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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

The media and Billy Graham

Can we let Graham be Graham?

The media and Billy Graham

Billy Graham (Courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)

It was, I must confess, becoming a bad habit. Every time in the last couple of years when I heard the secular media note the death of some celebrity, I found myself wondering: How will they do this when Billy Graham dies?

My expectations were not high. Muhammad Ali, Mary Tyler Moore, John Glenn, Joe Garagiola Sr., Shimon Peres, Jerry Lewis, Fidel Castro. All of them, when they died during the last couple of years, got special attention and what seemed like extended coverage. But in this secular age, I asked myself skeptically, will the media know how big a place on the world stage Billy Graham deserves? Will they be respectful and measured, or condescending and snide?

Surprise No. 1 for me, following Graham’s death on Feb. 21, was that the coverage was indeed extensive. PBS NewsHour devoted a rare 12 minutes that evening to its segment about Graham.

Surprise No. 2 was that most of the coverage I saw struck me not only as fair but in some cases admiring. The PBS piece ended with a not-very-guarded but good-spirited prediction that there will never be another Billy Graham. Wherever I turned, up and down the dial, I couldn’t help thinking, “They’re getting a lot right.”

For smart journalists and commentators to misrepresent what Graham offered as the core of his gospel message is inexcusable.

Our friends at the Media Research Center in Washington, who have the staff and technical equipment to measure more precisely what’s going on, say they basically agree with that early assessment. Katie Yoder, associate culture editor at MRC, says the mainstream media started off on the right foot.

But by Day Two, both the MRC and I sensed a different tone. CNN wanted to make sure viewers knew exactly “Where Billy Graham Missed the Mark.” The Washington Post rehashed well-worn material about the traveling evangelist as an “absent father” and husband. And a Guardian opinion page bluntly found Graham on the “Wrong Side of History.”

Such a mishmash of perspective was predictable. What seemed a good bit beyond the pale, though, was the ugly, vicious nature of so many of the critics. Graham had come to the end of his 99 years with no significant scandal on his personal or organizational record—a fact that seemed to disappoint and frustrate some journalists and newscasters. They simply couldn’t be satisfied until they had dragged their man through the gutter. For example: Graham’s 1953 commitment, remarkably early in his career, to insure racial integration at all his crusades, was actually turned upside down by more than one critic as “insensitivity to civil rights issues.”

Much more devious was the pattern of snarky columnists and commentators trying to tell Graham where his evangelistic message had gotten off track—and what he should have been saying instead. “He too often stood aloof from or actively discouraged efforts to revise traditional Protestantism to make it more respectful of the world’s racial and cultural diversity and of the findings of modern science and scholarship,” wrote David A. Hollinger in The New York Times. “Mr. Graham led his followers to seek comfort in versions of Christianity familiar to his core constituency, the white population of the Southern, formerly slave-holding region of the United States. He offered only weak challenges to the prejudices and injustices largely tolerated by that population.”

Even those of us inclined to be known as Billy Graham’s allies and defenders will admit we wouldn’t always have built “religious bridges” exactly where he and his team built them. But for smart journalists and commentators who claim to be experts with words and ideas to misrepresent what Graham offered as the core of his gospel message is inexcusable. Let Graham be Graham!

Want to see some media people who handled Billy Graham fairly and appropriately? The creators and producers of the remarkable television series The Crown deserve high marks for recreating a delicate mid-1950s crisis touching on England’s government, its royal family, Queen Elizabeth II in particular, and Billy Graham personally. But that was filmed a year or so ago. Truth, here, may be stranger than fiction.

Too bad the folks who did The Crown weren’t also in charge of telling the world about Billy Graham’s death.