Last night the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty honored Eric Marrapodi, manager of CNN's Belief Blog, with its first Vine & Fig Tree Journalist Award. I had the pleasure of attending and had an absolutely fantastic time and enjoyed meeting or seeing again many folks on the Godbeat. I hadn't really thought about what the evening would be like going in so I was pleasantly surprised at what a celebration of religion reporting it was. It's really unusual to have even a small portion of a day set aside to honor good work or reflect on the importance of religion reporting.
Becket Fund President William P. Mumma got things going by talking about the Becket Fund, which fights for religious liberty on behalf of believers and non-believers alike. I wasn't recording what he said but I was touched by his discussion of how difficult it is to cover religion, pointing out that believers are particular about their doctrines and that it can be difficult to navigate the conflict between religious adherents. He said he admired those who did it well. He noted that religion and the press are linked by a desire to find truth -- a rather important point that I think we neglect. I recently read an essay about how the United States' emphasis on a free press is actually rooted -- from the infamous Zenger trial on -- in a particular understanding of the importance of voluntarily seeking religious truth.
Sally Quinn toasted Marrapodi with a nice speech about how every story is about religion and how CNN's BeliefBlog has done a great job showing that.
But it was Marrapodi's speech that was the best. He joked about how he grew up freelance Protestant (which, he said, just meant that they went to a lot of different churches). When he was younger, he was utterly convinced that the media were biased against believers. Once he got into actual journalism work, he came to realize it wasn't bias so much as ignorance. As he matured, he realized he was also ignorant of some things, which motivated him to study religion at Georgetown. He thanked his bosses who let him leave work early to take advantage of Lilly religion grant-funded courses at Georgetown. For three years!
Marrapodi talked about CNN's Belief Blog and how he started it, giving props to fellow founder Dan Gilgoff. He joked about the site's "broccoli and ice cream" approach -- a balance of light and substantive stories. "You've got to keep the lights on folks!" he said. "This is a business!" The site has been wildly successful, with some 90 million hits in its first year. And I think he said the site had some 250 million hits at this point. Marrapodi said that there is a great audience for good, honest reporting on religion -- and no religion.
It was all lovely. Marrapodi is a gracious award winner (and a great guy). And the night was a fun celebration of religion reporting. Congratulations to Marrapodi and to all who cover religion news well.