the following attempts by the Associated Press to report on the conviction of the bizarre preacher and, many would argue, cult leader Tony Alamo of Arkansas. Here is the headline and the top of an early version of the story:
Jurors convict evangelist in sex-crimes trial
TEXARKANA, Ark. -- A federal jury has convicted evangelist Tony Alamo on charges he took underage girls across state lines for sex. ...
The jury found the 74-year-old Alamo guilty of all 10 counts he faced. The indictment accused him of taking girls as young as 9 across state lines as early as 1994.
Now, I have no way of knowing what happened next at the main Associated Press copy desk or at the regional bureau. But something happened that, only an hour later, radically improved the top of the story.
It's possible (I am an idealistic guy, at heart) that someone said, "Wait a minute. Who is this Tony Alamo and what does he do? What is he actually famous for? Is this guy actually a Christian 'evangelist,' in any meaningful sense of that word?" It's possible that someone who has been around for a few years even said, "Wait a minute. Isn't this the guy who kept his wife's corpse in the living room all those years because he was sure she was going to rise from the dead?"
Whatever happened, this is what the top of the basic Associated Press report looked like one hour later. The headline is still messed up, but check out the lede:
Jurors convict evangelist on 10 sex-abuse counts
TEXARKANA, Ark. -- Tony Alamo, a one-time street preacher who built a multimillion-dollar ministry and became an outfitter of the stars, was convicted Friday of taking girls as young as 9 across state lines for sex.
Alamo stood silently as the verdict was read, a contrast to his occasional mutterings during testimony. His five victims sat looking forward in the gallery. One, a woman he "married" at age 8, wiped away a tear.
"I'm just another one of the prophets that went to jail for the Gospel," Alamo called to reporters afterward as he was escorted to a waiting U.S. marshal's vehicle.
Now folks, that's much, much better. Instead of a mere label -- "evangelist," leaning toward "evangelical" -- we have some carefully chosen words that described what this man was known for doing. Accuracy is important.
Show us, don't tell us. Give us information, not vague labels. And it helps if you know what the word mean when you use them. The second report is greatly improved. Bravo.
On a personal note, let me confess that this story caught my eye for a simple reason. I actually met this strange fellow years ago while I was at the Charlotte Observer.
Alamo was in town to distribute anti-Catholic screeds and raise money and, somehow, he made it past security and got into the newsroom to put some of his disgusting tracts in the open mailboxes of all of the reporters and editors. Yes, he was dressed as Elvis at the time.
As you would imagine, this rather freaked everybody out. Also showed up next to my desk, on his way out, and said that he thought that I needed to write a column about him. I passed. Photo: Tony and Susan Alamo in the glory days.