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Bill Sammon: Moral compass needed in American journalism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Because the secular media frequently ignores the moral aspects of news stories, Christian journalists must bring a needed sense of moral clarity to news coverage, White House correspondent Bill Sammon said at the Baptist Press Excellence in Journalism Banquet in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 15.

The banquet — the culminating event of the fifth annual Baptist Press national Collegiate Journalism Conference — featured award presentations for students achieving excellence in the fields of print journalism, photojournalism, broadcasting, web design and yearbook.

Sammon is senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times who travels with President Bush wherever he goes. Sammon also serves as a political analyst for the Fox News Channel and has written a series of books chronicling the Bush presidency.

Christian journalists can bring “a basic moral compass” to their work “that the mainstream media possesses but just so often chooses to ignore. And if you bring that to your work, it will help you when you choose the stories you’re going to write about or broadcast,” Sammon said.

“That moral compass will allow you to connect with mainstream America in a way that the mainstream media is not doing right now.”

Most stories have a moral dimension, and ignoring that dimension misrepresents the news, Sammon said. He cited instances in his own career when covering the moral dimension of a story was crucial.

One such instance, he noted, occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists slammed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center. Sammon accompanied President Bush on a seemingly routine trip to Sarasota, Fla., that morning and watched Bush handle the crisis beginning the moment an aide whispered news of the attacks in Bush’s ear.

For three days, Bush gathered information and formulated a response to the attacks, Sammon said. On Sept. 14, the President addressed the nation during a prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington. In that speech Bush spoke about Sept. 11 in moral terms, and coving the speech required Sammon to report about matters of morality, he said.

“It was really the first time George W. Bush spoke without embarrassment about the great epic themes of good and evil and grief and righteousness with the sort of moral clarity that we have since come to associate with his presidency,” Sammon said.

After the speech, Bush traveled to New York City to visit Ground Zero and encourage rescue workers. At Ground Zero Bush initially lost control of the crowd but regained it when he said to rescuers through a bullhorn, “I can hear you. The whole world can hear you. And pretty soon the people who knocked these buildings down are going to hear from all of us.”

In response to Bush’s statement, the rescue workers began chanting, “USA! USA!” and America started to view the attacks in moral terms, Sammon said. Once again accurate news coverage required Sammon to speak in moral terms.

“We, as a nation, were so overwhelmed by sorrow and grief and so paralyzed by this visual funk that had descended on our nation that when those [workers] started chanting ‘USA,’ it was almost like we felt the first stirrings of righteous indignation,” Sammon said.

Another moment for bringing moral clarity to news coverage occurred when Sammon covered Al Gore’s campaign during the 2000 presidential election. On one campaign stop, Gore took a canoe ride down the Connecticut River to promote his support of environmental policies.

Sammon learned that Gore had instructed local officials to release water from a dam upriver and raise the water level by a foot in order to facilitate his canoe ride. Because the area was experiencing a drought, the water level in the river had fallen. Officials refused to raise the water level previously in order to preserve water for other uses. After confirming his information, Sammon wrote a front-page story for The Washington Times exposing the hypocrisy of promoting policies to protect the environment while simultaneously wasting water during a drought.

“It caused quite a little scandal for a number of days and even weeks,” he said.

Sammon encouraged students to press on in their work and become the kind of journalists who connect with average Americans by using moral terms and maintaining a basic sense of right and wrong.

“Take heart,” he said. “This is a moment of great promise for young journalists, especially that rarest of the breed: Christian journalists.”

Sammon concluded, “Never break your bond with mainstream America. Never forsake those common, ordinary, decent, Christian sensibilities that you were raised with. And whatever you do, don’t ever abandon that moral compass that got you here in the first place.”