A Dart for CJR

Billy GrahamMany years ago and for several years, I subscribed to Columbia Journalism Review. Like most everybody I know, I read the funny mangled headlines in the back of the book first, then, like everybody I know, I read Darts and Laurels next.

The D&Rs were little vignettes about the good and bad things newspapers around the country were doing. You would read about publishers who killed stories about a car dealer paying off a city councilman because the car dealer was an advertiser and also belonged to the same country club, or the education reporter whose investigative work led to a school superintendent getting fired for spending the kid’s lunch money on a stripper.

It was all that industry insider stuff that navel-gazing journalists like to gossip about.

Darts and Laurels are now on the web and I like to stop in once in a great while. Here’s what I found today … a Dart to the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Months before the advent of Billy Graham and his evangelical Christian crusade in San Diego this spring, the Union-Tribune began spreading the news of his coming, and on Sunday, May 4, it let out all the stops. An adoring, eight-page, special section (heralded on page one) was devoted entirely to Graham – “Eternal words from a man for eternity,” ran the section’s front-page blurb – his followers, his mission, and its music, not to mention such mundane matters as the availability of parking and food. Meanwhile, a story in the news section seemed to imply that the absence of rain from the stadium during a preview student gathering had been the result of an organizer’s prayer. In all, from its first report about the newsworthy revival (December 28) to the final wrap-up on its great success (May 15), the Union-Tribune blessed Billy Graham’s mission with an awesome sixty-one photos and at least 24,500 words. As one believer put it in a letter to the editor, “Your coverage . . . served to magnify the message that Graham continues to bring to the world.”

Let’s see, the biggest evangelist in history at the end of his careerĀ is making his final appearance in town. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people will attend, and even more care. The only events that are comparable in magnitude are the Super Bowl and the World Series — on a purely local basis. Shouldn’t it get the same kind of coverage such mega events get (and having seen the coverage of a Super Bowl, I’m sure an SB gets more, and just as gushing)?

Here’s my complaint with this dart: It is being issued purely because the U-T did a lot of coverage. There is no mention of how the coverage might have been different or better, just that there is a lot of it. And gosh-gee, it’s positive coverage. And gosh-darn-it, it emphasizes the religious beliefs of the people involved.

If I didn’t know better — and I’m not sure that I don’t — I might be concerned that there is some anti-Christian bias going on here.

And the media wonders why many Christians don’t trust it.

Of course, there may be fair ground for criticizing the U-T coverage. Did the U-T delve into what happens to the millions of dollars BGC raise in a fair and objective manner? Did it question how many and what resources might be better spent within the city? Did it discuss the economic impact, for good or potentially ill? Did any story examine whether the Crusade is paying market value to rent the Stadium? Did any story examine whether workers at the Stadium were being fairly compensated for working the event? What about the cost of having police work overtime? Are people who are “saved” at a Crusade like to “backslide”? Are lives really changed, or is it all a facade? What studies have been done that can answer these questions beyond the merely anecdotal?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but the point is, presumably, neither does Gloria Cooper, author of the column, because she doesn’t raise any of those issues herself. She doesn’t suggest how the U-T coverage might have been better, only that there was too much of it. And given the magnitude of the event, it’s a hard charge to sustain, which is why I raise this question for Ms. Cooper — is there anti-Christian bias going on here?

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