Episode 49: Peggy Wehmeyer

Fake news. A biased media. It seems this is all we hear about when discussing the role of media these days. 

Today’s guest on Good God was America’s first religion reporter, Peggy Wehmeyer. She and George talk about the role of the media, how to keep objectivity, and the importance of reporting on religion to help us understand one another better. 

George sums it up when he says to Peggy: “What you were trying to do in the mainstream media is to drive us toward the center, when so many forces are pushing us toward the edges.”

You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript below, or watch the full video here.

George Mason: As important as religion is to our personal lives and our lives in the world, it's remarkable that the coverage of it by the media has been so spotty. Peggy Wehmeyer was an exception when she was hired first at Channel 8, and then at ABC News. She'll be our guest to talk more about that on Good God.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason, your host and I'm pleased to welcome to the program today Peggy Wehmeyer. Peggy, glad to have you with us.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Nice to be here George.

George Mason: Peggy is a career journalist who has spent most of her career covering religion, and she is a freelance writer now. But her story is one that is almost impossible to tell without talking about the religious life of Dallas for the past three decades, or so. Not to mention religion coverage nationally. So, Peggy, let's just begin with the fact that when I first came here, I was watching you on Channel 8 News, and you were covering religion for WFAA. And then a big moment happened when Peter Jennings called and you went to ABC news, and began to cover religion nationally. How did you first break into religious news reporting on Channel 8?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Well, that's a fun and long story George. I was actually ... in seminary, I had been a journalism major at the University of Texas. I wasn't even a Christian, I didn't grow up in the church. I would walk by ... those of you who went to UT know that there's a big tower and it says, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." And every day going to class I'd walk by that and I thought, "You shall know the truth. I'm in college, I'm going to find the truth." Turns out, of course, Jesus said those words and my sophomore year, I was introduced by campus group to the Christian faith and I thought, "This is crazy. This is extraordinary. This is kind of radical." Very different than anything I had been taught growing up.

George Mason: Where did you grow up?

Peggy Wehmeyer: I grew up in Barbados, and Mexico, and Oklahoma, and Ohio, and Florida, and Houston.

George Mason: A very homogeneous background growing-

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yeah, that's right.

George Mason: ... up in all those communities, right?

Peggy Wehmeyer: I've been all over the place. My mother was actually a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, my father was a sometimes practicing Christian Scientist.

George Mason: Wow.

Peggy Wehmeyer: But mostly an Ayn Rand follower. So I-

George Mason: We'll get into that a little later, but-

Peggy Wehmeyer: We weren't church goers, so I had nothing. I came kind of with a blank slate into faith. Anyway, I dove into this in college when you're exploring all kinds of things while I was studying, and about the same time that I stumbled into a journalism class, and all the lights went on like, "Oh my gosh, this minimizes my weaknesses and maximizes my strength." I stumbled into Jesus. So my faith started developing at the same time I started studying journalism, worked for the paper at the University of Texas, which is a big campus newspaper. I remember the first big story I had was on ... back then it was in the '70s Sun Myung Moon-

George Mason: Right, Unification Church.

Peggy Wehmeyer: They'd come to campus and recruiting people, and it was a big exposè. It was quite a rush like, "Wow, when you report on religion, and things that carry weight and meaning in terms of the direction of people's lives, you get a big response." I got such a big response to that one that I had to leave town because I got death threats.

George Mason: Really?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yeah, I remember going home to my parents thinking, "Whoa, wow. I'm going to do some more reporting." And so I as I became more stirred by the impact of faith in people's lives, I decided I wanted to cover these things. But first I needed to go to seminary I thought, so I came to Dallas against my parents wishes. They wanted me to go into business, went to seminary, and about that time I again ... I can never tell young people, "Here's how you do it." From my life 'cause I didn't do it that way. I kind of stumbled into the number one TV station in Dallas through a friendship I had with one of the anchormen who was working doing pro bono work at the seminary, and I got my first job writing copy and tearing scripts. I kept telling the news director and your friend Dave Lane-

George Mason: Right he was a member here of our church.

Peggy Wehmeyer: He was a member here, the General Manager. I said, "You guys are missing all these great stories out there on religion." And so they start passing out my story ideas to senior reporters and they'd go ... the reporters would go, "Which ..." unfortunately reporters all over still go, "I don't get this at all. This is not my language, I'm not covering this." So I'd keep going into the News Director's office saying, "Let me. Let me." And one day I read in the Dallas Morning News that they had hired me as the first religion reporter on local TV, So I start covering religion in Dallas.

