Journalism has been called, aptly (and possibly tautologically) in my opinion, the “first draft of history.” This expression is beneficial because it implies both the limitations of journalism and its obligations. It also implies that journalism, like first drafts, is basically disposable.
Journalists on deadline have two disadvantages that historians don’t: they can’t know what crucial information will be revealed after their story has gone to print, and they don’t have time to do deep research on the context of a story.
Obituaries of celebrities are less difficult than breaking news stories in both of these regards. News organizations have the ghoulish good sense to write obits of famous people well in advance of their deaths. Because the deceased are famous the context is already established, and new revelations about the dead that will dramatically alter an obit are unlikely. The death of a person is the ultimate not-ongoing event, and editors can make considered choices about what parts of a person’s life to include.
In this context we can consider the All Things Considered obit of televangelist Robert Schuller broadcast yesterday that could have easily been mistaken for a press release. It was the epitome of the kind of kid-glove treatment religious figures are granted by NPR. The obit writer, Nathan Rott, was happy to highlight Schuller’s rhyming and alliterative projects, including the “Hour of Power” and the “Crystal Cathedral”.
If you only had Rott’s obit to go by you’d assume that Schuller was simply a feel-good godly genius whose life was one big success after another.
The true picture is rather different. The “Hour of Power” was one of those shows that begged for money in the name of religion from the poor and lower-middle-class folks who watched it. In spite of the millions raised from Meemaw and Peepaw’s social security checks the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt and the Schullers eventually sold it to the Catholic Church. In the process there were dramatic family squabbles. Schuller himself died seemingly in poverty and, perhaps, senility.
So how is it that none of that appeared in the obit? NPR is practically obsessed with old age and mental illness after all!
All we need to do is look back at NPR’s coverage of the death of Jerry Falwell to see another example of the spineless coverage of religious figures, especially Christian evangelical figures.
(Note: I’m not a journalist. It’s not my job to provide footnotes about Schuller, but just Google “Robert Schuller controversy” if you want the details. NPR apparently didn’t.)