Keith S. Collins, author of The Christian Science Monitor: Its History, Mission, and People is interviewed by George Spitzer, Publisher, Nebbadoon Press:
GS. Any organization has to be distinctive or it eventually disappears. What is distinctive about the Monitor?
KSC. At its best, the Monitor lifts people up. In the face of a lot of the news, its quiet approach can seem inconsequential. But when things get really emotional and even scary, like September 11, or there are serious problems that need exposing and healing, like human trafficking, the Monitor tends to shine, or at least it has in the past. That’s a combination of the journalists letting their compassion and insight into human character show, their willingness to care enough about readers to turn their reporting into compelling stories, and–this is something that I think most people don’t understand about the Monitor and a lot of what makes it different-the readers themselves focusing on dealing with their own fears, and in many cases, praying with some understanding. I do believe that insightful prayer among even a small body of readers can make a huge difference in how the world thinks.
GS. The Christian Science Monitor used to be highly respected as one of the best newspapers in America, maybe even the world. It’s lost a lot of its cachet in recent years. People don’t talk about it like they used to, and today it’s just one of many news organizations on the Web. What happened?
KSC. A combination of things, from financial problems, to a big internal blow-up in the 1980s, to a dearth of star-quality journalists in recent years. But I really think we have to be cautious in how we judge the success or failure of the Monitor. It has always had a huge hill to climb–higher, I submit, than any other newspaper in the world. Its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, who also founded the church that publishes the paper, said it had “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” Can you imagine The New York Times or any other paper taking that as its motto? It would probably lose most of its journalists the first week, let alone a lot of readers. But the Monitor keeps going, trying to take journalism in a direction that doesn’t just inform but also encourages, comforts, inspires, and even heals. Really, the success of the Monitor can be measured only on its own terms. The question really is, How well does it meet its own standard?
GS. Your answer?
KSC. Sometimes it gets there, or at least comes close, but in my view, not that often. I don’t think anyone who works for the paper today would deny that it has a long way to go. Was it closer to the ideal of so-called Monitor journalism at its peak in the 1960s, when it was highest in terms of circulation and winning big prizes? Not necessarily. But there have always been individuals who, I think, grasped what the paper is about better than others. They produced some extraordinary journalism, at the same time showing the possibilities when a newspaper really does what the founder intended.
GS. The Monitor has millions of online readers since it converted to a Web-first format in 2009. Are things looking up for the paper?
KSC. I don’t think you can tell by the numbers. Yes, millions read it now, but most of these are only occasional–once or twice a month. The more important measure is what they do after they read.
How thoroughly or how quickly the Monitor covers the news, or how accurate it is in predicting trends–these more conventional measures of the quality of a newspaper are almost beside the point with the Monitor. The Monitor is a good newspaper (or news organization, which is what they prefer to call themselves now) in the conventional sense. It has one of the higher ranking news sites on the Web. But it does not exist primarily to inform. Information is the medium, of course. But the paper exists mainly to heal–or, more accurately, to help its readers do so. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve come to.
GS. Speaking of that, the Monitor is published by a church that believes in spiritual healing. How has the church affected the paper over the years?
KSC. The two can’t be separated. People sometimes forget that Mary Baker Eddy gave the Monitor two missions: Besides “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind,” the paper is supposed “to spread undivided the Science that operates unspent.” Some Monitor journalists over the years have wished the church would let the paper alone just to be a good paper, and some church members have wished the paper would adhere more closely to their political views, whether left or right. Neither is going to happen. The paper was started by the founder of the church as her last major act. In fact, she gave the order to start it the morning after she had had a healing through prayer of a life-threatening illness. The paper’s purpose mirrors the purpose of the religion. The times when the paper has had the most trouble–twice it came close to disappearing–were times when some of those who were managing the paper drifted away from the core of the religion in some key aspect and almost destroyed the paper in the process.
GS. One of those periods, I assume, was the 1980s, when television almost eclipsed the newspaper, and the editor and many of the top journalists left the paper. The issue is still sensitive for some people who lived through it. Did you try to achieve some kind of objectivity in how you wrote about that period?
