The life and times of John McCandlish Phillips

By Terry Mattingly Modified: May 1, 2013 at 10:15 am •  Published: May 1, 2013
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The reporter's death also fired online discussions of a controversial issue in mainstream journalism: whether many newsrooms are hostile environments for religious believers. A provocative piece at The Week ran under a headline stating, "Why newspapers need to hire more Christians: For starters, it would help rebut conservative concerns about media bias."

Decades before today's "culture wars," Phillips noted that he was the one born-again, evangelical Protestant in a Times newsroom in which -- literally -- there were more bookies than people with Bibles on their desks. With a tired cackle, he told me, "God must love journalists, because everyone knows He loves sinners."

Yes, it would help if there were more religious believers at the Times, he said, but only if they had the skills to work there. He couldn't understand why so many young believers simply assume they could never work in real newsrooms, thus increasing the cultural and intellectual diversity in modern journalism.

"We live in a world that is, in fact, rife with evils, is rife with excessive ambition, is rife with a willingness, by far too many people, to cut any corner or to practice any deception in order to advance their purposes. They will hide, if they can, their practices from the public eye," he said.

"Journalism at its best pursues the facts about certain situations in which evildoers are at work and assembles those facts and judges them fairly. It's not a crusade, so much as it's a responsible gathering of a body of evidence that, when it's finally presented, is so persuasive that evil must skulk, retreat or be subjected to strong public remedy."

Phillips looked out across the Hudson River, into a setting sun.

"Why," he said, "wouldn't Christian believers want to be part of that?"

(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)

(EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Kendra Phipps at kphipps@amuniversal.com.)

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