Jul 3, 2007
Terry Mattingly, Washington Journalism Center
posted under PROGRAM DIRECTORS
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center in Washington, D.C. He writes a nationally syndicated weekly column, "On Religion," for the Scripps Howard News Service, and is the author of Pop Goes Religion: Faith in a Popular Culture (Thomas Nelson 2005). He also leads the GetReligion.org Web site that critiques the mainstream media's coverage of religion news. Mattingly holds a master of arts in church-state studies from Baylor University and a master of science in journalism from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. For more about Mattingly, click here.
What would your students be most surprised to learn about you or what you've done in your career?
I don't think many of them imagined that I used to be a rock columnist. The assumption is that if you're in D.C., you're in journalism because you wanted to write about politics. But for me, it was music, popular culture and entertainment. They are also stunned to find out I am an encyclopedic authority on Harry Potter. My family is a living library of Harry Potter theology, trivia and what not.
Looking back over the breadth of your journalistic experience, are there a couple interviews that stand out in your mind as most memorable or interesting?
Mother Theresa. Billy Graham. A lengthy interview with Jimmy Carter about leaving the White House, his transition into the religious-activism era of his life. This was back in the early to mid-80s. I also had several encounters with Bono. I think my interview with Bono and the Edge in 1982 was the first time members of U2 talked about their faith in a publication on this side of the Atlantic. I tried to sell the interview to Rolling Stone but they didn't believe me. They thought I was making it up.
If you stay in journalism, you end up interviewing some amazing people. I've interviewed quite a few famous musicians and authors, but when I list the most significant interviews, I always have to say Mother Theresa and Billy Graham at the top. I have not interviewed the pope. It's one thing to shake his line in a reception line, but I have not interviewed him.
My life-long desire had been to interview Ruth Bell Graham. I think she was one of the most interesting cultural figures of the late 20th century. Her influence was infinitely bigger than anybody can know. In my column I called her the X-factor that has made the career of Billy Graham so mysterious. [Read the column here.]
What inspired you to found GetReligion.org?
Twenty years of studying religion and the media. It was something I had always wanted to do- write about that topic more often-and it became affordable with blogging. So the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life got into that and I jumped at the chance. My fascination with religion and the news goes all the way back to my sophomore year at Baylor University. It's a long story, but suffice it to say I saw an example of student journalism, and my mentor David McHam called me over and said, "These students clearly don't think religion is news. They didn't get that from me. Religion is the worst covered subject in all of American media. [Big pause.] Wanna do something about it?" That was one of those moments when your life changes directions. And I've been trying to do that work ever since.
Of all the positions you've held in your career, which has been the most fulfilling?
I'll tell you what I'm most thankful for: that when I went into teaching that I got to keep my national religion column. Teaching was the other half of my dream agenda in life -- to try to help Christian higher education take journalism and mass media more seriously, while also hanging onto my column at Scripps Howard. That was just stunning, when I found out that I could do both. I did not expect that to happen. Being able to combine those two forms of work is what I'm most thankful for. I find that greatly fulfilling.
Do you ever think you'll go back into full-time journalism, or will you most likely stick with education?
No. Hopefully I'm in both journalism and teaching for the long haul. At this point I couldn't imagine not doing either job.
What is the biggest obstacle that students typically have to overcome as they adjust to life in the WJC?
There are two levels. One is living in the city itself. During the spring semester one student joked that we run and in-depth program studying journalism and mass transportation. Part of WJC is a real cross-cultural immersion into the city. The second level of challenge is that I think the modern student is not used to trying to read at the pace and intensity that Washington demands. It's no secret that the modern student comes from a generation that doesn't read newspapers as much. They are not used to printing out a 50-page research folder and sitting down and reading it, just like that. Of course, this trend affects liberal arts education in general, too. I think the biggest challenge is just reading and writing at the pace of Washington. These are -- obviously -- terribly bright students, but this still poses a challenge.
Can you think of any moments during the semester that you always look forward to?
To me, the highlight of any semester is a student asking you to go take a long walk and talk about what they want to do with their life. To me, if there's anything about teaching that I love doing, it's answering questions, dealing with students who have very passionate dreams and helping them figure out how to reach those dreams. That's totally sincere, I really mean that. And the national mall is not a bad place to go for a walk and think about big subjects. It's inspiring.
Why is the home stay an important aspect of the program, in your eyes?
That's where the cross-cultural element of our program really, really kicks in. The students live in different neighborhoods. There are two Washingtons. If you just walk around on the Hill and all you see is the political world, you're not learning about the Washington that exists at bus stops, neighborhood coffee shops, in the homes of grandmothers on fixed incomes who rent out their basements to visiting students. There's a wide range of experiences in Washington and I think this is a very good way to expose them to it. They get to see the whole city of Washington and experience it. It's both exciting and a little threatening. This is truly a cross-cultural program as well as a culture-shaping program.
What kind of student would you consider to be a perfect candidate for this program?
A reader. A writer who is truly fascinated by the beliefs and views of other people. I tell my students over and over that the most important words in journalism, are: "comma, space, said, space, name, period." In other words, the attribution clause at the end of a quote is what journalism is all about. Journalism is not about cleaning out the space between your ears and getting it on paper. It's about what other people think and believe, and their information.
What do you hope students will gain from their WJC experience?
The quick answer is "clips," in the sense that we want to do what we can to help them get published, to take that step of getting bylines in Washington that they couldn't get before. That's the snazzy answer, but the more important answer is to come to Washington and wrestle with questions of whether they are called to be in journalism. That's where Rich Gathro [executive vice president of the CCCU] and his class sessions about calling and vocation are so important. We take the last week of the program and have Rich come in and do testing for strengths and personality. The question we ask over and over is, "Are you wired for journalism? Did God wire you to work in this field?" It's a matter of gifts, temperament and energy level. That's true in a lot of fields, but it's really true in journalism. And there is no better place to crank up the pace and tempo and wrestle with that than in Washington, D.C.