KSC. I did not set out to write an objective history of the Monitor. As most journalists admit these days, objectivity is an impossibility. Everyone has a viewpoint, whether admitted or not. I have mine about the Monitor. For one, I think theMonitor is very important for the world. I can’t pretend I’m neutral about the paper. The task of the serious writer is not, in my view, to pretend objectivity but to expand his or her viewpoint so it encompasses all sides and is fair to everyone, whether or not he agrees with them. That’s what I tried to do with the book. You can easily paint heroes and villains when you write about times like the 1980s, but what does that accomplish? I’ve tried to recognize the motives of all the key people involved. I believe that 99 percent of people do their best. That’s not worthy of condemnation, it’s worthy of understanding. Sometimes, in the long run, what seemed bad or good then is not obviously so now.
I think most people don’t really understand what makes the Monitor tick, why it covers the news the way it does. In the book I’ve tried to illuminate that aspect of the paper–how Monitor journalists think. To me that’s key to understanding the paper. You can’t do that if you are just trying to be objective, which tends to lead toward superficiality.
GS. In the 1960s, the Monitor won three Pulitzer Prizes in a row. That’s never been done before or since at the paper. Was there a reason it was so successful then? Or was that purely coincidence?
KSC. I don’t believe it was coincidence at all. First, there was a sense of limitless resources then. Financial problems at the paper didn’t start hitting until the 1970s, which was when the world also started focusing on limited resources. But more important, I think, was the attitude at the top. The editor during this time was DeWitt John, a former reporter at the paper as well as former head of the church’s public affairs arm, the Committee on Publication. He was also a teacher of the religion. This was no guarantee of success–another teacher during the Monitor’s early history who was editor was perhaps the biggest disaster, although he also accomplished some important things–but John had an approach to editing that brought out the very best in reporters, and he was unabashed in his application of Christian Science to reporting. It’s really not surprising the paper was so successful under him.
GS. You are a Christian Scientist. Did that make you biased in how you approached the subject?
KSC. Yes and no. Yes, as I’ve mentioned, I admit a desire to see the paper as well as the church continue. I think both can do a tremendous amount of good. But I did not avoid any important topics just because they are sensitive to the church. I looked fully at periods like the 1980s, and the late teens and early 1920s, when another crisis hit the church, and tried to tell the story of what really happened. But in the spirit of the Monitor, I’ve also tried to injure no man and bless where I could.
GS. As you conducted your research, what surprised you most about the Monitor‘s history?
KSC. How difficult it has been for Monitor journalists to put the paper’s mission into practice. It hasn’t happened very often or with much regularity. Many people have made sincere attempts over the years, but in my view, only a handful of editors and reporters really “got it.”
GS. Like who?
KSC. Well, you’ve got to read the book!
GS. What kind of future do you see for the Monitor?
KSC. They have a dedicated and knowledgeable team at the top now, with the editor and the business manager working closely together, something most news organizations are coming to see as essential. The Board of Directors of the church is supportive and perceptive in its approach to overseeing the paper. That hasn’t always been the case. The Monitor’s success, however, depends on how well the paper accomplishes the purpose the founder gave it. It is doing well in terms of numbers, including financial numbers. It is moving toward being a stand-alone operation financially, meaning the church won’t have to subsidize it. It will never be separate from the church’s mission, but the church does not want the paper to be a drain on resources, which makes sense. But being financially independent is only the beginning of what the paper has to accomplish. The harder job will be to achieve the kind of journalism I believe the Monitor is meant to offer in every story. That will take a revolutionary effort.
GS. One more question, a more practical one about the book: The history of a century-old newspaper is a big subject and potentially a very dry one. How did you approach the subject, and how long did it take?
KSC. People are never dull! I focus on some of those I felt contributed a lot to the Monitor‘s history. I couldn’t touch on everyone–there have been hundreds of good journalists who have worked at the paper in its hundred-plus years–but those I deal with, I tried to get into their thinking as well as their reporting and editing, or in some cases, their business work. The book is really the stories of people inside the story of an idea, the idea of a respected newspaper with a religious mission. As to how long it took, I started with one interview, in 2003, with a former reporter-foreign correspondent Takashi Oka–and worked off and on for almost a decade. The most concentrated work happened over a three-year period, beginning in 2008.
Keith S. Collins is former editor of the Christian Science Perspective column in The Christian Science Monitor. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Columbia Business School as well as Principia College, he has contributed articles and essays to the Monitor over more than 20 years on subjects ranging from life and business in Russia to Iraq during the American occupation. He works professionally as a communications consultant to corporations, non-profit organizations, and the United Nations and lives with his family in Geneva, Switzerland
Permission to reprint this interview is granted.
© 2012 Nebbadoon Press