As a 19-year-old, I experienced a spiritual calling to journalism. And it happened while watching TV.
No, I wasn’t called to ministry by a televangelist. My calling came through the voice of Ed Asner, who in December 1980 was playing the role of a newspaper editor on the hit show, “Lou Grant.”
This show was a sequel to the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” with Lou Grant having moved from managing a TV station to managing a city newspaper.
The details of what happened in the particular episode that spoke to me are lost to time, and that doesn’t really matter anyway. Because what I heard through the TV wasn’t actually the voice of Ed Asner, it was to me the voice of God.
In an instant, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that when I returned from Christmas break to my freshman year at Oklahoma Baptist University, I was to change my major from piano performance to journalism. Which is exactly what I did.
I understood in that moment – with extreme clarity – that the calling to Christian ministry I had experienced as a seventh-grader on a youth group mission trip was a calling to tell the truth with the power of words.
I understood that journalism was a path to offer a prophetic voice, to expose society’s wrongs and extol society’s virtues. I knew I could make a difference.
Looking back 40 years later, was this seeming word from the Lord correct? I believe wholeheartedly that it was, even if it was simplistic enough to break through my 19-year-old brain.
To borrow a line from Barbra Streisand: “Can it be that it was all so simple then, or has time rewritten every line? If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we, could we?”
Time has indeed rewritten many lines, but I would make the same decision again in a heartbeat. The reason why is contained in the theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day: “Information as a Public Good.”
For me, journalism is a way to do good.
When we tell the stories of the voiceless, we’re doing a public good. When we tell the stories of the oppressed, we’re doing a public good.
When we tell the stories of those who give themselves for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the community, we’re doing a public good.
In this spiritual enterprise, I’ve led a charmed life. The worst I’ve had to deal with is angry letters or emails and only the occasional threat of a lawsuit.
The same cannot be said for many others who have answered the call to be truth-tellers in a world that loves lies.
Last year, 50 journalists worldwide were killed for their work, according to Reporters Without Borders. And two-thirds of those were killed in countries officially “at peace,” not at war.
Lou Grant also had it easy back in 1980 because most Americans then trusted the reliability of professional journalists, even if they didn’t like what was reported. That was before narcissistic public figures poisoned the well of American trust in order to prop up their self-serving lies.
Imagine a world, though, where journalists are not present to tell the truth, not allowed to explain what’s really going on. That’s a world of totalitarian dictatorship.
What we know now, though, that Lou Grant couldn’t have known, is the power of journalism to find a way out of the darkness even when kings and potentates try their best to stop it. Even when journalists are murdered or slandered or sidelined to keep the truth out.
Today, we the know the power of citizen journalists, ordinary people who use cell phone video and social media to document police abuse, racism and Capitol riots. We know the power of ordinary people who value truth and share it widely, even if taking on the role of journalist causes them to lose family and friends.
We know – beyond the shadow of a doubt – that truth will out. And we know that we who are Christians are called to that kind of truth-telling, whether we’ve been to journalism school or not.
So, this week, in honor of World Press Freedom Day, will you join me in answering the call to do what old-time Baptist newspaper editor E.S. James declared as his motto: “Tell the truth and trust the people”?
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for World Press Freedom Day (May 3). The previous article in the series is:
Free Press Steers Society in Right Direction | Marv Knox