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TERENCE SMITH: It’s just before 6 a.m. in Austin, Texas, and Ed Sossen is getting ready for another morning’s drive time at KIXL Radio. He’s checking sports scores and looking for talk show topics. News director Jim Phillips is readying his newscast. But before they hit the air:
ED SOSSEN: Use us to minister to one person or make one person feel a little less alone, make one person smile, leave one person a little bit closer to you. This is all we ask, in Jesus’ name, amen.
SPOKESMAN: Thirteen thousand foreclosures in June.
TERENCE SMITH: KIXL Radio is a leading Christian radio station in the Texas capital, and part of one of the fastest-growing sectors in the nation’s media.
ED SOSSEN: Morning, everybody. This is the KIXL Morning Magazine. I’m Ed Sossen. Blessings on you, hope you had a great Wednesday.
TERENCE SMITH: In the last seven years alone, the number of Christian-format radio stations has doubled to over 2,000.
SPOKESMAN: How’s my levels there, Jeffrey?
JEFFREY: You’re OK.
SPOKESMAN: Good deal. Good deal.
SPOKESMAN: How’s your peace that passes understanding?
TERENCE SMITH: Nationwide the Christian radio audience is up 33 percent in the last five years. Tens of millions of Americans tune in to Christian radio on a weekly basis.
SPOKESMAN: Celebrating the love and care of Jesus. We’re KIXL 970.
ED SOSSEN: We do the same kinds of things — traffic, news, weather, sports — that another radio station would give, we just do it from a Christian perspective and hopefully people find that comforting.
TERENCE SMITH: How do you do the traffic from a Christian perspective?
ED SOSSEN: (Laughs) It’s what you wrap it around.
TERENCE SMITH: And in many cases, the Christianity comes wrapped around politics.
ED SOSSEN: Those of us who are to right of center don’t want fair hope for a fair, impartial Supreme Court justice. We want somebody who agrees with us.
TERENCE SMITH: But Sossen says his first allegiance is to a higher power, not a party.
ED SOSSEN: God, the last time I checked, is still spelled G-o-d, not G-O-P. If I have to pledge allegiance to their platform, I don’t want a part of it because I believe it’s contrary to my faith.
TERENCE SMITH: Half a continent away in Virginia Beach, Va., politics and faith have been the twin calling cards of Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network. CBN was founded by Robertson in 1961.
The controversial evangelical leader and one-time Republican presidential candidate has built the network into an international powerhouse, available in 71 languages in over 200 countries. CBN is a not-for-profit institution; its 2004 revenues were over $186 million.
The flagship program is the Robertson-hosted “700 Club,” an hour-long mix of information, interviews and what its producers call “inspiration.”
PAT ROBERTSON: Bless the people, meet their needs.
TERENCE SMITH: It’s also one of the longest-running shows in television history, available in 90 million homes in the United States with an average daily viewership of around 1 million. CBN also has a small but growing news division, with 40 staffers and daily and weekly 30-minute news broadcasts.
SPOKESMAN: Go to our Web site at cbn.com.
TERENCE SMITH: Lee Webb is its lead anchor.
TERENCE SMITH: If you had to try to define Christian news, Christian broadcasting, Christian journalism, how would you?
LEE WEBB: Well, I’ll only speak to what we do here, and that is to try to report on a daily basis news with a redemptive light. And I say that because, you know, we’re not out to just reporting on the negative stories. I think we’re trying to find good that comes from stories.
TERENCE SMITH: Webb points to a story he reported recently from the hurricane zone outside New Orleans, in Slidell, La.
LEE WEBB: I went to worship at a local church expecting maybe two weeks after the storm to find a lot of long faces. I found something totally different. They testified to God’s goodness, despite the fact that many of these folks lost everything they own.
TERENCE SMITH: Might you have done that story largely the same way for mainstream media?
LEE WEBB: I hope I would have been allowed to do that story. I suspect that my producers would probably have directed to me do more of a story on how residents are cleaning up after the storm.
TERENCE SMITH: Webb’s executive producer is Rob Allman, a veteran of 20-plus years in local news. He says he came to CBN one year ago to get away from car chases and drive-by shootings.
