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Covering Politics AND Religion

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008
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Thirteen blogger: PJ Hanley, producer Religion and Ethics

“Never discuss politics or religion.”

That’s the conventional wisdom, right? Well, what happens when discussing politics and religion is practically the first sentence of your job description?

Meet the staff of Thirteen/WNET­ D.C., where we produce episodes of “Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly” more frequently than a lot of Americans attend church, where sentences beginning with “The Pope, the Dalai Lama, and George W. Bush,” don’t typically end with a punchline. Where asking someone about their most deeply-held beliefs is not only commonplace, but expected. And I don’t think a single one of us has been thrown out of a dinner party for doing so.

Being based in the nation’s capital, where political races command more attention than the local sports teams, we can’t avoid the intersection of our beat with politics. In 2008, that means following as closely as we can what the candidates are doing to reach out to people of faith, and how they practice their own faith on the campaign trail. Without having reporters and cameramen embedded in each campaign, we do our best to keep up and sometimes end up frustrated. Campaign workers (when they call back) will tell us their candidate doesn’t know where he/she is attending church this weekend ­ and we find out–after the fact–that they did indeed worship in an obvious location right downtown.

Other times, we get a tip from someone who knows us because we are the only TV outlet that covers their issues. They understand that we need access ­in advance­ to get our story right. Most importantly, we get these calls because the tipster recognizes that we WILL get the story right–we generally have figured out how to discuss religion without offending anybody.

As for politics, we’ve always known that Barack Obama is not a Muslim, that Hillary Clinton grew up Methodist, and that John McCain has challenges with the Religious Right. But if anyone hears where any of the candidates will be attending church this Sunday, please let us know.

–PJ Hanley