Religion and Journalism: “Let me give you some advice…”

By Jack Limpert

All the clever Twitter comments about Pope Benedict XVI stepping down (Gene Weingarten: “Are non-Catholics allowed to observe that he wasn’t a very good pope? No? Okay, never mind.” Max Potter: “So the guy who played Pope and the guy who played Cliff the mailman on Cheers are not the same.”) is a reminder of some advice I got in my first year as a newspaper editor. In 1964 I left the UPI bureau in Detroit to become editor of a paper in Warren, Michigan, a heavily Catholic suburb of Detroit. Not having worked in a newspaper, I needed help and hired John McManus, a retired editor at the Detroit News, as a part-timer.

I don’t remember the story details but it was about a Catholic Church in Warren and John didn’t like the tone of the piece. He came over and said, “Let me give you some advice. Don’t piss off the Catholics or the Jews.”

In the fall of 1978 I was editing The Washingtonian and was at a meeting of city magazine editors when Pope Paul VI died. The editor of one of the city magazines mentioned that his upcoming September issue had a satirical story about his city’s Catholic bishop, a Cardinal. Soon the newspapers showed the Cardinal at the airport on his way to Rome. Soon the magazine editor was out of a job.

What I think John was bluntly saying back in 1964 was be respectful to those, such as Catholics and Jews, who have deep feelings about their beliefs. He was saying that as journalists there are times when we should  just play it straight.

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