George Mason: You read that? Yes.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I learned that way 'cause I kept begging, "Let me do it-

George Mason: That's funny.

Peggy Wehmeyer: ... I can cover these stories."

George Mason: So you started covering stories in Dallas, and that was sort of an innovation in the news business where-

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yeah, it was the first.

George Mason: It was the first.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Sadly.

George Mason: Yes, and it didn't last for very long because there are forces at work, both economic and ideological that make it difficult to cover religion. But before that change, there was a really important step up where Peter Jennings called, and he had his own same sense, somewhat as you did that this was an underreported aspect of American culture.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yeah, he had been reporting in the Middle East for a long time. I remember watching him on the air with those trench in Lebanon, or Beirut, or Jerusalem. He saw from his reporting how much religion shaped the world, and he came back to New York when he came the New York office and said, "Why aren't we covering religion?" And he agitated the management at ABC News for, he says, three years, "Hire a religion reporter." And they were like ... finally they said, "You want a religion reporter? You go find one."

George Mason: Mm-hmm, and he did.

Peggy Wehmeyer: And fortunately for me, I was the only one in the country. So he called one day.

George Mason: You know, whether you're talking about the Middle East or you're talking about America, you mentioned Dave Lane. I remember very vividly the Sunday afternoon that Dave Lane called me when David Koresh and his cult outside of Waco when that conflagration happened, and Dave said, "How do we cover this?" ... And I was talking to Bob Mone recently about this as well, the problem is that so many of these stories have a definite religious angle to them and they wouldn't be understandable apart from the religious dimension to it. It's not just that we cover the Methodist meeting in General Conference to try to decide what they're going to do with LGBTQ members, it's not just the Southern Baptists struggles of where we're just covering religion per se. It's also the everyday stories that if you don't know the religious ideology underpinning all of this, you really can't cover the whole story, can you?

Peggy Wehmeyer: That is a very profound thing that you just said that most people don't understand, and you just raised a great story. When the David Koresh story happened outside Waco, I went ... we all took shifts as reporters, and I went down for an overnight shift. I remember we were all like camped out, we had news trucks, and there they were in this compound. David Koresh with all those people believing it was the end of the world. He was the Messiah, he was going to save them. And the FBI came, and the government was in. And at night, you could hear them with loudspeakers, screaming, crying babies, like intimidating him, doing these terrible things. I remember, I was the only reporter because I understood religion saying, "You're feeding-

George Mason: This is exactly what it was."

Peggy Wehmeyer: ... their very apocalyptic beliefs. You are telling all his followers that you are the dangerous government that's ushering in the end of the world, stop it."

George Mason: Stop it. Stop it.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Nobody understood that. Government didn't understand it, the media didn't understand it. I'm not trying to brag here, but I remember sitting there as a young reporter going, "What are you thinking?"

George Mason: That's precisely the point.

Peggy Wehmeyer: That's your point.

George Mason: That's precise my point.

Peggy Wehmeyer: And I've seen it over and over. Listen, when the airplanes flew into 911, into those towers. And I remember watching Diane Sawyer and others who I admire saying, "Oh my gosh, these people are insane. They're crazy." They'd show how they ... "Can you believe they prayed ahead of time? Can you believe they think they're going to some other life if they do this?" And I'd be like, "Yes I can believe that."

George Mason: Yes I can believe that.

Peggy Wehmeyer: We understand them. It's so frustrating to me that the media still has failed. The people in charge who make the decisions, what airs, what doesn't, do not get the core meaning of faith and religion in people's lives, how it-

George Mason: Well, and I think we should be clear that just because we understand that they prayed and thought they were going to heaven for what they did, doesn't mean in understanding them that we agree with them-

Peggy Wehmeyer: Of course not, but there are Christian martyrs.

George Mason: ... or that we think that that worldview is something that we do.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Christians martyr themselves.

George Mason: Christians martyr themselves, Muslims martyr themselves, Buddhist martyr themselves. This is not-

Peggy Wehmeyer: So we understand.

George Mason: We do understand this sort of thing.

Peggy Wehmeyer: They're not mentally ill necessarily, they may have been.

George Mason: Well there is a reasonableness within the system of their worldview, but it may not be rational in a larger sense. But within the worldview that they've adopted, it makes perfect sense.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Of course it does.

George Mason: Which is part of what we're talking about.

Peggy Wehmeyer: And many of us who share religion that calls for devout adherence to the belief, hopefully the one you're following is not calling you to fly airplanes into towers. But you're right.

