The late Peter Jennings of ABC World News Tonight was a remarkably candid man, when it came to talking about the perils of asking mainstream journalists to cover religion news and trends. I only met him once, face to face, during an Oct. 5, 1993, event at Columbia University sponsored by the Freedom Forum. It focused on efforts to improve mainstream religion reporting, of course, and Jennings was on the hunt for a professional that he thought could handle that job at ABC News. That's the start of a long, long story. We had several telephone conversations about that project.
I will always remember the illustration that Jennings used to illustrate the challenge that he was facing. Here's how I reported that, in a column at the time of Jennings' death. The setting is the Columbia conference:
The anchorman tried to blend in, but a circle formed around him during a break. It was easy to explain why he was there, he said. There is a chasm of faith between most journalists and the people they cover day after day. Six months later, I called him and asked to continue to conversation.
Anyone who has watched television, said Jennings, has seen camera crews descend after disasters. Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: "How did you get through this terrible experience?" As often as not, a survivor replies: "I don't know. I just prayed. Without God's help, I don't think I could have made it."
What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence. "Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don't come right out and say it, goes something like this: 'Now that's very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?' "
For most viewers, he said, that tense pause symbolizes the gap between journalists and, statistically speaking, most Americans. This is not a gap that is in the interest of journalists who worry -- with good cause -- about the future of the news.
The key, Jennings told me, is that news events are "real." Disasters are real. Danger, death and suffering are real. Thus, the reporters want "real" answers, which means they need answers that are centered in the real world. That's their job. Give us the facts.
Faith, on the other hand, is not "real" to many journalists. When ordinary people talk about faith in these settings, many reporters get uncomfortable. Don't these victims realize that they are not helping the journalists do their jobs?
I've been thinking about Jennings again while watching the amazing YouTube videos of some of the miners reaching the surface after their physical, mental and, yes, spiritual ordeals in that purgatorial mine in Chile.
This is one of the cases in which I really, really, wish I could speak Spanish. In the YouTube at the top of this post, the Sky News anchor at one point, 2:30 or so into the video, says something that sounds like, "Amazing Grace." Or perhaps it is, "They embrace." Why? What did the miner say?
This is interesting, to me, because the miner in question is Richard Villarroel, the subject of an exclusive interview in the Washington Post that ran with the headline, "In weeks before rescuers made contact, miners struggled with despair." This is the passage on which many will focus:
Two miners and relatives said the men had made a pact to keep secret the discord that was a part of their struggle. But Daniel Sanderson, a miner whose shift had ended hours before the disaster, said he later received a letter from one of the trapped men in which he recounted disagreements that led to blows.
"There were fistfights," Sanderson said in an interview. He would not reveal what the fights were about.
Many of the miners, in comments after the rescue, repeated a message of unity and hope under near-impossible circumstances, the same theme of solidarity offered by President Sebastian Pinera's government.
Rest assured that more details will be forthcoming and it will not surprise me if there were faith elements to the tensions.
However, this is the passage that stuck with me -- especially in light of that Baptist Press story that said there were "conversions" among the men down in the mineshaft.
The men split into groups, each with a special task. Villarroel was in charge of maintaining the electrical system. He also talked about the positive role of older, more experienced and hard-bitten men such as Jose Henriquez, 56, a miner trained to perforate holes who is also an evangelical pastor.
"I had never prayed before," Villarroel said. Then, 17 days after the mine collapsed, a drill bit chewed a narrow hole from the surface all the way to the roof of the mine.
Yes, the story really does lurch from that short direct quote about prayer into the detail about the drill bit reaching them from the surface. That's one paragraph. It almost looks like a formatting error took place, because journalists rarely put direct quotes in the same paragraph with paraphrased information, unless there is a direct connect. What gives? Was something removed after the quote?
Anyway, Villarroel talks about the positive influence of this miner/pastor, in an interview about despair and efforts to build unity and hope among the trapped men. Then he says that he learned to pray, for the first time, in the mine.
That's that. Moving on. Back to reality.
All together: "Now that's very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?"