The recently resigned editor-in-chief of World has a story to tell—and a warning to offer
Long Form features spill out a little more slowly, making possible a deeper encounter with the essay’s central themes—and with the author, too. Pour a cup of coffee, settle in, and enjoy. It will be worth your while.
My one It’s a Wonderful Life moment came thirty years ago. World, then a six-year-old news magazine from a Christian perspective, had just lost a half-million dollars. It survived on borrowed money and the sweat of two brothers from Iowa, Joel and Nat Belz. At a board meeting of God’s World Publications, two of my fellow directors wanted to stop publishing. I pleaded: “Don’t shut it down.” Referring to the Bailey brothers in the classic movie, I said “the Belz Brothers Building and Loan is the most important innovation in Christian journalism in 150 years.”
I was teaching journalism history at The University of Texas at Austin and could attest to that. In 1840 three-fourths of the newspaper and magazine editors in the U.S. professed Christian faith, but they lost their audience when they forgot to emphasize reporting. They started offering Christian Opinion—largely warmed-over sermons—instead of pounding the pavement to report the news. They moved from street-level to suite-level and gave way to editors at other publications who emphasized fact-based stories instead of preaching.
In 1992 the board of directors gave World a stay of execution on one condition: I had to become an editor and impart to all writers this emphasis on reporting rather than opining. I did, and World’s reporting gained it an audience: Subscriptions during the 1990s jumped from 10,000 to 100,000. In the new century World added an active website and a podcast. World became significant in American public life because it affected the thinking of one million evangelicals, a critical group. As donations increased, the publication brought in $10 million annually and ambitions grew: What if World became a $100 million enterprise?
For thirty years World had what for journalists is a holy grail: editorial independence. This meant that the board, advertisers, subscribers, and (as contributions made up a larger piece of the budget) donors never dictated what we covered and how we covered it. From 1992 through 2020 World averaged eight investigative stories a year, some about activities by Christians. In the process we at one time or another upset leaders ranging from James Dobson and Pat Robertson to Newt Gingrich and Chuck Colson.
Some of those stories cost us. A 1997 exposé of a major advertiser, the Christian publisher Zondervan, led to the company pulling its ads for years. World earned among Christians a reputation for independence—and that led to trust. Even secular organizations like The New York Times noticed World’s “deeply reported articles” and concluded, “At a time when hot takes get the clicks, these articles offered something old-fashioned and hard for any community to take: accountability reporting.”
But times change and journalism has changed. Journalist Joshua Benton on NiemanLab, a website devoted to the news business, recently detailed the decline of Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and especially, Forbes. The article—“An Incomplete History of Forbes.com as a Platform for Scams, Grift, and Bad Journalism”—explained how the once-respected business magazine tried to revive itself by opening up Forbes.com to contributors whose work was full of conflicts of interest. Forbes made money and became “known as the best way to disguise PR as news.”
In a click-bait, hot-take media environment, World’s brand of slow-cooked stories was expensive and increasingly out of sync. We didn’t focus on politics or issues animating a tribe. Instead we let ourselves be guided by the Bible verse that Joel Belz chose to describe our beat: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and all who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
Our remit was broad. We weren’t Church World or Culture-War World or Conservative World. World was conservative on some issues but also ran stories about would-be immigrants and refugees, about the vulnerability of mentally-ill homeless people, about abused women and other “uns,” including the unborn, the undocumented, the unemployed, and the uneducated. We sometimes covered things just because they were fun or interesting, like chess championships.
In 2021, though, World’s board decided things had to change. Politics was part of it. Half a century ago Timothy Crouse wrote the seminal account of pack journalism, The Boys on the Bus. He described reporters clustered around R. W. “Johnny” Apple, lead political writer of The New York Times, asking, “Johnny, what’s our lead?” They knew their editors read the Times and would compare what they wrote with what Apple wrote: If their take was different, editors would lose confidence.
In our day, Tucker Carlson plays the Johnny Apple role among conservatives. When World didn’t cover issues that agitated him, some readers, board members, and business-side folks thought we were becoming liberal. Failure to focus on Hunter Biden’s laptop just before the 2020 election, or “stolen election” conspiracies after it, meant we had veered off course.
When “critical race theory” became a conservative bugaboo, World let St. Louis Black pastor Michael Byrd have the last word in a story about the evangelical political divide: “Helping his church members deal with crime, dysfunction, and poverty causes him to roll his eyes when he hears fellow evangelicals arguing about critical race theory . . . The night before, his cousin was shot dead. During dinner, his iPhone kept buzzing with messages from church members. One person’s uncle just died. Another person’s family member was just hospitalized. ‘Why in the world will CRT be a hot-button topic for me, when my family’s hurting over here?’”
Such coverage offended those who considered CRT an existential threat and did not like being challenged to consider another Christian perspective.
As I began editing World thirty years ago I was proposing policies regarding poverty-fighting and related issues that became known as “compassionate conservatism.” The magazine reflected that viewpoint. Today, “national conservatism” or “Christian nationalism” has little room for compassion. As World resisted paranoid lines regarding vaccines, masks, and church closings—all part of a big government plot—our resistance became part of a larger conspiracy theory: World had gone woke.
American journalism history has valuable lessons on how to deal with conspiracy mongers. In 1955 wealthy William F. Buckley, Jr. started a magazine, National Review, that invigorated a conservative movement in disarray. Within a few years Buckley as editor had to fight off the John Birch Society, which asserted—among other oddities—that President Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist. Buckley said Birch founder and head Robert Welch inferred “subjective intention from objective consequences”: Because bad things had happened, U.S. policy makers must have intended them to happen.
