Godbeat nostalgia: 38-year Newsweek scribe Kenneth L. Woodward tells (almost) all

Kenneth L. Woodward had a remarkably long run as Newsweek’s religion writer (1964–2002) overlapping most of the newsmagazine’s heyday under Washington Post ownership. He’s out with a memoir whose title befits this blog: “Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama” (Convergent, $30).

The book will interest journalists first as a readable rundown of important religion events starting with the Second Vatican Council’s final phase. Also, Woodward muses about American culture’s radical change from his Ike-era boyhood centered on family, plus neighborhood, plus church, plus school.

This Memo treats a third aspect, nostalgia about Newsweek’s once-thriving Godbeat, a high-pressure gig with millions of readers and all those deadlines -- countless 3 a.m. closings.

Disclosure:  As Time’s religion writer for two decades, and a correspondent beforehand and afterward, I waged competition against Ken and the weekly we spoke of as “Brand X.”   
Newspaper types were mystified by New York-based writers drawing reportage from field correspondents, but it was a flexible, content-rich system. Woodward says in 38 years “the only really Newsweek-worthy Protestant convention I covered” in person was one Presbyterian assembly.

Depicting the decline of Newsweek to its present reduced status, Woodward says “you couldn’t really hear the death rattle until management began to close its news bureaus around the world.”  Readers also benefited from excellent editorial libraries and reporter-researchers like Time religion’s talented Michael Harris of blessed memory, a Cornell Ph.D fluent in Arabic, Greek and Latin.

Newsweek Editor Osborn Elliott, who formerly worked at Time, knew he was getting scooped on the big Vatican Council story. Applicant Woodward had given little thought to the Council, never read Newsweek, and had experience only at an Omaha weekly, but Elliott hired him thanks to a Catholic background, Notre Dame degree, and good clippings. (Time also offered Woodward  a bureau job.) Years later he explored a move to The New York Times but decided “my stories reach mailboxes in the Middle West and the magazine is around all week to be picked up.” He also figured the “collective outlook" at the Times was "stridently and pervasively secularist.”

(Coincidences: Early in his career the Religion Guy preferred Newsweek to Time, and after newspapering and Army service nearly landed a bureau job there and would have filed material to Woodward!  A decade later, the Times offered the Guy its religion post but he made a difficult -- and fortunate -- decision to stick with Time.)

Woodward contends that “only the newsmagazines commanded national audiences, and for the interested general reader only Time and Newsweek consistently covered religion as an important dimension of public life.” That’s truthy, but The AP and UPI could say the same, as could major dailies to the extent they had non-local readers and wire distribution.

In a Wall Street Journal review, D.G. Hart says many U.S. believers think the media have “a secular bias that treats religion as an obstacle to progress, justice, and equality” but this book offers “a welcome reminder that it all depends on the reporter.”

Well, it also all depends on the editor. Thanks to Presbyterian co-founder Henry Luce, Time pioneered and took pride in weekly religion sections, which in turn influenced Newsweek. (U.S. News and The Economist were late to the game and never embraced weekly reportage.) Time’s heritage lasted well beyond Luce’s death in 1967 and at least one top editor was keenly interested in religion, even if not personally religious. When that ceased to be so, weekly coverage suffered.

Thanks to Luce, “religion was in the air the editors breathed” at Time, Woodward remarks, and the magazines’ “editorial voice, especially at Time, was that of a single omniscient narrator.” The Guy found Woodward’s prose generally more individualistic -- and opinionated –- than Time’s handling of religion. Or what do readers from that fading era think?  

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