Spotlight Interview with Marvin Olasky: Reforming JournalismJanuary 14, 2020
Marvin Olasky has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He’s the editor in chief of WORLD magazine and holds the distinguished chair in journalism and public policy at Patrick Henry College. Many of us know him from his writings and blogs. Many of us know him as well from his books. He recently joined me to talk specifically about his new book, Reforming Journalism.
Transcript (Begins at 19:25):
Carmen LaBerge: Marvin, welcome to Mornings with Carmen.
Marvin Olasky: I’m glad to be with you Carmen.
Carmen LaBerge: So I’d just like to start with a wide open question about journalism and the state of journalism today, particularly when it comes to Christians engaging in journalism.
Marvin Olasky: Well the state of journalism in general it’s pretty bad. We hear a lot about fake news and there’s a lot of that. Secular publications and networks have pretty much gone over to almost an existential subjectivity regardless of what the real situation is you promote your own ideology, your own worldview and so forth. A lot of Christian media are much better than that and wanting to look at things through a biblical lens, but often we don’t really know how to do that. The tendency is to often have stories pretty much like what secular media are producing, but we tie a bow on the end. We quote scripture, we have some nice ending. We tend to provide sugar rather than salt and that’s not very helpful in the circumstances we’re in right now.
Carmen LaBerge: Okay. So I think that with that lead in, I would like to explore with you this concept that you introduced in the book of Reforming Journalism, this idea of biblical objectivity, which differs both from subjectivity which you have briefly touched on, and then conventional objectivity. Talk with us about these three. I mean, I guess there are approaches to truth, subjectivity, objectivity and then biblical objectivity.
Marvin Olasky: Right. Objectivity has meant different things at different times in the history of American journalism. If you go back to the late 19th century when photography was coming in, people used objectivity almost saying, “Well, we just set up a camera and we show whatever the camera shows and then we are objective.” But people increasingly learn that it depends so much on how you point the camera, what kind of film you use, what speed it is, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera so it’s not that simple. And over time in the 20th century, objectivity came to be redefined in many ways as a balancing of subjectivities. You quote from person A you quote from person B and you’re going to in some way arrive at the truth. There was one basketball player who said during a strike of players against owners, “Well there’s the player’s position, there’s the owner’s position and there’s the truth,” and then often as the problem with balancing of subjectivities you can get two different positions or more and you still not closer to finding out what objectively really is happening.
Marvin Olasky: And so that’s where I come to biblical objectivity. We live in a house here in Austin that was built by the fellow who lived next door to us and when we wanted to find out something about the house beyond our own observation, what’s it made of, how sturdy are the pillars and so forth, we could ask him. God is the builder of our house. He’s the builder of our lives. He’s the builder of this whole world and so when we want to find out what things really are in reality, objectively we find out from God. We read the Bible, which in a way is kind of like at least the opening chapters, the blueprint that establishes what this earth is, who we are, what the nature of our existence is and so we try to look at things through a biblical perspective and that’s objective. Everything else is just our own opinion. It’s just subjectivity.
Carmen LaBerge: Which leads me to ask, and again, let me remind our listeners I’m talking with Marvin Olasky. He is among other things the person who provides to all of us WORLD magazine. He is the editor in chief of WORLD magazine and if you’re not familiar with what they’re doing in print or online or via their podcast, let me really encourage you to check it out. Marvin that statement leads me to ask this question like if biblical objectivity is really what is going to lead to truth and not only the exposure of truth but the expression of what is true through journalism, through the stories that are told by journalists about what is happening around us, so that we can understand the context of the world in which we live, how could someone who is secular, genuinely secular, a secular journalist, how could they ever be objective?
Marvin Olasky: That’s a really good question and the answer comes down to fundamentally no. That person is really not going to be objective, but if he or she looks very closely at things going on and tries to describe them at street level, we talk about cooperating at street level not suite level. Actually looking hard at things around you can come closer than you otherwise would. But no, apart from the knowledge of God and biblical understanding of the world he made, yeah we’re not going to have objectivity and that’s why Christian journalism is so important.
