Hints, tips, and history lessons

Books | Marvin Olasky’s Reforming Journalism is a book for serious students of the profession
by Russ Pulliam
Posted 11/30/19, 12:00 pm

With 25 books under his belt, Marvin Olasky could take up golf or shuffleboard.

He’s already an accomplished pioneer in the modern conservative movement. He has researched how conservatives can fight poverty better than big government liberals, giving George W. Bush an idea that helped him win a close 2000 presidential race. Olasky also has been the primary historian of the pro-life movement. And he has done unique research on the important place of Christian faith in American journalism history.

Now in his latest book, Reforming Journalism (P&R Publishing, 2019), Olasky offers an ambitious mix of journalism history, useful tips on newswriting, and wise discernment about current events. He also takes readers behind the scenes as an editor at WORLD and offers some glimpses of how a Christian might cover the news in China, with a chapter by WORLD correspondent June Cheng.

Olasky adopts a broad focus across many topics, but journalism is a broad subject. As a good general assignment reporter, he connects one story to another.

He also provides new facts and angles not included in his earlier books.

Olasky’s telling of journalism history is unique because he sees spiritual and small government themes that other historians have ignored. Most other journalism history accounts are secular, suffering from a 1 Corinthians 2:14 problem. (“The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”) Olasky has done the original research and discovered a strong evangelical and small government theme in news and magazine history, especially in the 19th century.

He also tells a lively story with interesting detail.

Puritan pamphlet writer Alexander Leighton, for example, had his ears cut off and his face branded for criticizing King Charles I of England. Gruesome reading, yes, but the incident is pertinent to grasp the suffering of the Puritans in their steps toward a free press ideal.

Coming across the Atlantic to the Colonies in the 17th century, Olasky notes the comparative freedom of the press in Puritan Massachusetts as opposed to the greater restrictions in Anglican Virginia. He identifies the famous Puritan pastor Increase Mather as a journalist, through his influential pamphlets. They would be long magazine articles today. Pulpit and press were mixed in those days.

Pulpit and press were mixed in those days.

He also tells the John Peter Zenger story of press freedom, with an emphasis on Zenger’s Christian worldview and faith, which often are missing in standard journalism history books. Zenger found limits on government from his Bible reading. He was prosecuted for libel by New York Royal Gov. William Cosby. Zenger’s defense had Biblical appeals, including the fact that the prophet Isaiah also wrote critical commentary of government officials.

Olasky does not advance a Christian America argument, or the idea that evangelical Christian faith was the uniform outlook of leaders in Colonial America. Yet he has read enough early American newspapers to see how a Christian worldview was very influential in the 18th century press and during the early 19th century.

Olasky shows how Sam Adams offered a faith-based journalism as a commentator before the War for Independence. Traditional journalism history textbooks seldom note that Adams freely quoted from the Scriptures to make his case for freedom. Olasky recommends Adams as a role model for Christian reporters, including his contention that the sin nature of mankind requires investigative news reporting as a check and balance against potential corruption in government.

Edwin Emery has a different slant in one of the standard journalism history texts, The Press and America. He credits Adams as an excellent news gatherer and labels him a “great man.” He also calls him a leader of the radicals, or patriots, with an interest in social change. Yet he never explains the Christian origins of Adams’ views.

Boston Recorder editor Nathaniel Willis loved the spirit of the French Revolution until he heard the Christian gospel and committed his life to Christ. He went on to edit the Recorder with a Scriptural emphasis, showing sowing and reaping in some stories and gospel opportunity in others. Willis saw the coverage of news as an opportunity, “to record many signal triumphs of divine grace over the obduracy of the human heart.”

George Wisner of the New York Sun offered similar culturally conservative commentary when the Sun had the largest circulation in the nation in the early 1830s. William Leggett of the New York Evening Post (now owned by Rupert Murdoch) also argued for limited government in this era. He contended that problems would arise whenever “government assumes the functions which belong alone to an overruling Providence, and affects to become the universal dispenser of good and evil.”

Olasky sets the context for this era with some key numbers. Newspapers soared from 359 in 1810 to 1,265 in 1834. Those numbers are trending now in reverse, as newspapers have lost their traditional advertising base. Yet news websites keep showing a big public appetite for news.

A key to Olasky’s brilliance is his alertness to worldview, theology, and broader philosophical commitments. He identifies a turning point in American journalism history, a shift from a general conservative Christian consensus in many newspapers, around the mid-1800s, as influential editors moved toward an Enlightenment idea that people could figure out their own ways to live without considering the Bible. Editors and reporters moved from a Judeo-Christian set of presuppositions to a more secular view.