George Mason: But it might call you to opt out of certain things. There is a history in our country, for instance, of conscientious objection to war. Well, a Christian who decides that he or she is is primarily committed to a vision of peace, say, and non violence might seem unAmerican if choosing not to fight for the nation in the way that otherwise ... But then we have now we are adjudicating so many different issues with regard to contraception through insurance companies, whether these things are provided or mandated by government and these kinds of things. Whether because gay marriage is legal, what requirements are there of clergy now? Do they ... they act as agents of the state, and then what if they choose not to are they in a discriminatory position? So there's all sorts of things that we're wrestling with in these matters, so understanding the logic from within is part of the public service that religion reporters could provide.

Peggy Wehmeyer: And helping people. You know George I think the greatest ... one of my guiding hopes and goals when I was a religion reporter was to create understanding and compassion for whatever side, instead of ... in news we have a short amount of time and there's usually a protagonist and antagonist, and everybody likes that. Right?

George Mason: Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: In religion, this is very dangerous. So I had to navigate this road of making a story sexy with a protagonist antagonist, a battle, a conflict. Whether it's church state issues, or whatever you had to elevate the battle. But I would try to find characters who you could ... when you heard them, or when I picked which sound bites I would use, the best compliment I would get is when I would come back up to the newsroom in New York, and a very, very non religious reporter who would be brilliant and I respect would come up to me and go ... and this happened often, "That's the first time I've ever understood why someone would do that, I never understood that." And that was my goal. That's not me trying try to tell people what they should think and believe. That's not me try to slip in my religious beliefs to convince the public that this side is better than this. Let's open, put some light on both sides so we can have compassion for both.

George Mason: Okay, but what you're saying, Peggy is that what you were trying to do in what's become known as the mainstream media is to drive us toward the center when so many friends forces are pushing us toward the edges. So we like to talk on this program about the common good, and part of the public service that a religion reporter like you was providing and can provide for us is to see the truth in our neighbor that we otherwise would not be able to see. Right?

Peggy Wehmeyer: You know, George, I love the way you just said that. The truth in your neighbor. If your neighbor is a young couple, who are homeschooling their children, and have had a dream of starting a little bakery that honors God, and promise God they would never bake a cake for a gay wedding. And they refuse to do it, and they're considered right wing, bigoted, fanatical, part of a hate crime groups because of it, and they lose their jobs, and their kids are ostracized. I want people to be able to back up and go, "Why would they? Can I have any empathy for this company? Are they crazy? Are they mean? Are they part of the Ku Klux Klan." No. So I don't even know if it's coming in the middle, but I like what you said. When I was-

George Mason: Let's hold that thought right there because we need to take a break.

Peggy Wehmeyer: All right.

George Mason: But I want to come back, and I want to pursue this more because we are in a moment I think when we're wrestling with what's the line between the deference to religious liberty, and the place at which that crosses over into the feeling of discrimination that's a public challenge as well? So when we come back, we'll talk about that.

Jim White: Faith forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square is a broad and diverse coalition of Dallas' faith leaders dedicated to service, hope, and a shared vision for North Texas. Faith Forward Dallas creates and supports a community of respect and compassion for all, sharing in the mission of a Thanksgiving Foundation to heal divisions and enhance mutual understanding.

George Mason: We're back with Peggy Wehmeyer, a freelance writer and religion reporter for more than three decades. We were talking about this deference that we should learn to show to people of strong religious convictions because the nature of our country is that religious liberty should be accorded to all. And, in fact I remember the late Jeff Weiss who used to write for the morning news, Jeff used to say something to the effect of, "Everyone's religion looks crazy to someone from the outside, but sane to someone from the inside." And so we find ourselves in this situation at times where people in the general public feel that granting such liberty to people to feel like they're discriminating against others is crossing the line and sort of missing the mark of what religious liberty supposed to be. What are some ways you've wrestled with that? In other words, you mentioned the cake baking for a gay marriage.

George Mason: That was certainly one of those cases, but we also have people who ... we have bills that had been filed in Austin right now, to give healthcare professionals the right of opting out of treating people because of their own personal religious objections. So we have all sorts of things we're wrestling with about this. What kinds of thoughts do you have Peggy, as you've covered this over time?

