Religion-beat flashback, care of the legendary Lou Grant
If anyone ever writes a book about the history of religion news in the mainstream press, it will need to include a photo of the glowering, and often smirking, mug of Lou Grant.
Lou Grant was a TV character, of course. He was played by the Emmy-winning actor Ed Asner, who died on Aug. 29 at age 91. But for millions of Americans, he provided in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the spinoff “Lou Grant” an archetypal image of what old-school journalism was all about.
One 1977 “Lou Grant” episode certainly captured some of the attitudes I encountered while interview- ing journalists for my 1982 graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana- Champaign, which focused on why few newsrooms made serious attempts to cover religion events and trends unless
they were linked to politics. Quite a few editors sounded
like Lou Grant.
In the episode “Sect,” Grant the city editor of the mythical Los Angeles Tribune was wrestling with two problems at the same time. The problems seemed to be unrelated.
First, the Trib had lost its veteran religion editor. Grant searched and searched, but no one was interested in filling that empty desk. After all, what self-respecting journalist wanted to be stuck with the religion beat?
Problem No. 2 was how to get rid of lazy, often-drunk, no-good reporter Mal Cavanaugh. All through this episode, the newsroom’s lead- ers had been searching for a way to get Cavanaugh to resign. Then came a spark of inspiration.
The printed script is simple: LOU: Well, Mal, you’ve been
with this paper a mighty long time. As you say, this is your family.
CAVANAUGH: (All that humility) Aw, well, it’s nice to be appreciated.
LOU: And I think I’ve found a place where we’ll be able to use that special, sweet style that is Mal Cavanaugh.
CAVANAUGH: (Those eyes are getting moist; he sees himself getting a column) What’s that, Lou?
LOU: Congratulations, Mal. You’re the Trib’s new religion editor.
(Lou sits back beaming. The information seeps in a bit slowly on Cavanaugh, who blinks at Lou.)
CAVANAUGH: Religion editor?
LOU: That’s right, Mal. And I can’t think of a better man to interview the clergy … take ministers to lunch.
CAVANAUGH: Are you kidding?
LOU: Detail the theological frontiers in this country and abroad.
CAVANAUGH: That stinks! Before you stick me with a lousy job like that, I’d quit.
LOU: Quit? You haven’t even given it a chance. You can’t quit.
CAVANAUGH: The hell I can’t. Just watch me.
Cavanaugh stormed out of the newsroom after this brilliant gambit. The television audience could only assume that Grant’s problems were over. The religion editor spot was empty, but who cares?
In the decades since, there have been ups and downs in terms of the state of religion- beat work in mainstream newsrooms. Today, newsroom budgets are tighter than ever, and hot-take, click-friendly analysis writing rules, especially about politics.
Many editors I interviewed long ago offered one of two reasons for why they shied away from covering serious religious issues. Many said religion was too controversial and the subject made many readers upset. Others said religion news was “too boring,” unless the stories were about politics or scandals.
Apparently, there are too many boring, controversial religion stories out there.
That sounded like Lou Grant to me. It still does when I encounter similar attitudes today. I have always preferred the logic offered by the late George Cornell of the Associated Press, for decades a religion-news trailblazer. If newsroom managers wanted to talk about time and money, Cornell was willing to talk about time and money.
“Usually, where people put their time and money, that’s where their interests are,” he told me in 1982. “Newspapers give a great deal of space to professional sports … [Americans] put into the local and national churches much greater amounts of money than they do into professional sports. And that money is their work. That’s them. That’s a projection of their own lives.
“They are putting much more time and money into religion than they are into sports and sports are getting the vast displays on television and in the newspapers. Whole sections of the newspaper. … Newspapers’ attention and space are supposed to be geared to people’s interest. Right?”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.