A key to Olasky’s brilliance is his alertness to worldview, theology, and broader philosophical commitments.

Horace Greeley was the most famous advocate of this shift. He’s remembered for saying, “Go West, young man.” He stayed east as editor of the New York Tribune, eventually running for president in 1872. In story presentation and vision for news, Greeley was brilliant. Sadly, he had an almost utopian view of mankind and captured the minds of many of his readers. One of the most interesting parts of Olasky’s story is the theological debate between Greeley and Henry Raymond of the New York Courier and Enquirer. Raymond argued for a more traditional Christian view of the sinfulness of people and suggested that Christian faith was the best foundation for true reform. “The principles of all true REFORM come down from Heaven,” he wrote.

Greeley contended for a more optimistic set of assumptions, including the notion that communal living would help alleviate human selfishness.

Raymond had worked under Greeley, and both were outstanding journalists. They printed each other’s commentaries in a kind of Lincoln-Douglas debate format. Raymond contended for limited government and a presumption of the fallen nature of humans. Greeley optimistically thought everyone could get better, with government assistance and an implicit faith in humanity.

Olasky also highlights the Christian faith foundation of other journalists. Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was trained at Princeton Theological Seminary and went on to give his life in defense of a free press, which he used to plead for an end to slavery. Lovejoy was murdered by a mob that threw his press into the Mississippi River.

Cassius Clay of Lexington, Ky., also called for abolition of slavery in his newspaper, True American, risking his life and carrying a gun to defend himself. He appealed to the Bible in calling for gradual emancipation of slaves. Clay went on to help start the Republican Party.

These editors had flaws and sins, which caused them to look to a power beyond themselves for salvation and wisdom.

For the history section alone, Olasky’s book would make a great supplemental text in journalism history classes. He offers valuable revisionist history of the New Deal era, showing how many mainstream media outlets accepted the New Deal uncritically. He shows the lack of impartiality in coverage of the Alger Hiss–Whitaker Chambers battle over communism, contrasting coverage in the conservative Chicago Tribune with the liberal Washington Post.

Olasky also has nine writing suggestions. Some will overlap with other writing coaches, but Olasky adds some wit: “Go on a which hunt by replacing which with that when the clause isn’t set off with a comma.”

A person is who, not that: “Humans deserve the pronoun who.”

In other sections, Olasky goes behind the scenes of magazine editing, showing the importance of fact-gathering and careful observation, as opposed to thumb-sucking pontification. A chapter on reader complaints is one of his best. He offers a key lesson for all editors: Be humble. A gentle answer turns away wrath. Editors, online or in print, or both, can establish islands of civility in an age of rage and anger. Cranky readers will be thankful and less cranky.

Olasky goes behind the scenes of magazine editing, showing the importance of fact-gathering and careful observation, as opposed to thumb-sucking pontification.

Several other chapters tackle the challenge of faithfulness in a field dominated by anything but the Bible or any appeal to transcendent truths. Olasky’s own story of going from communism to Christian faith gives him a practical edge in his debate with the atheist Christopher Hitchens. From personal experience, Olasky testifies that secularism, communism, and humanism may sound nice, eloquent, and humanitarian, but in real life, the story turns ugly when Christ is left out of the picture.

A minor weakness is Olasky’s attempt in the book to counsel those who work at traditional mainstream news outlets, such as the Associated Press, The Washington Post, or The New York Times. As dean of the World Journalism Institute, he has alumni examples he could have cited, such as Nicole Ault at The Wall Street Journal, Johanna Willett of the Arizona Daily Star, Paige Winfield Cunningham at The Washington Post, or Sarah Einselen at the Gainesville Daily Register.

Or he could have pointed to big league commentators such as Cal Thomas, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Mike Gerson, Pete Wehner, or Jason or Naomi Riley, who look beyond themselves for a standard of truth for public debate.

Instead, he winds up offering a television sitcom writer, Dean Batali, as an example of how to be a conservative in liberal circles.

Apart from that lapse in a small section of the book, Olasky is a first-class historian and journalist. He avoids chronological snobbery and evaluates editors and reporters in the context of their times. He offers a much-needed journalism history that is not stuck in left-of-center presuppositions that dominate traditional journalism history texts. The book is must reading for any serious student of journalism.

Editor’s note: Read excerpts from chapters 3 and 4 of Reforming Journalism.

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.

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