Trevin Wax: Has your philosophy of journalism changed over the years? If so, in what ways?
Marvin Olasky: It changed a lot during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as I first got involved with World and had to think through the question: What does it mean to be a Christian journalist?
My early training was in writing for newspapers. I worked for the Boston Globe for awhile and later for a small newspaper out of Oregon. I was trained in AP style, which is based on the assumption that all facts are neutral and discernible to the naked eye. I knew that facts were important, but I had never considered the way in which we see facts through a worldview.
At that time, there was the idea of “objectivity.” The facts are there. You go out there with no predisposition, collect the facts, and present them to readers. Of course, in doing that, you have to decide which facts are most important, because you only have a limited amount of space to present them. You also have to decide what order the facts should be presented?
The metaphor often used was a “cameraman.” But the camera picks up what you point it at. You have to decide how to use it and what to film. Or if the reporter is merely a “tape recorder,” then you have to decide when to start taping, when to stop, what parts of the recording to use, etc. My early understanding of objectivity was clearly fallacious.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, a new definition arrived, in which there really was no such thing as objectivity. Instead, we have a balance of subjectivities. Person X believes… Person Y believes… Person Z believes… Your job is to go out there and quote them. You report subjective views, which may or may not get you closer to the truth.
As I began to be involved with World, I came to realize that there is something called “biblical objectivity.” It is neither objective in the old sense or completely subjective in the new sense. It is based on the Bible.
God has a particular point of view on things. You can see his view as you read the Bible. Some issues are clearer than others. The God’s-Eye point of view is the only objective point of view out there, because only God has the knowledge that allows him to know what the world is made of and what we’re made of, etc. The only objectivity is biblical objectivity.
Our goal as Christian reporters is to try to pick that up as best we can. Again, we are fallen; we are sinners; we are certainly limited in our understanding. But we do have clarity on a variety of issues.
The metaphor that I developed (which we still use at World) is white water rafting. In white water rafting, there are six classes of rapids. Class 1: very easy gently down the stream. Class 6: waterfalls.
Similarly, when we look at certain issues, some are Class 1 issues, where the Bible is very clear. Example? You shall not murder.
On a Class 6 issue, the Bible is very unclear. Example? What should we do about a particular treaty or a certain foreign policy issue?
On Class 1 issues, the biblical teaching is explicit. On Class 2 issues, the Bible is implicit. An example of implicit teaching would be the value of Christian education.
When you understand the different types of issues, you can be very direct in your reporting. Everyone is directed by some philosophy or some worldview. When you are directed by a biblical worldview on those issues spoken to explicitly in the Scriptures, you can report clearly. On Class 5 and 6 issues, the lack of biblical clarity means you should move more towards balancing the different viewpoints.
In between those extremes, there are places where the Bible gives you direction. Take, for example, our duty to fight poverty. The Bible lays out some very clear guidelines. The particular way we fight poverty may not always be that clear, but I think you can always arrive at some conclusions from the Bible. I would label that as a Class 3 issue. The way you fight poverty may not be immediately apparent. Discernment is key.
So… my ideas about journalism have not changed a lot. One interesting exception is the way in which we should write. I try to avoid the passive voice for ethical reasons. What is the passive voice? It’s writing like this: “Mistakes were made,” etc. It’s a way to avoid responsibility.
About a year and a half ago, I discovered I had some clogged arteries and needed surgery. I saw the surgeon’s report of the surgery (which was very successful, by the way). At the bottom, he signed his name, which means he was certainly taking responsibility. Yet, ironically, every sentence in the report was in the passive. Instead of saying, “I ripped open his chest,” he wrote, “The chest cavity was cut into.” Everything was in the passive, sentence after sentence. Of course, he is a wonderful doctor.
But I notice that passiveness in many other areas. Lawyers talk that way. Politicians talk that way. Businesspeople talk that way. It is a way to avoid responsibility. So, when I press for active voice, I am not doing so merely for grammatical reasons. It is ethical, not stylistic.
Trevin Wax: Looking to the broader world of journalism, how has cable news affected journalism both for good and for bad since it’s become so popular in the past 15 to 20 years?
Marvin Olasky: The good news is that it’s convenient. When I was a kid, there was the evening news. That was it. Back then, baseball fans like myself had to wait desperately for a radio broadcast if we wanted to know a score from some team far away. Cable news, along the internet, allows us to follow events in real time. It has certainly made things more convenient.
Cable news has definitely has increased the cacophony. Of course, the main culprit is not cable news. These problems stem from our human nature – including mine. We are desperate for innovation… every single second. We are anxious to hear the latest news instead of resting upon God, thinking, God’s in charge. He will work things out.
Trevin Wax: Tell us a little bit about the King’s College. Your role there and what is your vision for that institution?
Marvin Olasky: King’s College is located in the Empire State Building. We have around 320 students right now. We are growing. In fact, we are looking for an entry class of 200 next year.
Kings is the place for students to go if they are smart and want to live in cities. Wheaton is a very good school in the suburbs. Patrick Henry is a very good school in the countryside.
But Kings is the college in midtown Manhattan. These students are very gutsy. They are not living on a campus. They are living in regular apartment buildings with regular New Yorkers. We don’t have a college dining hall, so they have to forage for their own food. Smart kids. Gutsy kids. The same thing goes for the professors.
The students are studying to be leaders, which means they are committed to living in cities for the most part. When Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, Ephesus was a huge city. Rome was a major city; so was Thessalonica. Culture gravitates out from the cities. We are training students to be leaders, to live in cities and try to shape the culture and politics.
My job as provost is to think through the curriculum, choose which teachers we should have and what courses we should be studying. I bring in sixty people a year to interview in front of Kings students, so they get the benefit of being able to listen and ask questions and meet these leaders.
In recent years, we had two majors. One was called “Politics, Philosophy, and Economics” and was modeled on a program at Oxford. The other major was in Business. This Fall, we added a third major called “Media, Culture and the Arts.” Why? Because we’re in the middle of Manhattan, only half a mile from Broadway theaters and TV studios.
Being provost is challenging. It is different than being in the classroom, which is also enjoyable. But being provost gives me the challenge of trying to build and shape an institution.
Tomorrow, we will discuss reading habits and Dr. Olasky’s latest writing project.