Books

Marvin Olasky’s Faith-Filled History of Journalism

Reporters take notes during the daily briefing at the White House in 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Olasky notices small-government and religious themes in the history of journalism that other historians have ignored.

With 25 books under his belt, Marvin Olasky could relax at the beach.

He’s a pioneer in the modern conservative movement, researching how conservatives can fight poverty better than liberals do. He also has been a historian of the pro-life movement.

Now in Reforming Journalism he’s offering an ambitious mix of journalism history, useful tips on newswriting, and advice on advocating conservative convictions in forums dominated by the Left. He also takes readers behind the scenes of his editorship at World magazine and offers some glimpses of how to cover the news in China.

Olasky not only connects all these dots, but he also provides new facts and angles not included in his earlier books, including the groundbreaking and more academic Central Ideas in the History of American Journalism.

His journalism history is first-class because he sees small-government themes and Christian faith that other historians have ignored. He also is a good reporter/historian, telling a lively story with interesting detail.

The Puritan pamphlet writer Alexander Leighton, for example, had his ears cut off and his face branded for criticizing King Charles I in England. Gruesome, yes, but the incident is pertinent to grasp the suffering of the Puritans in their tentative 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: Mather wrote influential pamphlets that would be long magazine articles today. Pulpit and press were mixed in those days.

He also tells the story of John Peter Zenger, the journalist in colonial New York who was prosecuted for criticizing the royal governor, 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.

Olasky shows how Sam Adams offered a faith-based journalism as an influential commentator before the War for Independence. Again, the traditional journalism-history textbooks seldom note that Adams freely quoted from the scriptures to make his case for freedom.

Some key numbers help Olasky set the context for this era. The number of newspapers in circulation went from 359 in 1810 to 1,265 in 1834 — similar to the explosion of news websites in our time.

With alertness to worldview and broader philosophical commitments, Olasky identifies a turning point in American journalism history, a shift away from a general conservative Christian consensus in many newspapers, such as the 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. 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) argued for limited government in this era, on grounds that problems were bound to arise whenever “government assumes the functions which belong alone to an overruling Providence, and affects to become the universal dispenser of good and evil.” 

The turning point was gradual, occurring 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.

Horace Greeley was the most famous figure in 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. Unfortunately he had an almost utopian view of mankind. 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 Greeley contended for a more optimistic set of assumptions.

Olasky also highlights the Christian faith foundation of other journalists. Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy gave his life in defense of a free press, which he used to plead for an end to slavery. He was shot and killed by a pro-slavery mob intent on destroying his press. Cassius Clay of Lexington, Ky., also called for abolition in his newspaper, True American, risking his life and carrying a gun to defend himself. He 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 alone, Olasky’s book would make a great supplemental text in journalism classes. He also has nine writing suggestions. Some will overlap with the advice of other writing coaches, but Olasky adds a little 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 little 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.

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 a belief in Communism to Christian faith gives him an edge in his debate with the late 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.

The only minor weakness is his worthwhile attempt to counsel those who work in traditional mainstream news outlets, such as the Associated Press, Washington Post, or New York Times. As dean of the World Journalism Institute, he has plenty of alumni examples, such as Johanna Willett of the Tucson Star, or Paige Winfield Cunningham at the Washington Post, or Sarah Einselen at the Gainesville Daily Register. Or he could point to commentators such as Cal Thomas, Rich Lowry, Ross Douthat, Mike Gerson, Pete Wehner, and Jason and Naomi Riley as examples of commentators 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 the snobbery of hindsight and evaluates editors and reporters in the context of their times. And he offers a much-needed journalism history that is not stuck in left-of-center presuppositions that dominate traditional journalism-history texts.

 

Russell Pulliam is a columnist and associate editor at the Indianapolis Star and the director of the Pulliam Fellowship.

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