It's interesting -- "ironic" may be a better word -- how many people sent me emails asking if I saw the New York Times "Beliefs" column this week focusing on the work of Marvin Olasky and World magazine, the one with the headline: "A Muckraking Magazine Creates a Stir Among Evangelical Christians."
"Ironic"? We'll get to that.
Columnist Mark Oppenheimer later noted, on Twitter, that many readers didn't seem to realize that the word "muckraking" is -- among real journalists -- a word that can be used as a compliment. That was the point of his column, in a word.
Before we go further, please understand that Olasky is I friend of mine, yet a friend with whom I have enjoyed many years of debates over very important questions about faith and journalism. You could not ask for a more interesting man with whom to have a meaningful and productive argument.
It is very old hat that many people on the political and religious left (liberal evangelicals, in particular) really, really, do not like Olasky's brand of advocacy journalism, which is interesting since he is a convert to Calvinist Christianity who was once a Jewish atheist and a member of the Communist Party. Oppenheimer focused -- note the headline -- on the fact that Olasky also gets under the skins of many people on the political and religious right because he is not a PR man for the Republican establishment. Ditto for the evangelical establishment, come to think of it. The typical World issue contains few, if any, ads from evangelical book publishers.
Thus, Oppenheimer writes, concerning recent World reporting on a fallen superstar, the Rev. Mark Driscoll:
... Mr. Driscoll cannot take all the credit for his own downfall. For one thing, any faithful Christian would give Satan his due, for leading Mr. Driscoll astray. Then there is the role played by World, an evangelical Christian newsmagazine that broke one of the most damaging stories about Mr. Driscoll. In March, World reported that $210,000 in Mars Hill church funds had gone to a marketing firm that promised to get “Real Marriage,” a book written by Mr. Driscoll and his wife, on best-seller lists.
World was not the only outlet to take on Mr. Driscoll. The blogger Warren Throckmorton, in particular, persistently chronicled concerns about Mars Hill for the website Patheos. But the story about best-seller lists was also not the first scoop for World, and Mr. Driscoll was not the first conservative Christian leader that the magazine had taken on.
In short, Olasky is no man's PR person. However, he is also a critic of the American Model of the press, which emerged in the mid- to late-19th Century and was built on a commitment to seek reporting that was accurate, balanced and fair to voices on both sides of critical public debates. Note the modesty of the word "seek."
Olasky's magazine has an open and clear bias in favor of a conservative, Protestant take on biblical Christianity. That's the lens through which he views the world and he is very honest about that. Click here to explore that point of view, at book length.
So why does he aim some of his journalistic bullets at people inside, so to speak, his own tent? Oppenheimer connected some interesting dots:
The Jewish newspaper The Forward gleefully reports on the foibles of communal leaders, and Commonweal, run by lay Catholics, publishes work critical of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But evangelical Protestant journalism is generally more public relations than reporting; World stands out as an exception.
“We’re a Christian publication but not a movement organ,” Mr. Olasky said. “So we can publicly criticize Christian leaders from other organizations. Other publications tend to be more within the camp” — published by a particular denomination, for example — “and they don’t want to engage in criticism.” ...
Mr. Olasky said that there is no contradiction between Christian faith and reporting on the dark side of Christianity. “We don’t have to cover up, because we do have faith that God forgives and saves the sinner.”
The key here, for me, is that Olasky has a theological motive for believing that journalism -- yes, advocacy journalism -- has a place in God's glorious, yet fallen creation. That's an idea that irritates many Christians in high places. Trust me on that.
I had a chance to talk with Oppenheimer about that as he was working on the piece, in part because of GetReligion.org and the fact that I have been quoted in the past critiquing Olasky and his views on Christians in journalism (there does not seem to be an active link to an NPR piece on that topic that caused some turmoil). Thus, there was this quote at the very end of the "Beliefs" piece:
“Marvin believes that sometimes you have to tear the scab off for healing to happen,” Terry Mattingly, the founder of the blog GetReligion.org, which tracks representations of religion in the secular media, said of Mr. Olasky. “He is running Rolling Stone for cultural conservative evangelicals. It’s just that Rolling Stone isn’t going to tell you what their Bible is -- maybe it’s the Kinsey Report?” he said. “Marvin will hand you one of his.”
Yes, some of the people who asked if I had read this piece may not have made it to the end. And then there were people who were curious about my chosen metaphor:
Why Rolling Stone?
To be blunt, what we have here are two journals of news and opinion that are reported, written and edited with strong -- but radically different -- worldviews. In terms of journalism philosophy, there are lots of similarities.
Yes, we are talking about advocacy journalism, with a 19th Century, old-school European muckraking approach. That's one valid approach to journalism, especially when it is done in an open and honest manner. As opposed to ....