Peggy Wehmeyer: You know, I haven't been covering those issues in the last decade when they've become so politicized and controversial, so you'd have to give me a case by case. I do have empathy for the bakers. Now, I may not agree with them. I may not agree with them, but I do understand them. I think I can speak from how I feel the media deal ... I think the media is a little unbalanced to how they deal with these people. For example, I recently saw story about the Vice President's wife Karen Pence, you're probably familiar with this. I'm not saying whether I'm for, like or don't like Mike Pence, but his wife teaches in a traditional Christian evangelical elementary school where they sign a little covenant that schools have signed forever, and people have believed in for millennia that says, "We believe that marriage is between a man and woman." The media went nuts like, "Oh my god, she's dangerous, he's dangerous. He shouldn't be vice president."

Peggy Wehmeyer: I read that and I thought, "Really? She doesn't have a right to teach in a school that's been around forever that people have been teaching in forever just because now we have decided she's part of a hate group because she believes marriage is between a man and a woman?" I think that's over the top. Now, I'm not an expert on legal issues, if it becomes a crime to have ... well, that's what I worry about. I do worry. When does it become criminal to have a belief you think that people have followed for years, and years, and years that is no longer acceptable?

George Mason: Well I agree that that's certainly true, but you also have to recognize I think it would that if we were talking about racism is something that we ... separate but equal, or whatever the case may be, that was something people agreed for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I think that's very different, and that's the case we always use. You're right.

George Mason: Well it is, and similarly we'd like to talk more in a letter segment about patriarchy is another situation, and the role of women in society, and those sorts of things. I think part of the thing we wrestled with is yes, there's, there's Karen Pence, and her teaching in a school. But there's also the question of when Mike Pence was the governor of Indiana, and the anti LGBT legislation that he promoted. So you have a secular environment there. And so I think they're matching up the private and the public and saying, "This is all one cloth." Where I think part of the argument that we should be making is that there is a tradition of privileging private schools and religion to function in spheres that should be deferred to in terms of the way they function and their values, and that's a long history of First Amendment privileges and rights in this country. And when those get attacked, whether from the left or the right, then we have to defend them.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Right, and those are the things I noticed. Just like ... it takes me back to the Bill Clinton RFRA with, I mean that-

George Mason: Religious Freedom Restoration Act, right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yeah, I'm Sorry. That was a big story, but the media was like, "Big deal. Big deal. Big deal."

George Mason: Right. That's a huge story.

Peggy Wehmeyer: That was a big story, and hardly anyone covered it in a significant way. And that's what you're referring to as well.

George Mason: Well, it is. Back in those days, we were dealing with questions of whether Native Americans should be allowed to smoke a peyote, and these sorts of things. And whether Jehovah's Witnesses should be able to opt out of blood transfusions, and things. Now, it's much more personal in a more mainstream way in a lot of these questions about abortion, partly and-

Peggy Wehmeyer: I was just thinking about abortions, another ... I was starting to report George as you know, in the '80s. You were a pastor here, and abortion and gay rights were the two hot issues. Nothing changes.

George Mason: Nothing changes it seems.

Peggy Wehmeyer: It's still abortion and gay rights, I guess religious liberty's bigger now than it was in the '80s.

George Mason: Well, but I think the religious liberty issues are about abortion and gay rights.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Partly, yes.

George Mason: Mostly.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Or liked to that often.

George Mason: They really are.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yes they are. On the right, people would say, "Do we have the right to ..." you know what both sides want? I think, in a way I had to simplify, "Can we believe what we believe, and be valued and respected?" And both sides demonize the other. What I wanted to do as a reporter was to get rid of the demonization, no attitude going into it. Let the viewers ... as a Christian reporter, I wanted to say this ... People would challenge me saying, "How can you go to church and cover religion? Isn't that a conflict of interest?" And I'd say, "Wait a minute, didn't you cover the last political election? Did you vote?" I actually think as a Christian, it equipped me to be a good reporter because I had to trust God. To have an agenda, to have a bias ... which we all have some unconscious bias, but to have a conscious bias or an agenda as a reporter would have been sin for me.

Peggy Wehmeyer: My highest calling as a journalist was to trust God with the information I have and give it to the viewers in the best way that I could, and leave it there. Not to spin things. And I was consistently pressured in some ways, "Spin it, have an edge, have an attitude. This is what we believe."

George Mason: This is what we believe?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yeah.

George Mason: Meaning the media?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Mm-hmm, "We have to win this battle." And the New York Times now, as much as I love that newspaper, they have become so much more not ... I don't want to say just like Fox News, which has become a mouthpiece for political right wing. But the New York Times has more of an agenda than I've ever seen them have in some areas. You have to know how to read it like which things are agenda driven. The media is so desperate right now, some media outlets are trying to save the country in the best way they know how, which means they're no longer neutral. We have to stay neutral.

