In 1994, as veteran nbc News reporter Bob Abernethy returned to the United States to retire after a five-year stint in Moscow, he pondered how to spend the rest of his life. He resolved to help television do a better job covering a long-ignored beat: religion.

"Even from 5,000 miles away, it was clear that there was a lot of growing attention in the U.S. to what was perceived as the problem of the national media ignoring religion," says Abernethy, who spent four decades at nbc. "It seemed there might be a niche for a national weekly half-hour news program on religion and ethics."

Abernethy, now 70, launched a one-man crusade that met resistance from networks and foundations. But when he called on the Public Broadcasting Service and the Lilly Endowment, both enthusiastically endorsed the idea. In 1995, Lilly gave two grants totaling $5 million, one of the largest donations to a single recipient in its history, enabling Abernethy to establish an office and begin work on the first year's 39 half-hour programs.

Last September, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly debuted to little fanfare and sparse audiences. But in the past six months, the show has been receiving growing attention and acclaim for its mix of news and features. Abernethy says the program is the first of its kind not funded by a religious institution.

BROAD, BALANCED COVERAGE: Similar in some ways to pbs's nightly News Hour, the weekly show begins with a summary of religion news from around the world before examining a few topics at greater length in feature stories and roundtable discussions. Each program closes with a calendar segment, which explains the meaning and relevance of forthcoming religious celebrations and holidays.

Some roundtable discussions in early episodes zigged and zagged more than they zinged. Still, the show has made significant improvements, even if it still falls somewhat short of Abernethy's goal of rivaling nightly newscasts.

While network news producers usually require compelling arguments to give a story three minutes on the nightly news, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly has lavished up to nine minutes on bigger features, enabling viewers to understand believers' faith and values.

Thus far, the show has focused on a dizzying variety of religious trends and subjects, including Promise Keepers, research on prayer and healing, gospel performer Kirk Franklin, television's portrayal of Catholic clergy, physician-assisted suicide, the Salvation Army, the growing popularity of Eastern Orthodoxy, religion and sports, worldwide persecution of Christians, and school vouchers. Kim Lawton, formerly Washington editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, is the program's news editor.

A moving segment in December focused on the Community of Jesus, an Orleans, Massachusetts-based largely Protestant group, and followed members as they went on their rounds of work and worship and interviewed them about their decisions to join the community and their deep commitment to Christ.

"I don't think you can cover religion unless you let people talk about what they believe, and we're a little more comfortable letting that happen than other news outlets may be," says Abernethy, who studied theology and social ethics at Yale Divinity School during a 1984 sabbatical.

"There is no stereotyping or major distortion like you frequently see in the press," says Roy Larson, director of the Gannett-Medill Center for Religion and News Media in Chicago. "It's good to hear reporters who know what they're talking about."

THE HARD PART: Getting the show up and running may have been the easiest component of Abernethy's crusade.

A more difficult assignment has been to convince independent pbs affiliates to air the program. A spokesperson for New York's WNET, which produces the program, says only 190 of the nation's 349 pbs stations carry it. Several larger markets, including Phoenix, Denver, and Houston, do not. In some markets where the program airs, it is in the wee hours of the morning.

The biggest challenge will be obtaining more funds to keep the show on the air after its 39-episode run ends in June. Programs cost an average of $100,000.

Jeanne Knoerle, program director for the Lilly Endowment's religion division, is optimistic. "We think this is a program that really needs to grow and be seen by more people, and that takes more time," she says.

People of strong faith may be uncomfortable with a show that gives fair and balanced treatment to all faiths but favors none. "We haven't been able to inspire a massive, organized support from national organizations down to individual congregations the way I had hoped," Abernethy says. WNET has created a free 20-page viewer's guide designed to help individuals and groups discuss the show. (It is available by writing the show at P.O. Box 245, Little Falls, N.J. 07424-0245.)

Richard Cizik, a policy analyst for the National Association of Evangelicals' Washington, D.C.-based Office for Governmental Affairs, gives Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly high marks. He says he is disappointed that evangelicals—who often complain about poor media coverage of religion—don't watch and support such a program.

"This program fills a void," says Cizik, "but it is editorially neutral and does not confirm evangelicals' prejudices. I would challenge our own community to view it not only as a chance to learn about the rest of the world but also as an opportunity to enter into dialogue with other faith communities."

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