Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World magazine and author of the new book “Reforming Journalism,” joins The Daily Signal News Podcast today to discuss journalistic independence, Christian journalism, and Olasky’s journey out of communism to Christianity. Read the lightly edited interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
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- Coronavirus continues to ravage China.
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Daniel Davis: Well, it’s no secret that the news isn’t what it used to be. The old gatekeepers have lost their tight grip on the media market, making way for new and innovative startups, but the media splintering has come hand in hand with another change, a dramatic loss of trust in the media and a sense that objective reporting has died.
My guest today, Marvin Olasky, has a new book out that addresses these issues called “Reforming Journalism.” Marvin Olasky is editor-in-chief of World magazine and dean of the World Journalism Institute. Marvin, thanks for your time today.
Marvin Olasky: Oh, good to be with you.
Davis: Before we get into the details of your book, you have a fascinating life story that I just wanted to touch on first because I think it really does shed light on your work and your perspectives today.
You’re a Christian journalist and you describe yourself as being conservative, but you didn’t start out that way. Where did your journey begin?
Olasky: Oh, a strange journey—began growing up in Judaism and as sad these days, bar mitzvah at 13, atheist at 14, that’s a pretty typical way to go. So atheism to Marxism, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, all that type of stuff from the old days in the late ’60s and eventually into the Communist Party.
Davis: And how long were you in the Communist Party?
Olasky: Oh, a couple of years. Long enough to realize through God’s grace that it wasn’t just stupid, which it was, but also evil.
Davis: That’s remarkable. And then you converted to Christianity. How exactly?
Olasky: Or God converted me. I was, I think, a fairly contented communist in late 1973, I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan at that time and one particular day came to believe that God actually exists and I won’t go through the whole experience because … I suppose it sounds a little mystical in some ways.
Never happened to me before and never happened to me again, but for some reason God in his kindness reached out and touched me and showed me that he exists in some way.
I certainly did not want to believe that. I knew that that was not exactly the way to have a long and happy career and academic life, so I really ran from it, but he kept bringing me back.
I had to have a good reading knowledge of a foreign language in order to get a Ph.D. and I had forgotten my childhood in Hebrew, I’d forgotten my high school French, which was never very good. Russian was my language at that point. I had traveled in the Soviet Union some, so learning Russian, just trying to read something in Russian.
One night I picked up something I began in couple of years before and held onto as a souvenir, a copy of the New Testament in Russian. And just reading that for reading practice, I came to believe this is actually not something just written by man, this is something special, this is from God. So that type of thing had an influence on me, but I still ran from it.
Next, there was an assignment at the University of Michigan to teach a course in early American literature. Early American literature is a lot of Puritan sermons. So these dead white males from 300 years ago were preaching to me.
All those types of things eventually added up until after a couple of years, I could no longer run from it and reluctantly, without a whole lot of enthusiasm, but a sense that this was true, I made a profession of faith, was baptized, joined the church.
That was in 1976 and I’ve learned a few things since then, but it’s basically stuck with me what God taught me.
Davis: That’s really remarkable. So when you began your career as a journalist, did you immediately begin to bring your theological commitments into the picture? Or when did you realize that they were relevant?
Olasky: Well, [I] began my career as a journalist first in college, writing columns in the Yale Daily News and then working in The Boston Globe. And when I was working in The Boston Globe the second time, there were a couple of different experiences there.
I was a member of the Communist Party and I wanted to bring my communism to the story. So assigned to write a feature article on say agriculture in Western Massachusetts. It was the small farmers versus the big corporate entities messing with them or writing a series of stories about Portuguese immigrants in New Bedford, or other towns in Massachusetts. Again, it was the exploitation of these people by the big capitalists.
So everything went through a certain communist spectrum and the Globe editors were fine with that because they weren’t communists. Some of them weren’t Marxist, but they basically thought the same way.
So that was the route. That was my introduction to what at that time was called objective journalism, but I really learned there that all journalism is directed by a worldview of some kind.
The idea of objectivity is fairly naive. It’s like saying, “Well, you have a camera, and so whatever you photograph is the objective truth.” Well, it depends on where you point the camera, what kind of film you use, etc., etc., etc. So that helped me to see the difficulty of what was claimed to be objectivity really wasn’t.
Then the question becomes, what do you do with that? If there is no conventional objectivity because it depends so much on the worldview of the writer, does that mean all we have is existential subjectivity and each person’s had God into himself?
That’s where I started learning as I became a Christian. Thinking through what difference the Bible actually makes in reporting and how trying to have a biblical view should really transform everything you do in reporting. It’s directed by a particular worldview, but we are also, as Christians, certainly told to be honest, to report even things we don’t agree with and to treat people fairly as made in God’s image, even if you disagree with us.
So that led to this book, really—well, that to my work at World for the past 27 years editing it, and then this book is really the result of what we’ve road-tested over the years. So it’s not just a theoretical thing, it actually works in practice.
