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PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly goes off the air

PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly goes off the air

After two decades, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly is going dark. The ending of the series is not a surprise – it was first announced in December. From the Religion News Service report late last year:

Founded by [host and executive editor Bob] Abernethy and launched in 1997, it provided national and international news coverage and analysis about religion. It included interviews with newsmakers ranging from the Dalai Lama to former President Jimmy Carter, profiles of religious leaders such as evangelist Billy Graham and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and surveys about faith after 9/11 and about “nones,” or the unaffiliated.

The news release did not give a reason for why the series was ending.

“WNET is honored to have been the producing station for ‘Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly’ all these years,” said Stephen Segaller, vice president of programming for WNET. “We take great pride in all the awards and accolades the series has deservedly garnered during this time.”

Some background from the program’s About page:

Correspondents Saul Gonzalez, Fred de Sam Lazaro, Tim O’Brien, Deborah Potter, Betty Rollin, Lucky Severson, David Tereshchuk, and Judy Valente, along with managing editor Kim Lawton, travel around the nation and the globe to explore how issues of faith, religion and ethics shape both national and international events. Newsmakers, scholars and policy analysts also provide insightful perspectives in roundtable discussions from the show’s studio in Washington, DC.

Winner of more than 115 industry awards — including the Sigma Delta Chi, the Gracie Allen, the Chicago TV Fest, New York Festival and CINE Golden Eagle — the program has been hailed by the Religion Newswriters’ Association for setting “a national standard for balanced and fair coverage of religious topics.” Phil Mushnick with The New York Post says, “Week after week, R & E similarly delivers, helping restore one’s faith in, of all things, television.”

RNS reports that the program’s website will remain, with past episodes a testament to the program’s thorough coverage. From a response by Julia Duin on Get Religion:

Here’s a show that sent correspondents to cover the faith community’s help in cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina; the work of Catholic Relief Services after the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of southeast Asia and the deaths and elections of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the current Pope Francis.

Their Rome coverage alone was amazing considering they had not nearly the budget nor personnel as did the larger TV networks.

The program’s funding from the Lilly Endowment had been decreasing in recent years, but the Endowment will be supporting another religion-related project following this closure. From Duin:

Lilly is not out of the religion news business, I learned recently. It’s funding an “ethics and religion desk” on the website that appears to be mainly essays on religion and ethics submitted by academics. It’s not near as vibrant as actual news coverage and I’m guessing the show is getting a lot less than the $5 million+ that Religion & Ethics Newsweekly needed each year. But it is a mystery why Lilly robbed Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. But as tmatt [hyperlink added by editor] keeps saying, “Opinion is cheap, news is expensive.”

Twenty years is not a bad run in TV land. I just wish that something else was out there to replace it. Like maybe a cable news company or two? Even a old-school broadcast network?

Sadly, TV execs seem no more convinced today than they were two decades ago that broadcast religion news interests a lot of people. As the late AP religion writer George Cornell used to write, religion makes more money and involves more people than sports.

Anyone listening out there at Fox, CBS, NBC, CNN or ABC?

Image from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly’s YouTube channel



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Richard Cizik

There is not likely to ever be a replacement for “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly,” maybe a successor television show but nothing as solid or professional. Its success was owed to Bob Abernethy, of course, but also to Managing Editor Kim Lawton, and others, who knew what both “religion and ethics” actually meant. They showed us how to think about the news, not just what was happenning.

James Lowell Lakes

Losing Religion and Ethics Newsweekly is like losing a dear friend. I’ve viewed it for most of the 20 years, often recording programs, or pieces of programs, to share with my church school class. I’m struggling with finding something that will fill the hole left by this loss.

Philip B. Spivey

I’ve watched R&E religiously for more than a decade. It’s a weekly reminder that God’s busy all over the world.

This is a real loss for us: Bob Abernathy often had pieces on Episcopal Church doings or featured our parishes and clergy doing God’s work; the kind of Episcopal coverage that is absent from the main stream. R&E faithfully stressed the “Ethics” of “Religion” without straying into piety or righteousness; the media spaces available for rational conversations about religion are fast disappearing.

I agree that 20 years is a good run for any program, but the fact that PBS couldn’t come up with a reason for its cancellation—I would readily accept a “good” reason even if they wouldn’t provide the “real” reason—except that, in these days of the New Order, I fear that programs like this might be seen as expendable when severe Washington cuts loom.

Thank you, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly for your years of stellar service. Sunday’s won’t be quite be the same.

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