John Birchers scrutinized book-buying decisions by local librarians and demanded that some books be removed. When National Review opposed the Birch campaign to impeach Earl Warren, the Supreme Court’s chief justice, many subscribers complained. When one donor said he had supported National Review financially and wanted it to support his concerns, Buckley said the magazine was “not for sale.”
Buckley owned the magazine and maintained his emphasis on independence even when the business side, led by publisher Bill Rusher, worried about reader and revenue loss. Rusher said a “substantial fraction” of readers “bled away” during 1962 and 1963. A direct mail campaign flopped as many on the mailing lists sided with the Birchers.
Buckley stuck with his principles and wrote to Barry Goldwater, “It is essential that we effect a clean break” with the Birch Society. Buckley did so in 1965 when he wrote about the Birchers’ “paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.” Buckley biographer Alvin Feizenberg wrote in 2017 that “an avalanche of protest followed.” According to Buckley, only two of the 200 letters he read agreed with him that Robert Welch’s claims were “excessive,” and only two staff members agreed with him on the need to break with the Birchers. Nevertheless, Buckley persevered and National Review survived.
World’s history paralleled National Review’s, to a point—but unlike Buckley, the Belz brothers did not own World: A nonprofit with a board of directors has the final say. The board in the 1990s embraced the business/editorial wall of separation. But those were the Clinton years: Our editorial position that Clinton wasn’t fit to be president caused no waves. Not so in 2016 when we said the same thing about Donald Trump. That cover story had the potential to hurt the GOP. It angered our politically conservative board.
The board in 2021 did not pass a formal resolution removing the wall of separation, but it did take actions that had that effect. It approved a new product, World Opinions, and devoted a million dollars to making it work. The editorial team had no part in designing World Ops or in choosing contributors. It had no authority to reject columns, to vet them for conflicts of interest, or to strip them of hyperbole.
It became clear that many World Ops columnists would not proceed with the skepticism that underlay traditional journalism. Many wouldn’t do on-the-ground reporting. Some brought with them all kinds of entangling alliances. World Ops promised to speak authoritatively on questions where the Bible allows differences of opinion. Publicity surrounding World Ops stressed the values of the new World order: “Unquestionably conservative . . . trustworthy . . . authoritative . . . unapologetic.”
Last year I asked World executives and board leaders many questions about how World Ops came into being and what makes it Christian: Does “Biblical” equal “conservative”? What does “conservative” mean in an autocratic era? But the board did answer one question unambiguously: Who’s in charge of editorial? Board leaders told me the CEO is now “the quarterback” or “the general.”
Eight months into 2022, I miss the old World that lived by the slogan, “Sensational facts, understated prose.” World Opinions columns toss hand grenades at “the elites” or “the cartel” or “the regime.” A few columns are good, but all too common they are blasts at “the hypocrisy of our ruling class” with sentences like this one: “The champions of social justice, equality, fairness, and feminism contradict each with the self-deluded lies they peddle to those who they believe will listen with supple attention.” Oh.
Sadly, the magazine and website now appear afraid to offend the right. World in 2020 and 2021 ran two dozen articles that emphasized the importance of vaccination while puncturing claims for Ivermectin and other supposed remedies. This year, story after story on vaccination has played to the anti-vaccine prejudice rampant among many evangelicals: “Challenges to military vaccine mandates mount,” “Thousands of protesters vent frustration with government, COVID-19 restrictions,” “Vaccine maker secretly dumped contaminated doses,” etc., etc.
In 2020 one of our reporters learned that Madison Cawthorn, a young Republican running for Congress from western North Carolina on a faith and family platform, had a history of harassing female students during his time at Patrick Henry College. That was a classic World story and we ran it, but The New York Times last November reported that a World business executive criticized it. This year from March 22 to May 17 the Washington Examiner ran forty stories on Cawthorn’s claims about Washington orgies and cocaine use, photos of him in lingerie, airport gun charges, etc. During that two-month period World covered none of Cawthorn’s dubious deeds and had a total of two sentences about him, one on his introducing legislation to stop sending aid to Ukraine, the other citing Trump’s endorsement of him.
Maybe the omissions were accidental, but when the wall of separation comes down, suspicion grows: Did World skip a story that would have disturbed donors? As editor I almost never knew whether a letter-writer was a big donor, and I didn’t want to know. But when the CEO (who has such knowledge) is quarterback, a publication needs to be transparent about donors and pressures they might apply. World’s two top business executives now sit on an editorial council that decides policy concerns. That opens the door for questions about pay-to-play and editorial favoritism based on donor desires.
Personal sadness aside, I try to view World’s shakeup through the lens of a journalism history professor. During the years before the Civil War, many newspapers north and south claimed the sky was falling and any who disagreed with dire predictions were varmints. As one Mississippi resident noted, “When a scheme is put on foot the [Jackson] Mississippian roars and all the little county papers yelp, the crossroad and barroom politicians take it up and so it goes, and if anyone opposes them they raise the cry of abolitionist and traitor.”
During the past two years a variety of polls emanating from Harvard, Georgetown, the University of Virginia, Zogby, and others show a third to a half of Americans thinking we’re heading toward civil war. America is a crowded theater and outlets like World Opinions that shout “fire” may cause panic.
One more nineteenth-century lowlight: Many Christian publications died because they stopped reporting, accentuated opining, and left readers bored. Many World readers have told me they subscribed because the magazine always included something that surprised them. The magazine’s senior editors and reporters have all moved on to The Dispatch, Christianity Today, or other organizations, but younger reporters I’ve trained are still there. I hope they will have running room. I hope World has more surprises in store, including the most important one: that amid wars, famines, and senseless shootings, God is still at work.
Marvin Olasky last November resigned his World editor-in-chief position and is now a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute. He writes a weekly column on homelessness for the Fix Homelessness website and a monthly Olasky Books newsletter.