George Mason: It's hard to figure out the right language for the media, isn't it? Because objectivity was never really realistic, and so we use language like fairness.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yeah, I agree with you on that.

George Mason: Well, what about fairness?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Well, of course. That's what Fox News uses.

George Mason: Well, all right, but-

Peggy Wehmeyer: But fair, I think consciously objective. Okay, so let's talk about objectivity. No one is totally objective.

George Mason: Exactly. Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: But you have to remove conscious, you can't have a conscious non objective point of view and report honestly. So I acknowledge ... For example, let me give you a perfect example. One of my ... I had to do street reporting meaning whatever the police radio has called, I'd have to do. So we had to go cover a terrible wreck. It was here in South Dallas, a teenage African-American boy rammed into the back of a young mother with a child in the car. They were in the seat belts. The car burst into flames, the young boy ran from the scene. We ... my photographer and I got there right after it happened, the cars is in flames. A gas station attendant across the street sees it, runs into the intersections trying to cut the kid out of the seat belt. I'm witnessing this whole thing. The mother dies, the baby's rescued. The kid gets off.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Now, I have 90 seconds to tell this story in the six o'clock news piece. Depending on my feelings ... and I actually was aware of this, is the story about how dangerous that intersection is and the city needs to change the lights there? Is the story about how bad young African-American gang members are, that they would run away from the scene of a crime, and how we need to train young people how not to do this? Is the story about the tragedy of the car, Ford Motor Company, whatever, that the car would blow up.

George Mason: What about the heroism of the person who-

Peggy Wehmeyer: Of course, I think that's actually what I went with. The positive story. But every reporter based on their unconscious bias, they might ... we might have all the facts of that story in 90 seconds, but what we lead with and what we emphasize, reflects our bias. So that's a bias. But then when it comes to something like abortion or gay rights, or something like that, if you know your belief is seeping into something, you need to remove yourself from the story.

George Mason: Wow.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Without a doubt.

George Mason: Yeah. And that's-

Peggy Wehmeyer: You shouldn't cover it.

George Mason: I mean, that's hard to do. Removing yourself from stories today, more and more, it seems like we don't know what journalism is covering a story because almost everything seems to be done from-

Peggy Wehmeyer: A point of view.

George Mason: ... an opinion point of view nowadays.

Peggy Wehmeyer: That's not journalism.

George Mason: I understand, but my point is that to general public, the line is being blurred-

Peggy Wehmeyer: It's entertainment and opinion.

George Mason: ... especially through social media.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Entertainment and opinion.

George Mason: Right. Exactly. And then you have cable news networks that are much more dedicated to point of view journalism.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Well, we should turn them off.

George Mason: Well, we should.

Peggy Wehmeyer: No, no, really people should stop watching cable TV. And good citizens must do more work to know what's happening in the world. More work meaning, be selective about your news sources, be careful what you read, and tune out the ones that are all opinion.

George Mason: What if those opinions, though, make me happy, reinforce my values, make me want to feel like I am being supported in the world? To me that's what's really happening with a lot of these cable news networks is people are seeking out those places, not necessarily the places that are giving them news per se in a more objective way, but those places that are simply reinforcing the way they feel.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Which means you're choosing if you do that ... yes it feels good, to have people cheering your tribe on. But it means you become more tribal, and then contribute to the tribalization of the culture and you're guilty.

George Mason: Precisely. So we're back to where we started about finding the truth in your neighbor, which is hard work, which is-

Peggy Wehmeyer: It shouldn't be hard work.

George Mason: ... listening to your neighbor.

Peggy Wehmeyer: It shouldn't.

George Mason: Well-

Peggy Wehmeyer: If we're Christians, and we haven't been practicing this we've missed the whole Christian gospel.

George Mason: Because Jesus said, "Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart, soul, strength and mind and love thy neighbor as thyself."

Peggy Wehmeyer: And that doesn't mean agree with your neighbor, that doesn't mean don't confront your neighbor. It means love your neighbor, and we've forgotten how to confront in love, speak the truth in love.

George Mason: There's so much more that we need to talk about Peggy, but we've got a great start in this first time together and let's continue this in a second episode. I'm so glad we're having this time to visit about it, thanks for being on Good God.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yes, thank you George.

Jim White: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White, guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Here's grateful appreciation to Evolve Technology for location production facilities, Evolve Technology for home audio video and lighting design. Enjoy more, think less with Evolve, see their great work at evolvedallas.com, thanks to Wendy Krispin Caterer for guests parking accommodations. Good God, conversations with George Mason is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God, and faith, and the common good. All material Copyright 2018 by Faith Commons.

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