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Acts of faith: Jon Meacham talks religion and journalism

Good news: print media and religion aren’t dead in America. Yet.

So claimed Newsweek magazine editor and Pulitzer prize-winning writer Jon Meacham as he addressed the Lecture Hall in Journalism on Wednesday evening. Meacham is the second speaker in a year-long series entitled “Covering Conflict” co-sponsored by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, the Journalism School, and the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion.

This series, which is the brainchild of IRCPL co-director Mark Taylor, invites representatives who run the gamut of expertise in religion and journalism to join a “conversation.” At the first event in the series, James Traub, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, discussed the current situations in Iran and Iraq.

Prompted with questions by professor of religion Randall Balmer, Meacham began the conversation by talking about his upbringing in his grandfather’s house. Surrounded by stories and political drama and experiencing the behind-the-scenes happenings at his grandfather’s whetted an early interest in history and politics. His Episcopalian beliefs are also a family tradition.

Meacham described the intersection between politics and religion as “the way we are outside our houses.” He takes history, and religious history in particular, seriously in his work. “When people ask me why are you so interested in religion, I ask them back why are you not—a far more interesting question,” said Meacham.

Meacham’s coverage of religion hasn’t always followed the smoothest path. After his 2004 Newsweek cover story on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” suggested that the movie was anti-Semitic, Meacham received e-mails saying, “I’m praying for you but I hope you go to hell.” Meacham took the response in stride.

When the question of the future of print media in the face of digital revolution arose, Meacham looked the questioner squarely in the eye and responded, “We [print journalism] are not doomed.” He explained that the challenge of editors and news institutions is two-fold: keeping readers interested and understandng the basic economics of publishing.

“Few people think, ‘Wow, I really want to know what the New York Times has to say about this.’ People think ‘Wow, I really want to know what [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman has to say about this,” said Meacham. In a society interested in individual voices or subjects, news institutions have to “struggle to be surprising—interesting, but not puzzling. It’s hard to shift your thinking.”

The lecture attracted an audience of mainly journalism and religion students. Some, like Joanna Nikas, Journalism ’11, came to hear Meacham’s views on the future of print media. “I feel like I’ve heard other people express these same views before,” Nikas said.

Other attendees were more impressed. “I enjoyed Meacham so much,” enthused SIPA student Rikha Rani. “You can’t understand politics without religion nowadays, and he just added so much to the discussion.”

Meacham said that the days of the religion desk in the newsroom are over. “The journalists who will survive and thrive in this era are those who are able to think holistically and not just see through a narrow lens,” he said.

“Meacham’s focus was more cultural,” said Emily Brennan, assistant director of the IRCPL. “I think it went really well, better than anything we’ve ever done—Meacham has just done so much work in this field.”

IRCPL Executive Media Director Norris Chumley added, “I found his explanation of the notion of covering religion as a ‘liberal arts reporter’ fascinating. This intersection of religion and culture is exactly what the IRCPL is trying to promote.”


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