Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Sharing a few big ideas in a long goodbye

How do you telescope nearly 20 years of a show about religion into an hour or two?

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the PBS news magazine that made television religion-coverage history, announced late last year that it was ending its long run in mid-February of this year. It used its last two episodes to sum up the changes and trends the show has covered since its debut in September 1997.

Meanwhile, erstwhile funder, the Lilly Endowment, is sinking its money into another venture involving religion and ethics. More on that in a moment.

R&EN took awhile to wrap up what’s been an impressive haul of stories. Here’s a show that sent correspondents to cover the faith community’s help in cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina; the work of Catholic Relief Services after the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of southeast Asia and the deaths and elections of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the current Pope Francis.

Their Rome coverage alone was amazing considering they had not nearly the budget nor personnel as did the larger TV networks.

This month, the show’s correspondents each focused on a different aspect of the show’s coverage as well as which of the many things they covered still stands out. Judy Valente chose programs on America’s poor

JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: In my years reporting for Religion & Ethics, I interviewed many people who not only had compelling stories to tell, but ended up deeply touching my own life. One of those unforgettable people lived in tiny Pine Apple, Alabama, a place so poor many residents still get their water from outdoor spigots. Dr. Roseanne Cook cared for the poorest of Pine Apple’s poor. Not known to most of her patients, she also happens to be a Sister of St. Joseph, a Catholic nun. She told one story I will never forget, about being robbed on a secluded road.

Kim Lawton focused on the show’s interfaith coverage and the growth of the “nones.”

KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Over the last two decades, we’ve covered some major shifts across America’s religious landscape. When we first went on the air, the big religion demographics story had been the so-called “mainline decline” -- the significant loss of members in denominations that had long been considered the religious establishment. Interfaith dialogue usually consisted of Christians and Jews getting together.
One of the biggest changes since then has been a rising recognition of America’s complex religious diversity. In 2012, the Pew Research Center announced that while the US remains a majority Christian nation, for the first time ever, the share of Protestant Christians dropped below 50%. About 70 percent of Americans overall are Christians, but the number of Americans who are part of non-Christian faiths, especially Muslims and Hindus, continues to rise.
Another key demographic change has been the dramatic rise of the religiously-unaffiliated, the so-called “nones.” That’s N-o-n-e-s. Today, more than 20 percent of all Americans say they do not identify with any particular religion. And the drop in affiliation is especially evident among young adults.

Lucky Severson focused on interesting Christian personalities, such as Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber and the Rev. Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, N.J. 

Bob Abernethy focused on some of the best quotes from his lengthy interviews with older, wiser personalities, such as the late William Sloane Coffin, the late author Phyllis Tickle and author Frederick Buechner. After asking the latter about what makes him a believer, 

ABERNETHY: And then we talked about suffering.
BUECHNER: You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You can’t believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God and look at the horrors. But my answer to myself is, don’t give up hope. Don’t give up hope. God is greater than all those things. The holy transcends all the wretchedness.

Tim O’Brien talked about Supreme Court decisions in which religion played a part. And Fred de Sam Lazaro reported on his coverage of issues affecting women overseas: Fistulas in Ethiopia, sex trafficking, surrogate mothering and abortion in India. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: It feels somehow appropriate that the very last story I filed for this program was from Kolkata last week, about the legacy of Mother Teresa. It was from this city -- and on the same subject -- that I did my very first story for Religion & Ethics newsweekly. In nearly two decades, in hundreds of reports, grey -- like my own scalp -- became a dominant color. Few issues can be seen in absolutely black and white terms. They are fraught with complexity and often unforeseen consequences. Take surrogate motherhood -- a billion dollar industry in India in which poor women were hired to carry the fetuses of foreign biological parents.

He concludes:

It’s been a million mile journey, literally making the foreign less foreign. I could not have dreamed it would take me to Kalamazoo and Timbuktu. You saw it here.

It's easy to understand why they're all feeling quite nostalgic. Very few -- if any -- religion reporters had the travel budgets they got. One of the up sides of video is that you can't do reporting by phone!

I wrote not long ago about some of the reasons for R&EN’s demise, so I won’t repeat all that here, except to say that money from the Lilly Endowment steadily went down in recent years.

But Lilly is not out of the religion news business, I learned recently. It’s funding an “ethics and religion desk” on the website that appears to be mainly essays on religion and ethics submitted by academics. It’s not near as vibrant as actual news coverage and I’m guessing the show is getting a lot less than the $5 million+ that Religion & Ethics Newsweekly needed each year. But it is a mystery why Lilly robbed Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. But as tmatt keeps saying, "Opinion is cheap, news is expensive."

Twenty years is not a bad run in TV land. I just wish that something else was out there to replace it. Like maybe a cable news company or two? Even a old-school broadcast network?

Sadly, TV execs seem no more convinced today than they were two decades ago that broadcast religion news interests a lot of people. As the late AP religion writer George Cornell used to write, religion makes more money and involves more people than sports.

Anyone listening out there at Fox, CBS, NBC, CNN or ABC?

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