Busted: Bob Abernethy

The man behind PBS' "Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly" discusses The Life of Meaning

After spending more than four decades covering world events for NBC news— including a stint in Moscow between 1989-1994 where he reported on the end of the Cold War—Bob Abernethy set his sights on covering a different kind of story. Raised in a family of devout Northern Baptists, Abernethy was aware that a serious discussion surrounding issues of faith was missing from the national media landscape and developed PBS’ Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly to fill that gap. A decade later the show he created has helped add nuance and depth to the frequently one-dimensional and shallow discussion of faith and spirituality in the United States. In his new book The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World Abernathy and his co-editor William Bole have collected the wisdom of an eclectic group of spiritual seekers from around the world who have been featured on the show over the past 10 years.

BustedHalo: Your PBS show Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly has been on the air for a decade and yet you’re still really the only national program that covers religion. How did you come up with the idea for the show and why don’t you think there aren’t more outlets focusing on the issues you cover?

Bob Abernethy: Well, for me it goes back to the early nineties, when I was finishing up my assignment in Moscow and coming back and I knew it was time to retire from NBC news, but I didn’t want to stop working, so I was thinking about what else I might be able to do. There was a lot of criticism back then of the networks not being able to do religious news, and that seamed to me something I had done a lot of, and I was interested in, so I imagined a 30-minute, half hour television program. Took the idea around to several people and in fairly short time found WNET the public station in New York which was interested in the program, and found a Lily endowment in Indianapolis. It just fell in place, and some people who I know, my friends, who have worked so hard to try to get programs on PBS, we’re just astonished that it happened so quickly in this case. I wouldn’t want to use the word miraculous, but it has been used.

I had hoped that our program could cover things, and cover stories in a way that would encourage other people to do the same thing. It really hasn’t happened as much as I hoped it would. I don’t know why. But yes, we’re the only national television news program that covers religion.

BH: We always talk about America being a religious nation, and yet, the coverage of religion is often one-dimensional. What are the guiding principles for your program that enable you to avoid making the same mistake?

BA: Well, we respect religion first of all. We present ourselves as reporters, and the program is journalism, we cover news of religion and ethics, we’re not televangelists. We try to make that very clear. But having done that, I think the way to really cover religion, as well as possible, is to look for and listen for what people say about their deepest beliefs. That’s just good reporting, and the trick is to present that, to give people an opportunity in the stories to refer to that, to refine that, without the program seeming to be religious, as opposed to religion reporting. We think that our credibility is greatest if we do not appear to be people with an agenda.

When we were trying to get the program on the air, we went around to at least a hundred people about the program, and asked their advice. We talked to Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I said ‘’look, we’re going to cover all religions, it’s not just one just particular piece of the spectrum. Is that going be a problem for those you know best, the Southern Baptists?’ He said, ‘no, as long as you respect the religious impulse, you’ll be alright.’

BH: Do you think that a lot of the polarization that happens in America is because there is a lack of respect for certain values?

“I was never NBC’s religion correspondent but I did a lot of religion pieces, and I was not uncomfortable saying the word “God” on the air. So all that kind of fed into doing Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, it seems sometimes like a homecoming. It brought together all the the skills I love of reporting, with this ancient background of the church.'”

BA: I think that does come through, I’m not sure if it’s because of a lack of respect as much as it is a lack of information. It may be that some of us just don’t know enough to do it right. But we try to do that, we try be as informed as we can, so that we can get it right. I don’t think that’s evangelism nearly as much as it’s just good reporting.

BH: You grew up in a family of preachers, correct?

BA: I sure did. My people were Baptists, my father died when I was very young, and his father, my paternal grandfather took my mother and me in. He was a minister, my other grandfather was a minister, I have a couple of uncles and cousins who have been ministers, almost all of them Northern Baptists. The grandfather who raised me was always careful to identify himself as a Northern Baptist.

BH: Which is now American Baptist.

BA: Exactly, so I spent a lot of time in church as a boy, went to school, then church, then waiting around afterwards to greet my grandfather and go home. When I was at NBC I liked doing religion stories. I thought it was something that I could do, I have kind of an instinct for kind of that background. And so I sought them out, I was never NBC’s religion correspondent but I did a lot of religion pieces, and I was not uncomfortable saying the word God on the air. So all that kind of fed into doing Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, it seems like a homecoming, it brought together all the skills I love of reporting, with this ancient background of the church.

BH: Your father died when you were very young?

BA: When I was five.

BH: So you dealt with tragedy pretty young. Did that effect your interest in church when you were growing up?

BA: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve defined it very well for my life. But I do think it gave me a good sense of loss. And, what the consequences of that were, I don’t know, but I feel when I talk about it, I feel that absence.

BH: So many people’s faith journeys seem to have an aspect of people finding reason to believe in the face of great loss or tragedy in their lives.

BA: And whether they seek them out, or it just happens, I don’t know. But I do know that there is a common denominator that I didn’t see in the preparation of the selections for the book, that I see now. There is a common denominator of realism about looking at life. People see it exactly for what it is. They see the joy in the beauty, in the love and all that. They also see the suffering and the disappointment and they don’t despair. Somehow there is this intuition that many of them have that there’s something transcendent, and that they can experience it, and they do, and many people in various ways talk in very moving ways about feeling closest to God at times of suffering. Martin Marty speaks about his father and the late Paulist Father Bud Kaiser, in Los Angeles, he spoke about this as well. Kaiser says when it’s really dark you can see the stars, and Martin Marty speaks about how, when the leaves are down, you can see the horizon. I tell you there’s eloquence, these are people who use such wonderful language, it leaves many of us tongue tied. It’s just wonderful to hear them speak.

BH: In the ten years you’ve been on the air do any particular stories stick out for you?

BA: One of my favorites was Tom Lynch. He’s an undertaker and a poet, and he’s one of those whose sees life whole. And he doesn’t blink. He tells a story, he says that the hardest part for him, as an undertaker, is when he has to bury a child. And he said ‘on those days I shake my fist at God. What did you have in mind here God?’ Then I asked him what he did on those days when God seems far away, or perhaps non-existent? And Lynch just burst out laughing, and says, ‘I pray.’

And another one who affected me a lot, I’m so glad that I did this, was the late William Sloane Coffin. I had known of him primarily in his years as a civil rights advocate, as a guy out front getting arrested in demonstrations, protesting the Vietnam war, advocating the end of nuclear weapons. I’d known him mostly by reputation as very public man, and he certainly is that, or at least he was that when I went to see him about a year before he died. He was all that. He spoke about his lovers quarrel with his country, but what surprised me—I don’t think it should have surprised me but it did—was how very eloquent he was about his faith. He spoke about suffering all over the world, which he called ‘human malpractice.’ He said, we roll our eyes to heaven and say ‘God how could you let this happen?” Coffin said, it’s well to remember that right when we are asking that question of God, God is asking that question right back at us. How could you let this happen? And so he was great on the action, the courage, the savvy that it takes to live out the concern for social justice. But when he talked about God, it was equally moving. He said, ‘the love of God is for me absolutely overwhelming.’ And so I was moved by that.