Davis: Well, today, a lot of people look to the media and say that it’s obviously biased and will point back 50, 60 years ago to the good old days and say that media structure where we had Walter Cronkite giving us the straight story, that was objective. Would you shy away from that language or how would you characterize the old media establishment when it came to objectivity?
Olasky: Well, I grew up in Boston and basically you had a choice as far as networks. You had three networks. They were all pretty much the same with kind of a moderate liberalism, but very definitely a worldview in the articles. There was The Boston Globe, there was the Boston Herald that was small competition to it, but essentially the Globe ruled the print media in Boston.
So yeah, it wasn’t objectivity in the sense of either a faithful view or an accurate view of what was going on and it wasn’t even objectivity in the sense of a balancing of subjectivities. You quote from Person A, you quote from Person B.
It was a mild liberalism that wasn’t as bad as the radical liberalism that’s common today, but it also did not give much of an opportunity and sometimes no opportunity to offer alternative viewpoints. So it was a bad situation for conservatives at that time.
Now we have what we wished for or prayed for. We have a great deal of diversity. It’s a much better opportunity for Christians. It’s a much better opportunity for conservatives. The problem is there’s very little check on fake news, which often comes from the left, but sometimes comes from the right as well. So that’s a big problem today.
There are no gatekeepers and I am very glad that we don’t have the liberal monopoly on gatekeepers as we did a generation or two ago. But at the same time, we do have a problem with the credibility of journalists when so many journalists are not actually going out and reporting at street level, we’re just looking at things from suite level, basically.
We’re just a sucking our thumbs sitting in our air-conditioned offices and pretending to actually show what’s going on. But often we’re just relaying what someone else has reported and perhaps we’re not even relaying what someone else has reported, maybe like the old game of Post Office, five or six steps removed from reality.
Davis: You’ve brought an approach to your organization, World magazine, that you call “biblical objectivity.” Describe how that works in the context of a newsroom.
Olasky: Well, two things. The basic view within biblical objectivity is that in the same way that my house in Austin, I learned about by looking at the blueprints, the fellow who built it lived next door for awhile. And so when I was wondering whether it would fall down in a strong wind, I could ask him and he could show me how it was anchored in place. That was very useful, being able to ask the builder.
This world is our home. It’s our house. We live here and happily we can ask the builder. The builder has given us the Bible. The builder has given us, within the Bible, lots of understanding of both human psychology and the way history works and he’s actually given us some pretty outright commands.
So at World we have a shorthand based on whitewater rafting, which is pretty good about 40, 50 miles west of Asheville.
Good whitewater rafters know that there are six classes of whitewater rapids. It goes from class one, which is really easy, I can do it gently down the stream; to class three, which is a little more dangerous, there’s some whitewater, maybe I can do that; to class six, which is really hazardous, you’re going over a waterfall, unless you’re good, you’re probably going to die. Six classes of rapids.
We use that as our shorthand in deciding on and discussing what the Bible teaches. Class one is the stuff that’s an outright clear command, “You shall not commit adultery.” In reporting stories, we try very hard to quote everyone accurately, to represent faithfully what people believe, but we don’t believe in quoting equally the pro-adultery and the anti-adultery position.
All stories, whether they’re even small news stories or feature stories, have a protagonist, an antagonist, mission obstacles. So we tend to find a protagonist who is a person who let’s say is having a faithful marriage, and the antagonist might be those individuals who don’t believe in that at all for a whole lot of reasons.
The protagonist has a mission to try to succeed in maintaining marriage, developing a family, having children. There are all kinds of obstacles in the way, psychological ones, economic ones, etc. So we’re going to tell the story basically from the viewpoint of the person who was trying to build a successful marriage.
Other publications might do very differently. They might say, “Well, marriage is just a ball and chain. We need free love and so forth.” So when we talk about a class one rapid, we want something we’re going to be very clear on because the Bible is very clear.
Class two, the Bible is more implicit than explicit. We’re still going to have a position, but we’re going to be a little more tentative in it. Class three, it just goes, it goes all the way down to class six, which is, let’s say, an international trade agreement. The Bible is not going to give us specifics on that and anyone who says the Bible does is really overusing the Bible and thus really cheapening it.
So with this rapid strategy, with this metaphor, we try not to either underuse the Bible by saying everything is up for grabs or overuse it by saying that God is telling us clearly what to do when in fact he isn’t. And different stories we look upon as having different classes of rapids and we try to go from there to … neither overuse or underuse the Bible.
Davis: It’s so interesting how transparent you are about the biblical and theological basis for those decisions because I can imagine a lot of folks maybe secular or liberal hearing that and thinking, “Wow, that is inappropriate. That’s the last thing you should bring to the newsroom.” And yet I would think, I mean, I’m speaking as a Christian too, that they have their own Bible and their own sources of truth that they’re implicitly bringing as well.
Olasky: Yeah, so, I think when you talk with secular journalists off the record or just talking—and again, I enjoy a lot of secular journalists, they’ll be very honest about this—they’ll say, “Sure, we all know this. We know that all reporting is directed reporting.” But then officially in a lot of publications there’s still the representation that you are either, No. 1, objectively showing reality without any kind of bias setting in, or No. 2, you are being objective by balancing subjectivities.
