It's one thing when mainstream media miss a religious "ghost," a religious or spiritual angle in a news story. It's quite another when they spot a ghost, then ridicule it.
It happened when the Washington Post wrote up the story of Kaleb Whitby, the driver in eastern Oregon whose SUV was wedged between two semis in a 26-car pileup.
Whitby's vehicle crumpled like tinfoil, yet he walked away with only scratches. He told reporters that he'd prayed as the crash happened, and he thanked God for his survival.
A very normal reaction, whatever the theological issues. But the Post's writer, or his editor, rolled his eyes:
“Thank God that I’m still alive,” Whitby told the Oregonian. “Now I’ve got to go figure out why.”
Divine sources did not immediately respond to this reporter’s repeated requests for comment, so for now we’ll just have to attribute Whitby’s improbable survival to good old-fashioned luck — and no small amount of it, either.
This cynicism, thank God (if you'll pardon the expression), wasn’t the rule in the crash coverage. The report by KTVK-3TV in Arizona actually went the other way: One of the anchors said she posted the crash video on her Facebook page, adding, "This guy definitely had an angel looking over him at this moment." Appropriate for Facebook, but a bit extreme in a news report, methinks.
The Oregonian, where the Post got much of its material, simply quoted Whitby -- "Thank God that I'm still alive. Now I've got to go figure out why" -- in a riveting narrative of the crash, and without a snide comment.
The Associated Press ran its usual workmanlike account of the pileup, number of cars, number of injuries, etc. It also added Whitby's "Thank God" quote from The Oregonian.
People magazine steered a middle course between luck and God. "Whitby knows he is lucky," the magazine says, but it does allow for something else.
One quote: "I put my head back, started to pray, closed my eyes and just gripped my hands as hard as I could on the wheel."
Another: "There wasn't anything I did that let me survive. I know that I was somehow protected. After all of the bagging, clanging and crushing stopped, I knew I was going to be okay."
The Daily Mail's coverage was more spectral, covering the crash with text and a lavish nine photos and a video, all without a hint of God or prayer. At least it didn't indulge in lame Post-style jokes.
The dismissive attitude by journalists was apparently worse on another crash. Remember Sailor Gutzler, the 7-year-old girl who walked away from a Jan. 2 plane crash that killed the rest of her family? Well, my colleague Bobby Ross found some religious ghosts in news coverage of that incident as well. So did the Gutzlers' pastor, the Rev. Matthew Wietfeldt; he offered some observations about what the media reported, and what it ignored:
“Dealing with the national media has taught me that they want sound bites. They don’t want to hear the gospel. Out of all the things I’ve said, only one or two of the local stations . . . have used anything of what we’ve been saying as the church: preaching the gospel and comforting people in the midst of tragedy."
So, credit where it's due -- both to People and to CNN. The network's New Day show carried a live interview with Whitby, allowing him to say he "closed my eyes and prayed that everything turned out OK. That was all I could do."
Whitby also thanked "my heavenly Father" for his survival, though with evident humility:
"I don't have the answers, and if I did, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. When things like that happen, and what I've kinda come to realize, is that it is a miracle and that I need to take that into my life and remember it, and now I need to figure out who I need to be in this life and what things I need to accomplish.
"Because how many people don't get the chance -- a second chance -- at escaping a situation like that?"
Sure, you can raise objections to Whitby's remarks. Why him? Why were 12 other people injured in the crash, four severely? And why didn't God spare the nine who died on icy roads in the Northeast on Sunday and Monday?
Valid questions all, part of everyday life and tragedy. But faith, optimism and a sense of purpose are other elements of life and help us outlast the tragedies.
If you're going to discuss such matters, they deserve serious discussion. What they don’t deserve is cynical jokes thinly veiled as news coverage. Neither do readers.