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From AJR,   July/August 1999  issue

Separation of Church and Press?   

By Kevin McNulty
Kevin McNulty is a former AJR editorial assistant.       

WMDN-TV in Meridian, Mississippi, is delivering "a message of higher calling," according to General Manager and Vice President Marc Grossman: The station is ending its 10 p.m. newscasts with a prayer.

Called "Keep the Faith," the nightly segment features local clergy of different denominations and is a re- sponse to violence from Kosovo to Littleton, Grossman told viewers before launching the 90-second spot May 10.

"As broadcasters...we have searched our souls asking ourselves what can we bring to our community...that might lessen the chance of Meridian being the next city in the news," Grossman said.

"Has the world just gone crazy?" he asked. "What's missing?"

The solution isn't prayer in the news, say some outside Meridian. "It's an infringement on the rights of people who are a different religion or of no religion," says Marlene Sanders, a professional-in-residence at the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center in New York and former ABC and CBS news correspondent and executive.

"There's nothing wrong with doing religious programming," she says. "But I don't believe it belongs in news time. News time is for the news--it's not supposed to be for improving people's morals."

But maybe it's a Meridian thing: Rival WTOK-TV airs a syndicated family-values segment and a devotional by a local minister during its morning newscast. "It's generally the same thing being done on WMDN," says Ray Chumley, the ABC affiliate's general manager and vice president. "Some days there's a prayer, and some days there isn't."

Under a management agreement, WMDN, a CBS affiliate, simulcasts its news on the city's NBC affiliate, WGBC-TV. The stations say they haven't received any complaints about their faith segments.

"It's certainly a family-values community, but I don't know that it's any different from Jackson, Mississippi, or anyplace else," Chumley says.

WMDN viewers overwhelmingly supported school prayer in an opinion poll. "Our community has called out for prayer," Grossman wrote in response to AJR questions.

Chumley dismisses suggestions that WMDN's prayer is a ploy to win religious viewers. "I'm sure they made a good-faith decision," he says. "I'm not taking issue with what they're doing."

Sanders is. "Stick to doing news, buddy," she says. "That's what you're supposed to be doing."