ROB ALLMAN: We try to look for people helping people, Christians who are showing the love of Jesus Christ in a meaningful way, not just necessarily in an evangelical trying to “spread the gospel,” but getting involved in either missionary work or volunteer work.
TERENCE SMITH: CBN is the most-watched of six national television networks that now broadcast exclusively Christian programming. And come December, there will be a seventh, operated by the National Religious Broadcasters, an industry association. CBN will produce a nightly newscast for the new network.
There are print equivalents, as well. Marvin Olasky is editor-in-chief of World magazine, which proclaims to report from “a perspective committed to the Bible as the inerrant word of God.” The magazine has a weekly circulation of about 130,000.
MARVIN OLASKY: Christians know that there is truth in the world even with a capital “t,” where you get the best sense of what that truth is from the Bible.
TERENCE SMITH: Olasky, who advised the George W. Bush presidential campaign in 2000, holds a workshop for Christian journalists at his home in Austin, separate from his duties as a professor of journalism at the publicly-funded University of Texas.
Jill Nelson and Lynde Langdon are two of his students, both with backgrounds in secular journalism: Langdon in newspaper reporting and nelson in television. But in Christian journalism they have found something different.
JILL NELSON: You see in this element of Christian journalism a real desire to investigate and to really dig deeper into stories rather than have this kind of stand-offish approach of trying to be nonbiased and just presenting both sides and throwing them out there and letting people decide what they think.
LYNDE LANGDON: I’m always interested in kind of coming at things from the angles, from the angle of the truth presented in the Bible. The Bible says that a loving God created the entire universe and has a plan and a purpose for it. And I’m looking for things that reflect that and for things that don’t, and then asking the questions why.
TERENCE SMITH: Olasky denies that what he teaches is advocacy journalism, saying God does not need “public relations help.” Nevertheless:
MARVIN OLASKY: We are very clearly and directly and forthrightly advocates in one sense. We are advocates for the Bible as God’s word.
TERENCE SMITH: But is that journalism or evangelism? Sanford Ungar is president of Goucher College outside Baltimore and was a journalist and a journalism educator for nearly 40 years.
SANFORD UNGAR: They’re influenced by a higher calling, by another mission and they say that themselves. It’s a special kind of advocacy journalism.
TERENCE SMITH: Ungar says that journalism, as he practiced it and taught it, is devoutly neutral. He has had to explain that position in the past.
SANFORD UNGAR: I had an encounter with a columnist, a rather well known columnist at one point and he publicly asked me “Do you have a Bible on your desk?” And I said, “no, I don’t,” because that was truth. He said, “How can you possibly do your job?”
TERENCE SMITH: What was your answer to the question?
SANFORD UNGAR: My answer was that it has nothing to do — nothing to do with writing about events in the country, in the world.
TERENCE SMITH: But for Christian news organizations, the Bible is central to their reporting. Olasky says that leads to a journalism that is required to be fair, but not necessarily balanced. Case in point: Reporting on the incendiary issue of abortion.
MARVIN OLASKY: When we report a story, we start from that premise: That unborn children should not be killed, and that’s very different. We won’t try to balance a story between the abortionists and a pro-life person.
TERENCE SMITH: CBN’s Lee Webb says there are other issues central to who they are as Christian journalists.
LEE WEBB: I think you could probably make the case that we’re probably going to be a bit pro — more pro-Israel than other media outlets.
TERENCE SMITH: Why?
LEE WEBB: Well, I think that by and large, the production staff and the editorial staff have here believes, from a Biblical point of view, that Israel has a right to the land.
TERENCE SMITH: So, well, that gets to the essence, doesn’t it, that your beliefs on a given subject filter or affect the coverage?
LEE WEBB: Yeah. And I’m not sure — I’m not going to apologize for that, either.
TERENCE SMITH: Sanford Ungar worries how that will affect news consumers.
SANFORD UNGAR: The practitioners of Christian journalism would like to influence people, would like to convince them of a reality as they see it and they seem to be fairly direct and candid about that. And it does concern me if we are attempting to have a public dialogue on matters of policy, on events in this country and in the world.
LEE WEBB: We are grateful for the opportunity to be here today and report the news.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, Christian news organizations are reaching more and more people, and though they may be preaching to the choir, it is a choir that is growing larger every day.