BOB GARFIELD: Last year 16 million viewers tuned in to ABC to watch Peter Jennings reporting The Search for Jesus. Jennings and his network have long claimed that audiences like that emphasize the importance of religion in its reporting and specials, but in ABC's latest round of money-saving moves, network television's only dedicated religion reporter, Peggy Wehmeyer, didn't make the cut. Filling the void or trying to at least is Beliefnet.com, a web site that bills itself as a multimedia company for religion and spirituality. Joining us now is Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Roslyn [sp?], Virginia. Charles, welcome to OTM!
CHARLES HAYNES: Thanks! Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: So ABC has let go Peggy Wehmeyer. Is this more evidence that we have a godless media?
CHARLES HAYNES: [LAUGHS] Well I think it's a bad message at a bad, at a bad time! Just when we thought things were getting better in terms of religion coverage, it sends the message that religion is expendable.
BOB GARFIELD:In fact ABC has kind of used Peggy as a poster child for their commitment to religion coverage. They've been the only network in the last number of years to have a full time religion correspondent.
CHARLES HAYNES: Well we've all been using her as a poster person. I mean we've, we've pointed to her and said look -- things are getting better. A network now has a full time religion reporter. So now we don't have anyone to point to. It is disturbing.
BOB GARFIELD:Apart from the coverage of the religion right in politics in the United States and maybe ethnic and religious rivalries in the Balkans and in Africa and elsewhere, the whole coverage of religion in mainstream media seems to be quite ghetto-ized. Do you think that's true as well?
CHARLES HAYNES: Oh, I think so. I think it's treated as something people used to believe a long, long time ago but is not really imp-- that important today unless there's a conflict, but religious events in and of themselves are developments that affect the lives of millions of people -- that doesn't seem to be newsworthy.
BOB GARFIELD: If you were the sultan-- how would things change?
CHARLES HAYNES:Well I think that journalism schools ought to consider requiring that journalists have some background in religious studies! I mean we are the most religiously diverse nation in the entire world; we -- among developed nations --we're the most religious people, and yet our journalists by and large come out into the field and are unprepared to deal with all of that!
BOB GARFIELD: You're not suggesting that reporters-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
CHARLES HAYNES: I think [...?...]--
BOB GARFIELD: -- themselves have to be-- spiritual or--believers but that they have to understand-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
CHARLES HAYNES: Oh, no.
BOB GARFIELD: -- the society that they're reporting in and on.
CHARLES HAYNES:These are not religious arguments for taking religion seriously; that's not-- appropriate for journalism, and I'm not making those arguments. These are really civic arguments --that is to say if we - if we're going to be fair in our press, in our media, we've got to really let the voices be heard! We've got to be attentive to who lives in the country and what they care about!
BOB GARFIELD:You would never send a reporter to cover Washington, for example, without him understanding how Congress works - the separation of powers and you know how a bill becomes law; and yet the same people aren't conversant at all in all manner of religious questions.
CHARLES HAYNES: Yes, and this is really a dangerous thing, because m-- many Americans I, I think have given up on, on seeing themselves in the media and understanding themselves in the media, so we have kind of-- divided nation. We have a, a-- well, Peter Berger, the sociologist says that you know Sweden is the least religious country in the world perhaps and India the most religious, and America's an interesting combination of the two. It's a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes!
BOB GARFIELD:So what's the root of all this? Is it that the questions of religion are so loaded and so complicated that we, we're just afraid in the media to cover them?
CHARLES HAYNES: i think there's a - there is a, a fear because-- out of really a lack of understanding. I mean we, we've gone through a period in the United States where we really have had a tough time figuring out the proper role of religion in public life, and I think that the-- path of least resistance has been to ignore it -- to say well the solution is just to, to - that's a private matter; let's keep it out. And I really wonder how the United States is going to make it as a nation, how we're going to live with all of these differences if we don't understand one another! If we don't know anything about one another! And I should think on that basis alone the press should take religion seriously by reporting accurately and fairly the various perspectives, the religious perspectives in others of the American people!
BOB GARFIELD: Excellent point. Is it going to happen?
CHARLES HAYNES:Well, this, this latest symbolic move by ABC has sort of made me less optimistic about what's going to happen. I, I hope the partnership with Beliefnet turns out to prove me wrong -- that ABC will do more coverage. I hope so.
BOB GARFIELD: Charles Haynes, thanks for joining us!
CHARLES HAYNES: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Charles Haynes is a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Roslyn, Virginia.