Carmen LaBerge: So we talk about Christians and we talk about Christians reporting on the news of the day. I know that one of the questions that’s going to arise in listener’s minds right now is just the basic bias of my worldview. Like I just recognize that I see everything through the lens of redemptive history. So even when there is what seems to be tragedy and bad news all around, I remember that a really bad thing happened on a day we now call good, right? I mean I know that the redemptive arc of history ends up in ultimate good. Can you talk about that? Can you talk about the bias that we experience as Christians just in relationship to what’s happening in the world around us and particularly in the news?
Marvin Olasky: Oh sure. There’s a huge bias. Well, I’ll give just an example. Several weeks ago I was in Rio de Janeiro and visited what’s called the museum of tomorrow. Which was a museum basically devoted to scaring kids. There were exhibits about the oceans are going to rise, Rio de Janeiro is going to be submerged, everything is going down the drain and that was supposed objectivity but it’s based on a maybe and probably is faulty science but it’s also based in an attitude of hopelessness, of despair. It’s almost as if any kind of change that’s going to occur, we talk about climate change and again, scientifically things may or may not be happening, we’re not quite sure about it, but we’re taught biblically not to despair. That attitude is missing from a lot of secular publication, which means that journalists are going around whether in Brazil or in the United States, you’re very often hearing the sky is falling, the sky is falling.
Marvin Olasky: As Christians, we know that the sky is not falling. God upholds the sky. All kinds of strange things and sometimes hard things may happen, but as you said, the redemptive arc of history is still there and so we can have long range confidence. That’s going to very much affect the way we cover things. That’s going to very much affect the attitude we have towards each other and toward the world around us. And without that biblical hopefulness, we’re likely to be looking at the daily headlines, whether it’s on CNN or Fox news there’s a tendency to scare us and get us increasingly worried about things over which we have no control.
Marvin Olasky: So yeah, being a Christian is enormously helpful not only in giving us our only comfort in life or in death, both body and soul, but in helping us just follow the news with interest. Lots of fascinating things happen all over the place and it’s always interesting I think to pick up a daily newspaper and see what’s going on with interest but not fear and that’s going to be a big difference I think that distinguishes Christians and lots of secular people these days.
Carmen LaBerge: Continuing my conversation now with Marvin Olasky, he is the editor in chief of WORLD magazine. He’s also the author of many books, the latest of which is Reforming Journalism. I really valued the practical application part of the book. I thought the how to interview and then how to research and write profiles I thought that was great. I thought that laying out the parts of a story was really helpful. I learned a lot in the two chapters about investigating Christian groups or investigating government officials and then and then just good writing and English like using words accurately.
Carmen LaBerge: There’s just really good content here for anyone who is interested in interacting with a world that needs investigating. A world that needs for us to approach it with curiosity and then for us to tell good stories, not to tell stories that make everything sound good, but to tell stories in such a way that people are provoked to be curious, to want to learn more, to dig deeper, to read primary sources, I mean on and on and on. So I loved the practical application portion of the book, but I want you to illuminate part three of the book for our listeners today and that is the progress and regress portion of the book. I think anytime that we’re talking about reforming something, I think we have to ask ourselves what does the word reform mean when you’re using it in the title of this book?
Marvin Olasky: That’s a good question. By the way, let me say before getting into that, you’re doing a good job of interviewing right here. You’ve obviously read the book, thought about it and that’s a lot better than many interviewers I’ve found over the years. Who don’t actually.
Carmen LaBerge: So I’m going to have my producer Paul clip that because Marvin Olasky just gave Carmen a compliment and she wants to like pin it to her wall. So there you go. Thank you sir.
Marvin Olasky: I’m one of those crusty editors that doesn’t throw out compliments very easily, so I appreciate that. And let me just say in interviewing, it’s so important to actually have done a little bit of research about the person you’re interviewing rather than just asking general questions. We see that sometimes and young interviewers who just throw to politicians questions that are so open-ended that the politician can take it in and just give out the usual blather. So it’s very important to ask questions, to elicit specific detail, to ask specifics to push a little bit in interviewing and control the interview in that way. And again, that’s what you’re doing. So yeah, you can take that to folks and say, “Yeah, I know what I’m doing.” You do, so I appreciate that.
