“Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” calls itself “the only television newsmagazine program devoted entirely to the news of religion, spirituality and major ethical issues.”
The weekly half-hour show, hosted by longtime news correspondent Bob Abernethy, airs on more than 240 public TV stations across the country, garnering 570,000 viewers each week.
As the show prepares for its seventh season on PBS, three of its principals—Bob Abernethy, Arnold Labaton and Kim Lawton—spoke with EthicsDaily.com over the phone from their editorial headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Launching the Program
“It was time for me to retire from NBC,” Abernethy remembered, “and I didn’t want to stop work.” He had done quite a bit of religion coverage for NBC in his 40-plus years there, but felt there was still, as he said, “inadequate televised news coverage of religion.”
Abernethy, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Princeton, conceptualized a program devoted to straight news coverage of religion and ethics and began shopping it around. Bill Baker, president of Thirteen/WNET in New York, was interested in producing the show, but funding remained an issue.
As Abernethy sought funding, “Everybody said the same thing,” he recalled. “Pew and Lilly.”
Abernethy approached Lilly Endowment Inc. just as the philanthropic organization was reviewing its policy of not supporting TV programs. Lilly thought the project was too important to let slide, and it committed financial support to what would become “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”
“Lilly’s support since then has just been extraordinary,” Abernethy said. Other funds have come from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Laurance S. Rockefeller Fund and Pew Charitable Trusts, but Lilly—the country’s single largest funding source in the field of American religion—has shouldered the bulk of financing.
The newsmagazine debuted in September 1997.
“I think the program has grown, and we’ve all gotten better at the job,” Abernethy said. “We have a wonderful group of people working on it. The content has gotten stronger and stronger.”
“There are several things I like to do well on this show,” said executive producer Arnold Labaton, who joined the show at the end of its second year. “I like to cover the religious elements of people’s lives and what their religion means to them.”
Labaton has worked in television production and management for more than four decades. He has produced numerous documentaries and series, and he also supervised CBS’s remote production of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“I like to cover difficult moral issues,” he said, “particularly issues where coming to one’s own conclusion is torturous.” Such issues have included abortion, capital punishment and bio-ethics.
“We’re always looking for stories about important moral issues that the society will have to deal with in the period immediately ahead,” Labaton continued, “like some of the bio-ethics issues that become more urgent as the bio-genetic community discovers new processes and procedures for changing people’s chemistry.”
Abernethy mentioned the appeal of producing profiles for the show.
“I think that what works best for us,” said Abernethy, “are stories that involve what individual people are thinking and doing with their lives—because of or influenced by their religious beliefs. It’s not only what’s going on and therefore good storytelling, it’s also particularly effective television when people open up with their beliefs.”
Abernethy, who also studied theology and social ethics at Yale Divinity School, said talking with people about their faith is what really excites him.
“And not just the professional, but ordinary people in the pews,” he said. “They’re uniformly excellent, eloquent.”
Abernethy also said he appreciates being able to air longer, well-produced pieces with the technical and editorial quality of a TV evening newscast.
It’s rare, he said, to find “thoughtful pieces on a current issue that run six or eight minutes. Reporters think it’s heaven to work for us, and producers too. These longer pieces are very satisfying for everybody.”
Kim Lawton, the show’s news editor and also a correspondent, would agree. When asked to name some of her favorite segments, she replied: “It’s so hard to select just one because I’ve gotten to do so many exciting, interesting things.”
Lawton traveled to the Holy Land in 2000 when the pope made his historic pilgrimage there. She has also covered the Vatican for the show.
“Religion touches on so many areas of life that I’ve gotten to cover everything from art and politics to the Supreme Court and White House,” she said. Her recent work has included interviewing opera star Denise Graves, covering the Catholic Church’s sex scandals, the Episcopal Church’s tussle with homosexuality, and even Bible-quizzing.
“That spans the range,” Lawton said.
Labaton said some of the more informative pieces have also been popular, particularly those dealing with other religions. Viewers have also responded favorably to pieces on belief and practice (e.g. the Eucharist).
“In the last few years it was important to do pieces on Islam and its range and its belief,” he added.
For the coming season, a mini-series on evangelicalism in America is in the works.
“But we’re just in the preliminary stages of researching that story and trying to conceive what the segments might be,” Labaton said.
“Arnie is one of the most thoughtful and kind persons I know,” Abernethy said of Labaton. “He is very hard-working, very even-tempered, and a wonderful encourager to all the rest of us to be informative, to get things right.”
