- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has funded for three more years the nation's only television newsmagazine on religion, a topic that is nearly absent from the major networks.
"Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly," which airs weekends nationally, received $300,000 from CPB to augment its primary annual funding from the Lilly Endowment for production by WNET public television in New York.
"The commercial networks don't cover religion, and neither does cable, except what ministers do," said WNET President Bill Baker at a Tuesday reception to announce the funding.
The half-hour program's five years of religion coverage "has never had a complaint," illustrating its accuracy and fairness, Mr. Baker said.
Also on Tuesday, Congress funded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with $365 million for 2003, and CPB President Robert T. Coonrod said more religion-related programing is ahead.
"We're doing a two-hour program on faith-based initiatives," he said in an interview. A radio program called "Speaking of Faith" and featuring first-person stories also will be supported for wider distribution.
"This is a topic Americans are familiar with, so it makes sense for CPB to treat it seriously," said Mr. Coonrod, a Voice of America veteran who took his current post in 1997.
Typically, network executives have avoided religion because of a secular outlook or fear of losing advertisers, critics have said.
Bob Abernathy, the PBS program's anchorman and editor, is a former NBC correspondent who conceived of the project with WNET producer Tamara E. Robinson. They garnered Lilly funding to start it 1997 and now it airs on 240 stations.
"I still don't understand why there is this deficit with coverage of religion," said Mr. Abernathy, whose news team works out of Washington. "We cover conflict and scandal, of course, and what a year it's been."
The project also received Pew Charitable Trust funding for two years to feed its segments to nightly news stations by NBC and CNN syndication.
When Mr. Baker asked WNET 15 years ago why religion was not a topic. "They said, 'It's against the law.'" He said the real obstacle was secular thinking and lack of specialized reporters.
"Religion is complex, and you need people who can explain it accurately," Mr. Baker said. The WNET project has trained 40 persons on the beat.
At the reception, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, said that CPB "was fighting for its life" in 1995, a time of budget cuts and complaints of liberal bias by conservatives.
Though the first major PBS religion program in memory, Bill Moyers' 1987 "God in Politics," attacked the "religious right," programs have become more balanced, critics have said.
In the 1990s, PBS featured an upbeat series on evangelicalism, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," papal biographies, and the 1996 "With God on Our Side" look at 40 years of conservative religious activism was endorsed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
PBS also has aired "Searching for God in America," a Moyers series on Genesis, William Bennett's "Book of Virtues" in animation, and documentaries on the historical Jesus, religion in the year of 2000, and faith and doubt after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Mr. Baker said the 2001 feature, "The Face: Jesus in Art," is on its way to being an Easter season classic on PBS stations.
Recent "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" programs have covered the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, Muslim-Hindu conflicts, faith in prisons, the black church and moral decisions doctors and parents make before a handicapped child is born.

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