That still tends to be the official view of lots of newspapers, but it’s very obvious reading The New York Times or The Washington Post today. There are certainly very different bias in one direction. It’s certainly obvious watching Fox News, there’s a bias in a different direction, let’s just admit it and say, “Yes, reporting is directed reporting, put up with it. That’s the way it is.”
Davis: You’ve also spoken about the need for media outlets to stay independent and avoid entangling alliances. What does that look like for a magazine like yours?
Olasky: For a magazine like ours that means we tend to get people mad. Probably every Christian conservative leader has been irritated with us at some point because we don’t just go by the talking points and we draw a very firm line between journalism and public relations.
We try to avoid entangling alliances so we do not consider ourselves really part of the conservative movement. We tend to be conservative and most of the policies that we support and describe, but we’re not part of the movement. We’re also not part of the evangelical movement. We are free to criticize. We’re free to, as best we can, humbly before God in recognizing that we make mistakes. We try to tell the truth.
Davis: Another big point of critique for media outlets is their funding sources, whether it’s ad-driven or being funded by powerful donors. There’s this perception and reality that money can corrupt the newsroom. What is the best, most effective revenue model for media outlets that want to produce fair and quality reporting?
Olasky: Increasingly, publications and media outlets either by necessity or desire are going to a nonprofit model that I think is the way to go, but it has to be done without reliance on some big sugar daddy. Because there you have the same problem. You know, Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post perhaps and others.
The goal I think should be to have a diversified group of fairly small donors and the small donors have to be large enough to be able to help us actually get salaries and eat dinner, which we like to do. But, you don’t want to have to rely on advertisers because advertisers then will not be particularly happy if you criticize them in any way or undercut their product.
The subscription model is getting much harder given the great diversity in media, which is a good thing in lots of ways but not a good thing if journalists want to get paid.
So I think the nonprofit model, which is increasingly being used as the way to go, but that means you have to produce stuff that people are willing to contribute to. And the temptation there is just to build entangling alliances and just be a spokesman for one particular position and not being willing to criticize your own people if you have to. And that’s a problem in journalism.
So I really like the funding model with people wanting to donate, listener support. We have a daily podcast called “The World and Everything in It” and it’s listener-supported, radio listener-supported podcasting. And that’s the way our magazine and our website tends to be also.
We also have a World Journalism Institute where we train both college students and mid-career people in how to be reporters and that also depends highly on funding. So far it’s working. We hope it’ll continue to be so, but we are reliant on individual sense that this is a godly way to use their money. It’s up to them.
Davis: It’s hard to keep up with all the technological changes today and it’s certainly affecting journalism. You’ve got CNN and other outlets that are making it possible now for individuals who don’t have journalism training to do journalism in a sense and to publish stories online. Do you see that as a threat to the integrity of journalism?
Olasky: It’s a threat if people do it without any training whatsoever and try to pretend that the propaganda they particularly want is true. What we do at World, we have a two-week course at the end of May, which lots of college students go to. And so we train them and from them we select interns and some of them go on to work at secular publications, but others come to work at World.
So that’s our training mechanism and they really have some very intensive training. And then we have internships and there’s more training that goes on there. So by the time they’re ready to be reporters, we can be pretty confident they know the basic ethics, not just how to avoid grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes, but how to avoid the deeper mistakes of pretending that your own view is coming from God, which it may be if you’re at class one or two rapids and you’ve actually studied the Bible, but if you pretend otherwise it’s really a disgrace.
So you need that type of training. And we do that with our World Journalism Institute for college students and also some people in their 20s, and then we do it with our mid-career course.
Very intensive training, I’ll tell you, it’s my favorite type of teaching. I taught at the University of Texas for 25 years. But you know, you teach people for 15 weeks, three hours a week, you see them in the classroom. That’s it. Much better is to have an intensive course for a week.
We do it from 8:30 in the morning until 10 o’clock at night. The people who are living with us, they’re studying in our living room, they’re going out and learning reporting. And when we’re done with that week, then you know the ones who are good can go out and report on the stories and we keep track of them.
We keep teaching, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. You don’t have to get a medical degree and go through that, but you need some basic training. And when people go and do it without any basic training at all, they tend to run into big mistakes and in some ways lead people to think that reporting is a very untrustworthy agenda.
It’s a great occupation. It is so much fun to have a front-row seat at the circus. It’s too bad that journalists are now right down there with not just used car salesman, but used tire salesman. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the reputation is not good. It’s really too bad.
I think we could improve the reputation with some basic training and then letting people go out and report what they’ve seen, not just sitting in the suites, but actually going out on the streets. That’s what’s really crucial. Reporting, not just pontificating.
Davis: Well, the book is called “Reforming Journalism.” Marvin Olasky, he’s editor-in-chief of World magazine. Thank you so much for your time today.
Olasky: Oh, good to be with you again. Thanks.