Marvin Olasky: Now the overall question of history is really interesting to get into. The history of journalism in America is really the history of a prodigal son. American journalism grew out of Christian journalism. If you look at newspapers both in colonial days and until the middle of the 19th century, three fourths of them in 1830 according to one contemporary analyst were Bible-based were explicitly Christian orientation. And so they did try to approach questions and issues with biblical objectivity. And newspapers grew during that period. The reason we had an American revolution it may have been starting with the preaching of George Woodfield in the 1730s but it was journalists over the next 40 years who really drove home points about the importance of Liberty, about taxation without representation. All those things that became political issues in 1775 started out as journalistic columns and it was really journalists who got people thinking in these terms.
Marvin Olasky: American journalists at the beginning of the 19th century very commonly would try to examine things through a biblical perspective. If they were the Napoleonic Wars or earthquakes or tornadoes or anything that came up, they would try to see this as God’s way of reminding us what’s important in the world, the nature of sin, the nature of redemption and so forth. That changed in the middle of the 19th century and part of it was that Christian journalists stopped being journalists. They started, well sometimes literally being preachers. The newspaper and again I like good sermons, but newspapers and magazines and other publications have to rely more on stories and a lot of Christian publications stopped telling stories and started just preaching. Sometimes in a very abstract way and they also often stopped covering the hard things. Instead of looking at the killings in the Napoleonic Wars, they tended to just be sugary, sugar rather than salt. And Christian publications lost their readership, readers who wanted a more gritty street level understanding of things started reading magazines and newspapers from a non-Christian perspective.
Marvin Olasky: And as often happens in secular life, when you don’t have a biblical base to stand on, you tend to go to the political left. You look for human beings to become gods instead of God, you worship particular ideologies. And that’s what happened in American journalism slowly in the second half of the 19th century, increasingly during the 20th century. So let me try briefly to give this overall perspective in a way theologically. That Christian journalism was strong when it brought out what I called the corruption story. The idea that there’s plenty of sin around sin is internal, the problem is not just our external environment or particular social institutions, it’s within ourselves. That’s what we learned from the Bible and that’s why we desperately need Christ’s salvation as God’s saved sinners. The corruption story starting in that middle part of the 19th century started to become less read and the secular newspapers ran with what I call the oppression story.
Marvin Olasky: Namely, we are naturally good, we’re wonderful people. We are brought down by the institutions that surround us, whether it’s economic institutions or ideologies like capitalism, whether it’s big churches, whether it’s different types of external social pressures, that’s the problem. And so the job of journalists is not to examine what’s happening within ourselves, what we bring about, but to start acting as revolutionary, to try to overturn the existing social institutions. And that oppression story comes to dominate journalism in the late 19th and then increasing the 20th century. What’s really weird right now is that you have a combination of the initial story that Christians rebelled against, which I’ve called the official story. The official story was doing public relations for the King or the Royal governor or particular leaders. The official story gave way to the corruption story, which gave way to the oppression story. But now, oddly enough we are back to a kind of combination of the official story and the oppression story.
Marvin Olasky: You could call it, Oh I know journalism, namely the government and this particularly became evident during the presidency of Barack Obama. There’s another O there, the government is going to be our friend to help us overthrow other institutions like capitalism or the power of the church. And so we look to government leaders to actually lead a revolt against other institutions. And it’s a great situation for journalists because you can have plush positions, you can get good salaries, you can have nice offices, you can sit in your air conditioned offices and suck your thumb and work on your computers without ever having to go out and really find out what’s happening. So you have all the benefits of the official story, but you can also feel like revolutionaries, overthrowing society and bad institutions. So it’s great psychologically for journalists until at some point people start to say that journalist, that emperor has no clothes and that’s where we are right now with all the talk about fake journalism.
Carmen LaBerge: Marvin Olasky the conversation is a feast, the book is just excellent. It’s called Reforming Journalism. I also want to direct our listeners to WORLD magazine’s website. To find that you’re going to type in world.wng.org. That’s where you’re going to find WORLD magazine. Marvin, we’ve got to leave it right there. Thank you so much for the conversation. Thank you for what you’re doing every day and I feel like we should just give a personal shout out to Mindy Bells because we love her.
Marvin Olasky: As do we so thank you very much and Carmen, thanks very much for your good questions.
Carmen LaBerge: Absolutely have a blessed day.
Marvin Olasky: You too.
Carmen LaBerge: Thanks for listening to this podcast of mornings with Carmen LaBerge from faith radio. If you haven’t, you can subscribe to automatically receive the podcast through iTunes or the Google play music app. That way you never miss an episode. It’s also available anytime at myfaithradio.com.