- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2001

ON MEDIA

ABC has done got religion.
The network announced yesterday that it had joined forces with Beliefnet, the Internets most-visited "spiritual" destination, in a match they hope is made in heaven.
The pair will collaborate on popular polls and daily news stories that plumb "the ongoing significance of religious beliefs and attitudes on the great issues of the day," according to ABC News President David Westin.
The alliance will "measure, understand and explain some of the substantial shifts taking place in the American spiritual landscape," said Steven Waldman, who founded Beliefnet 18 months ago after leaving U.S. News & World Report, where he was a national correspondent.
While ABC is the sole broadcast network to employ a full-time religion reporter, the subject itself is touchy territory.
Last June, ABCs Peter Jennings "The Search for Jesus" irked critics and viewers who thought the documentary one-sided. Four of the five American religious scholars interviewed for the production were "liberal Jesus Seminar stalwarts" according to one review, pressing the position that Jesus was a political dissident whose claims to divinity were exaggerated.
It "relegated to the mythological dustbin nearly all of Jesus ministry, miracles, and Gospel message, except for a few parables with an arguably political spin," wrote Charlotte Allen at the Beliefnet Web site ( www.beliefnet.com ).
Daniel Akin, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the production "a marvelous commercial for the Jesus Seminars perspective." Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt said, "There certainly was not a balance there with good solid conservative evangelical theologians."
The Media Research Center noted that the piece discredited basic Christian tenets, while the Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries countered with its own production, "Who Is This Jesus?," on 86 CBS, ABC and PAX affiliate stations, basing their content on the Gospels.
"Its sort of 'The Empire Strikes Back," noted producer Jerry Newcombe.
Mr. Jennings, who defended the production in Christianity Today and in several interviews, called it a "journalists work."
"Religion in the newsroom is a delicate subject to begin with," Mr. Jennings said. "In journalism we are accustomed to dealing with concrete issues, and religion, especially the differences between religions, is unsettling to many people."
While ABC continues to explore both the social and political underpinnings of religious coverage, Beliefnet has refined religion-as-lifestyle to a comfortable art.
Founder Mr. Waldman has described it as "multi-faith; were independent … we have as our mission helping individuals meet their own spiritual needs as they define it."
Faiths of every persuasion are represented, along with 17 religious news services and 65 columnists who range from Gary Bauer to Rabbi Schmuley Boteach and a San Francisco-based witch named "Starhawk."
There are online prayer circles, chat rooms, celebrity interviews, e-commerce links, countless polls and scores of features of interest to the casual but questioning theologian.
Beliefnet is not without critics of its own, however. Some conservative Christian groups criticize the site for mixing information about sexual matters, with religious doctrine among other things; others fault the sites many links to commercial enterprises.
While Beliefnet was called "a religious cash cow" by 80 percent of the respondents in one online CNN poll, Mr. Waldman believes the time is nigh for the ABC partnership.
"Americans interest in religion and spirituality continues to be enormous," he said. "This is a great time to be assessing the impact of faith on their lives and views."


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