These days, I often hear journalists being compared to a dishonest used-car salesman or sleazy bill collector. Ten years ago, I experienced that mistrust firsthand while serving as the chaplain for the Air Force Theater Hospital at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
One afternoon, I approached the charge nurse on duty to inform him that I would be interviewing one of his patients for this column, Sgt. Robert Stucki. The soldier had been airlifted to the hospital with a leg nearly torn off by the shrapnel from an exploding grenade outside his driver’s window.
“I can’t let you do that,” Maj. John Norris said. My first name was his last, but that made no impression on him.
Military nurses are sworn to protect their patients, and my attention fell to Norris’ sidearm. I assured the protective nurse that the interview was blessed by commander, public affairs and, most importantly, the patient.
“You can enter as a chaplain, but not as a journalist,” he declared. “There’s a big difference between the two.”
I paused to formulate my response. Ever since receiving duel degrees in journalism and religion from Baylor University in 1979, I’ve grown accustomed to changing hats.
“Ordinarily that’s true,” I said, “but maybe not so different in this situation.”
Norris slowed his resistance long enough for me to make three brief points.
First, I described how a journalist and a chaplain should listen to someone without showing judgment. If a chaplain is disproving toward a confessor, that person will abbreviate her story. If a journalist shows contempt for his source, that interviewee will color the story to make himself look better.
Then I explained how both a journalist and chaplain help liberate the truth folks want to tell. A chaplain helps a patient uncover the holy in his story, while a reporter may help folks clarify the truths known only by the silent minority.
I concluded by declaring that both professions are committed to speaking the truth to power. A chaplain must be able to confront her commander when he or she is wrong. A journalist must endure the storm of criticism as he seeks to expose injustice.
Why tell you this? Is this a thinly disguised hint that you wish me a happy, but badly belated, National Columnist Day from April 14? Possibly.
But much more seriously I write this to honor World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Many themes dominate the day, but it primarily honors those journalists who have given their lives in the pursuit of truth.
As a chaplain, I ask that we pause to remember writers, people and reporters like Lyra McKee, the 29-year-old Northern Ireland journalist and LGBT activist. She was killed last month in Londonderry for her coverage of the untold stories from three decades of Northern Ireland’s troubles.
And don’t forget Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was ferociously murdered by a hit squad inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey for his criticism of Saudi Arabia.
Even while writing my column last month from Honduras, my daughter, Sara, cautioned me that journalists disappear in Central America. A few days later, TV reporter Leonardo Gabriel Hernandez joined 77 other Honduran journalists shot and killed since 2001 for their criticism of social issues.
Finally, it’s not been that safe in the United States, where five employees of The Capital were killed last year in their Maryland office for coverage of a criminal harassment case. (Gerald Hiassen, Rob Fischman, Wendi Winters, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith.)
So, I seek a little respect these days for the journalists who’ve worked hard to get an education, get the stories and report them to you. Especially since 2016, they’ve withstood a torrent of criticism, persecution and disparagement. Many have lost their jobs and careers with the advent of online news and the rise of journalistic impersonators.
Eventually, Nurse Norris relented, and I was allowed access to hear the story Stucki was so anxious to tell. Next week, I’ll share his story with you.
But for now, I ask you to pray for the journalists who remain on their beats. Pray for those who are just beginning. Pray that they and all the others find courage to face the storms and tell us the truth, no matter the lives it will continue to cost them.