By: Linda Lotridge Levin
Norman Runnion has gone from wire service reporter
in Europe and Washington to small-town editor in
Vermont and is now rector of an Episcopal church sp.
WHAT DOES A journalist-turned-minister preach about? The media, of course.
Norman Runnion has gone from wire service reporter in London, Paris and Washington, D.C., to small-town editor in Vermont to, finally, rector of an Episcopal church. And for the past year, he has been traveling around New England, pointing out the foibles of the mass media in this country.
Last November, speaking at the annual convention of the New England Society of Newspaper Editors, Runnion argued that society allows the media to define cultural values by exploiting its weaknesses.
“This is a horrifying turnaround from the past. In the past, these values were defined by political, educational and religious leaders,” he told the editors.
A few weeks earlier, Runnion, who is the rector of St. Martin’s Church in Fairlee, Vt., was inducted into the Academy of New England Journalists. In accepting his award at a dinner ceremony, he accused the media of being “the monster that hovers over and tries to control the direction of American society.”
He called the media “the new fascism.”
“We all know about the old fascism. Are we building a new fascism, in which watchdogs of the press, of the media, are, in fact, manning the watchtowers above the cultural concentration camps?” he said.
In a talk last May before the World Affairs Council in Brattleboro, Vt., where until a few years ago he had been the editor of the Reformer, the town’s daily newspaper, Runnion condemned the print media for its “growing ineptness.”
The two major causes of this “ineptness,” he said, are “the corporate obsession with the bottom line,” and a lack of ethics.
“Publishers don’t want to take risks, because risks may cost money and not bring in profits,” he said. “And a sure-fire way to cut costs is to avoid taking any kind of risk.”
Runnion said that editors should be “the guardians of ethical values.” But they’re not, he added. Instead, he said, the sins of modern journalism have replaced ethics.
“Sex and violence contribute to profits,” he said, citing news magazine shows on television where mass murderers are interviewed “and glorified,” all for profits.
A lot of the “news” that is printed and broadcast, Runnion told the World Affairs Council, is not even the public’s business.
“The fact is, the public has a right not to know a lot of the junk that is being tossed their way in the name of the ‘right to know,’ ” he said.
As a newspaper editor, Runnion was known around New England as a bit of a curmudgeon, an editorial writer who often walked a different path from that of many of his colleagues.
The journalists who saw him inducted into the Academy of New England Journalists last fall were reminded that Runnion, who came from a family of Midwestern newspapermen, wrote editorials that “rattled around the town hall and the Statehouse.” People either loved him or they hated him, but they always knew where he stood.
In the mid-1980s, Runnion began writing from a more global perspective. He took part in the conferences between New England and Soviet journalists, which had begun at the height of the Cold War in 1982.
When he returned from the 1988 meeting in the Soviet Union, he wrote extensively for the Reformer about what was happening there. His writing showcased his talents for capturing the absurdities of daily life. He later said his experiences altered his newspaper’s presentation of news from the Soviet Union.
He was pleased, he said, that he could give his readers a kind of personal contact with that country.
From 1960 to 1965, Runnion was in the Washington, D.C., bureau of United Press International. In 1990, he retired as editor of the Reformer and attended Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he received a master’s degree in 1993.
He then worked as a seminarian assistant at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, one of the two oldest all-black Episcopal churches in the city.
He now was living and working in the inner city.
It was from this perspective that Runnion began scrutinizing the national media.
“I told a reporter friend of mine that a lot of people I know in Washington hadn’t visited the worlds where I live,” he said:
“That’s the Washington press corps. Its obsession is with Whitewater, not the black inner city; its obsession is with the killing fields of Bosnia, not the killing fields of inner city Washington where I lived.
“It [the media] tunes in Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson and Rush Limbaugh and all the talking heads, and it substitutes the babble of these talking heads, of these neo-journalists, for rational discourse,” he said.
What’s the solution? Runnion says it is time to reexamine the First Amendment.
“I don’t think the First Amendment is a protective umbrella for the kind of sin journalism we are seeing in our culture today. I don’t think picturing violence for the sake of money is what Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had in mind,” he said.
And that is the gospel according to the Rev. Norman Runnion, former newspaper editor.