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Seeking modern-day Zengers

Media crisis and opportunity

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When I worked on The Boston Globe 50 years ago, revered columnist George Frazier loved to play off a popular saying by writing, “One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.” Today, Biblical literacy is rare and a meat-and-poison allusion that legitimates contrary opinions is culturally cancellable.

I used to write an end-of-the-year column featuring instances of big media bias. I stopped because they were too easy to write, but if you want specific examples put “media research” in the WORLD search engine, then check-mark “Olasky”: You’ll find columns from December 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

The Media Year of our Lord 2020, though, was jaw-dropping not just because of individual stories but because many powerful entities classify conservative (or Christian) views as poison. The New York Times printed a column from Sen. Tom Cotton arguing for strong action against the looting and rioting that followed George Floyd’s death. Two days later, facing criticism via Slack and Twitter, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said Cotton’s column was “contemptuous” and “should not have been published.” The editorial page editor resigned under fire, as did the top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer after its own kerfuffle.

I’ve known journalists who probably asked their mirror every morning, “Who’s the smartest of them all?” One advantage of believing in the God of the Bible is the realization that He is wise and we are stupid. Without that understanding, we often sling opinions and skip the reporting that connects us with reality outside our brains. We should pray for reporters, not curse them—and I want to bring to your attention two other established ways to help and one new one.

One advantage of believing in the God of the Bible is the realization that He is wise and we are stupid.

Most of you know of our World Journalism Institute, which has trained 500 young people and 110 mid-career ones since 1999: Nearly 60 are involved with WORLD, and a bunch are with local newspapers. Report for America is also worth watching: I had dismissed that organization because I thought it just creates newspaper jobs for liberals and radicals, but RFA co-founder and president Steven Waldman tells me RFA has two conservatives on its 32-member advisory board and is glad to collaborate with Christian efforts. He says he’ll let me know about students who might be right for the World Journalism Institute. I’ll let him know about WJI graduates who would be good RFA recruits.

The new kid on the block is my own. God has given my wife and me what we need financially, so we have set up a small foundation, Zenger House, that beginning next year will be on the lookout for Biblically objective stories to which we will award Zenger Prizes, named after a brave Christian editor who went to jail in 1735. Print pieces may be up to 3,000 words, audio or video reports up to six minutes. Awards will range from $1,000 to $5,000.

I’m not asking WORLD readers for any money: Please contribute to the World Journalism Institute. I am hoping some of you will be story scouts for us. Rules and explanations are at zengerhouse.com, but here’s the basic premise: Biblical objectivity means having the perspective God clearly communicates in Scripture, rather than relying on our own subjective preferences. Crucial to keep in mind: Just as much of the Bible is earthy, not abstract, so we prize pavement-pounding news features written at street level, not suite level—in short, the kinds of stories you’re used to reading in WORLD. We’re not looking for essays or devotional pieces, good as those sometimes are.

Here’s how you can help: On Jan. 1, 2021, or soon thereafter, please create a “Zenger Prize” list on your computer and start putting on it links to published print, audio, or video pieces you think qualify. Don’t send your list right away, but on Sept. 1 or thereafter through Jan 31, 2022, please email it to [email protected]. Journalists, starting then, can also submit their own published stories. We plan to announce winners on May 4, 2022, the day Pulitzer Prizes will also be announced.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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