Abernethy said Lawton, who pulls double-duty as news editor and correspondent, “is just a wonderful reporter and editor. Her news judgment is just superb. She works very hard.”
Labaton called Abernethy “a wonderful colleague, for starters, who has excellent editorial judgment and for whom religion is very important and meaningful in his own life and, he believes, in the lives of many Americans.”
“I think he is so collegial,” Labaton continued, offering that working with Abernethy is one of the more satisfying elements of his job.
“I’ve learned so much from him about television and about covering religion for television,” she said. “He is someone who had this vision for this program. He made it happen and has sustained it for all these years. That’s just amazing.”
What’s going to have religious America in knots in the coming years?
Labaton said the show keeps going back to the global AIDS crisis.
“We think the issues are of such magnitude that we think people really need to focus on them,” he said.
Lawton said, “Relations between religious groups just continue to be a major issue—working out diversity and pluralism issues in the content of the United States.”
And it’s not just the difference between religious groups, but also within them.
“Just coming off the Episcopal Church, just the differences of points of views within groups—how they stay together or when they separate.” She paused. “That’s not a new story.”
Abernethy echoed Lawton’s thinking on the critical issues.
“The ones that have been developing and going on for years are still with us.” He mentioned a few issues by name.
“There’s a huge amount of work and reconciliation and adjustment that’s necessary in the Catholic Church,” he said. “Lots of denominations are split by matters of sex and gender.”
He also mentioned the matter of religious groups respecting each other:
“How can people who are deeply committed to one particular religion relate respectfully and, without weakening their commitment to their own faith, relate to people of another religion?”
“Condemnation of Islam and Prophet Muhammad by some of this country’s prominent evangelical leaders is a good example,” said Abernethy of how the problem is brought into heavy relief.
How do Christians relate to Muslims and Jews?
“I think that’s a big issue,” he said. “Maybe it’s not as big as I think it is. Maybe people in the pews are more tolerant than their leaders. I remember [Baptist Center for Ethics executive director] Robert Parham once talking about that very point.”
“The issues that seem so important to denominational leaders,” Abernethy said, “simply were not that important to most of the people they represented.”
Even so, Abernethy estimated that leaders’ statements can be cause for concern.
“I think the things that are said sometimes by some of the leaders are understandable but probably not respectful enough, at least the way non-Christians think,” he said. “They’d like a little less love and lot more respect.”
Labaton reads the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post each day. The show’s staffers have different interests and monitor a variety of publications, so they’re sure to keep their finger on the religious pulse.
“A lot of the issues force themselves upon you so it’s not hard to find them,” Labaton said. But finding them and producing segments about them are different tasks.
“My job is to produce a program that is well-balanced, interesting and well-paced,” he said. He works with producers and reporters to select stories—both news items as well as longer segments—for each program.
“We’ll review segments several times before they’re finally finished,” he said. “There’s more work involved than gathering people to discuss an issue.”
“A lot of my work is just trying to make those segments better,” he continued, “as well as to look at the show overall and try to make sure we have the right mix of segments and elements.” He laughed and added, “And to make sure we do that within our budget.”
“One of the things I try to do is provide an environment where the individual producers and reporters can produce their best work,” he said. “And I do think we have a bunch of gifted producers and reporters.”
Abernethy spoke of finding a balance that’s unique to the show’s stories.
“When a script comes in,” he said, “I read it with an eye not only to making it clearer, but also to gain what I consider the right balance between the distant, normal, objective, ‘good’ journalism, and at the same time what I consider essential to good journalism when you consider ethical and religions questions.”
“It’s that personal, emotional thing as well as objective, philosophical, religious issues,” he added.
For the Future
As the show begins a new season, the minds behind it continue to look for new angles and fresher takes.
“I think we’ve got the balance pretty close to right between the hard news and features and longer pieces and short items,” Abernethy said. “I think we all want to increase a little the number of profiles we do. Sometimes that’s of an author, sometimes it’s just someone we think would be interesting. I want to work on that a little bit.”
For Labaton, there’s hardly an end to what the show is capable of producing.
“I have so few limitations that the only things I haven’t done are the things we haven’t been creative enough to do,” he said.
“Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” may be an example of television exercising its potential—to inform, to stimulate, to parse the world’s religious and ethical issues.
Asked if the show is an example of television at its best, Labaton responded simply:
“If we do it well, it is.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The first show of the new season is Sept. 5. Click here to find out when “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” airs in your area. The show’s Web site also includes stories and interviews, audio of each week’s show, video of selected stories, a religious calendar, lesson plans for teachers, a viewer’s guide and much more.