One more salute to the holy terror

angelsI know that we have already pointed GetReligion readers to more than a few tributes to the late Deborah Howell. But I want to add one last comment, focusing for a second on her thoughts about how religion news often gets linked to the hot-button subject of media bias. I wrote my Scripps Howard News Service column about Howell this week, which you can read by clicking here. Let me salute whoever it was on the copy desk who came up with that "holy terror" headline.

While writing this column, I debated whether to go into first-person voice and share a comment or two -- in paraphrase -- from conversations that I had in the past with Howell, during her days at Newhouse News Service. It will not surprise you that we talked about mainstream religion news coverage and our mutual interest in the important work of Religion News Service.

The problem, of course, is that the conversations were not interviews. I was not taking notes. I remember her key point, but I don't have the words in a form that I felt comfortable using in a wire-service piece. I don't have the notes and those crucial direct quotes.

Luckily, years later, Howell put some of the same ideas into her farewell column at the Washington Post. MZ used this quote the other day, taken from Howell's comments on accountability and diversity, but I need to share it again.

* Devote more coverage to religion. When you see how many reporters cover sports and politics, it seems natural to add more coverage of a subject dear to many readers' hearts. This region has a wealth of religions with interesting stories. ... (T)wo religion reporters aren't enough.

* Make a serious effort to cover political and social conservatives and their issues; the paper tends to shy away from those stories, leaving conservatives feeling excluded and alienated from the paper. I'd like those who have canceled their subscriptions to be readers again. Too many Post staff members think alike; more diversity of opinion should be welcomed.

Now Howell was a liberal's liberal on religion and culture and didn't mind letting anyone know that, in ways both subtle and obvious. But she cared deeply about the role of the press in public discourse. She also knew that -- week after week -- she heard from readers who believed, often for valid reasons, that their religious beliefs were not being accurately and fairly covered.

To put it bluntly, was it in the interest of the mainstream press to continue to drive these readers away? Is there some way to cover a wide variety of religious believers in a way that rings true, both for the believers and for journalists who want to offer accurate, balanced, fair coverage of tough issues?

So this is what Howell told me. It pained her to see the press attacked (usually by the right), often for reasons that were invalid. It pained her even more for to see the press attacked (usually by the right), for reasons that were valid. The bottom line: If the press can do a better job covering religion, many of these critics will have less to criticize.

This is a journalism problem and the goal is to improve the journalism.

Will things ever be perfect? No way. Can the situation be improved? Yes. By journalists who want to hear criticism, and praise, from both sides sides of the sanctuary aisle and the political aisle.

In other words, Howell was known for her cursing. Why?

"She had a unique persona. She could be very intimidating. She knew how to browbeat people," said Mark O'Keefe, who worked for Howell on the Newhouse staff and as editor of Religion News Service. "It's easy to talk about her colorful language, but I also think it's important to understand why she used to get so upset. ...

"She was a fierce advocate for important stories that she really cared about and that was especially true when it came to covering religion."

The there is this from the current RNS editor:

In the mid-1990s, Howell urged Newhouse to purchase Religion News Service, the only mainstream wire service dedicated to covering religion news. In the years that followed, "She protected us, advocated for us, cajoled us, yelled at us, pushed us, swore at us and loved us," noted Kevin Eckstrom, the current RNS editor, in an online tribute. "She, more than any other person, is responsible for us weathering the media meltdown that has devastated daily journalism."

A cartoon in that newsroom says it all. In it, Howell is depicted as an angel hovering over the U.S. Capitol, while a second Howell -- a devil with a pitchfork -- gazes up in disgust, saying, "Give me a @?X!*$# break." An adult convert to the Episcopal Church, the editor cherished her two nicknames bestowed by friends -- Mother Mary Deborah and the Dragon Lady.

And there's one more testimony from O'Keefe:

Year after year, stressed O'Keefe, Howell used her national network of contacts in newsrooms, and her credibility as journalism pioneer, to pound away on the importance of religion in the news.

"She was so passionate," he said. "What she believed was that journalists can't understand this country and what makes it tick -- as well as lots of events around the world -- without understanding religion. ... She was like an invisible guardian angel out there behind the scenes, fighting in her own unique way for serious religion coverage in the mainstream press."

Carry on, people. Carry on.

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