A Faithful Journalist

Peter Jennings pushed hard for better press coverage of religion-and stood by Beliefnet when few others would.

BY: Steven Waldman

 
People of faith-and those interested in faith-lost a great friend with Peter Jennings' death.

We at Beliefnet have had the honor of working with Peter for five years, helping him and ABC with religion coverage, a partnership launched entirely out of his personal interest and conviction that faith was one of the most important facets of human life.

In an interview he did with us shortly before the airing of his Search for Jesus special in 2000, he explained why he's pushed so hard for religion coverage.

"I think the fairest thing to say about myself is that I am sensitive to the value of faith and religion and spirituality in people's lives because I'm a journalist. I try to tell young producers here that when they go to interview the survivors of a plane crash, and they ask the woman, 'How did you get through this?' and the woman answers, 'God got me through it,' they are never to then say, 'I understand that, madam, but what really got you through it?'"

In other words, he didn't just view religious people as an anthropologist might view a strange primitive tribe. He had tremendous respect for the spiritual life.

Peter used his clout and influence to get more coverage of religion on network television. When religion was still considered a topic that was either sleepy or taboo, Jennings convinced ABC to do the prime time "Search for Jesus" special. When the show shocked executives by garnering high ratings, he used the capital he'd earned to get approval for a second special, this one on the apostle Paul, which also got great ratings and reviews.

Jennings was uncomfortable talking about his own spiritual life because fundamentally he viewed the topic as a journalist.

But he did reveal this much: "I have gone through a subsequent period of seeking to understand what or how strong or what are the connections I have to God. So I've spent some time with other men who have tried to understand that about their own lives. I've spent a little more time in Bible study, though, my goodness, not enough, and I've sought to go out and find the value of this in other people's lives...I suppose, subconsciously, I'm finding it so invigorating, enthralling, that maybe-I haven't taken enough time to stop and examine it yet-in some time it will take me some other places."

The most moving moment of that interview was when I asked if he felt he had been "put on earth for a certain purpose." I was expecting him to say something about journalism, or the search for truth, or the need to educate. Instead he said this:

"Yes-but not for the one you think. I actually think-the one thing that I have done really well in my life-is be a father. And I think in some respects that's as much by luck as good judgment, but, like most people, you do some things naturally and you do other things not so naturally. The only thing I really think I did without thinking was to be a father. Now, I'm sure that's not true and that [it's actually] some romantic notion of why I was put here. But to answer your question, 'Do I think I was put here on earth to be a journalist and to seek truth?' No, I don't."

I also have to say that we here at Beliefnet owe an enormous amount to Peter. His decision in 2000 to set up a partnership with this new website on religion and spirituality gave us enormous credibility-and he proved to be far more than a fair-weather friend.

In April 2002, Beliefnet declared bankruptcy. The entire staff was laid off, and it looked quite likely that the site would go away. Many business and editorial partners suddenly wanted nothing to do with us. Some companies abruptly cancelled contracts; others stopped answering calls. After all, why hook your reputation to a dying dot.com?

Peter was different. He said in no uncertain terms that his belief in our website-and, more important, in the coverage of this topic-was not about to be altered by some financial difficulties. He stood with us in a way that gave us strength. And faith.

I'm not sure Beliefnet would even still be here if Peter Jennings hadn't done that.

Millions of people around the country and world have their own reasons to be grateful that Peter graced this earth and came into a position of great influence. And we here at Beliefnet have ours. Above all, I hope that when people remember his legacy they will think not only of his extraordinary interviews with world leaders and his uncanny skill and humanity in times of breaking news, but also his commitment to something just as important: the idea that journalists must understand-in a respectful, nuanced way-the importance of religion in world events, and people's lives.

Thank you, Peter.

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