L.A. Times feature writer Roy Rivenburg's involvement with the World Journalism Institute, whose mission is "training a cadre of Christian journalists to enter the mainstream newsrooms," has become a conversation point on the Web and at the paper. It seems partly tied to the debate over discredited USA Today fabricator Jack Kelley, who also was active with the institute, and to Rivenburg's March 12 story in the LAT giving the side of opponents to gay marriage. (He says he was assigned the piece -- and personally explains his mixed feelings toward WJI at the end of this post).
Liberal bloggers Atrios and Daily Kos, and media watcher Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine, have mentioned Rivenburg's role in the past week. Conservative blog Hoystory.com, written by a page designer at the San Diego Union-Tribune, has responded in defense. Separately, Rivenburg's participation with WJI has also come up critically in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.
What is WJI?
Its website explains that "because we Christians did not stand-up for God in the newsrooms, these cultural institutions went into declension, like all our other cultural institutions...The mission of the World Journalism Institute is to overcome the culture's efforts to eclipse God by providing a counter-thrust to the secular media, as well as the tepid and non-discerning Christian media. To this end, WJI helps train aspiring Biblically-minded journalists."
In addition to Kelley and Rivenburg, the roster of guest teachers has included John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, Karima Haynes of the L.A. Times and Marshall Allen of the Pasadena Star-News, also listed by WJI as a writer for Christianity Today. (A text crawl on the WJI website says that upcoming speakers include Gregg Easterbrook of the New Republic, Rich Lowry of the National Review and Cal Thomas of Fox).
Rivenburg, you might recall, was assigned to cover the offbeat and humorous sides of last year's recall campaign. He took a couple of veiled shots at the paper's liberal lean in his pieces and in an email printed by anti-LAT blogger Patterico. This summer, Rivenburg is scheduled to co-teach with Haynes and Allen (and others) a WJI "boot camp" in news writing and reporting; the syllabus includes "the theology, philosophy and goals of Christian journalism" and students are asked to bring a Bible to class. Rivenburg says his one-day participation is talk about feature writing.
In response to an email query, Rivenburg writes to L.A. Observed:
A couple of years ago, I was approached by someone from the World Journalism Institute to see if I would teach a three-hour class on feature writing during one of their two-week training workshops for college students. The pay was generous and I wanted some experience teaching, but after looking into the group's theology and philosophy about journalism, I had serious reservations. I asked a journalist acquaintance about it who had taught there previously and also disagreed with their philsophy, and he thought I should give it a whirl, suggesting I could give the students a dose of mainstream journalism. So I did.
When I taught, I was asked to sign a statement of theological belief that I disagreed with almost completely (I'm Catholic). I refused to sign it. They let me teach anyway. I have taught feature writing for this group twice in the L.A. area and am scheduled to teach again in July. The content is straight journalism, and I would teach a secular class the exact same way. Although I disagree with WJI's philosophies, I see no problem with teaching good journalism methods to aspiring journalists. Most of the students strike me as typical college kids; they're just more conservative in their religious beliefs.
* Friday Update: Blogger Xrlq has figured out the real controversy here: me!