When World magazine came out with a profile of Calvin in its May 10, 2003, issue, one of the more interested readers was Quentin Schultze, Calvin professor of communication arts and sciences.
During his 20 years at Calvin, Schultze has carved out a national reputation as one of the country’s foremost scholars on religious communication. Indeed, his next book, Christianity and the Media in America, includes a major section on the history of American journalism. And even before the articles on Calvin appeared in World, Schultze was scheduled to lecture this summer at the World Journalism Institute.
What he found when he read World’s profile of Calvin and its accompanying sidebar proved disappointing. In a pointed, public letter to the editor, he called the articles “embarrassingly poor reporting.” He added: “This summer I will be an instructor at the World Journalism Institute. I might use your article as an example of ‘Christian’ yellow journalism.”
Schultze kept his July commitment to speak at the Journalism Institute, dedicating an hour with the students to what he called “a hard-hitting but fair” critique of World’s coverage. In fact, the director of the institute asked Schultze to return next summer. So, what did Schultze say to the students?
“I pointed out where I thought the magazine practiced shoddy journalism,” he said, “even propaganda. I also argued that World has no accountability to anyone except to its own staff — especially now that it has dropped out of the Evangelical Press Association.”
For Schultze, the bottom line was that World had its story written before it came to campus.
“Their angle,” he said, “was that Calvin is losing its biblical moorings. Good news is rarely news in secular media, and World has adopted the same media bias.”
Schultze said as much in his letter to World.
“I’ve been a professor at Calvin College since 1982,” he wrote. “I know the institution very well. The Calvin you portrayed is not the college I have known for the past two decades. Are we academically excellent? Yes, thanks for getting that correct. Are we slipping our biblical moorings? Not a chance.”
Schultze concluded his letter with strong words.
“In fact,” he wrote, “I think you got the story of Calvin College backwards: We now are more firmly rooted in God’s Word and in the Reformed tradition. We have replaced the insularity of Dutch tribalism, for all of its benefits at one time, with a vibrant Kuyperianism/Calvinism that nurtures a faithful engagement with culture, science, technology and the arts in every venue of college life, from classrooms to offices, chapel and student activities. Certainly, Calvin College is not a perfect institution in a fallen world. So do hold us accountable to God as needed. But please do so responsibly, avoiding the kind of yellow journalism that infected your premiere article on Christian colleges.”
Although his may have been one of the most direct letters sent to World, it was not a singular example. In the weeks following the pieces on Calvin, a plethora of letters appeared in World’s “Mailbag” column. Some took the magazine to task for its reporting. Others affirmed World’s approach.
Jill Friesema said: “As a student who has spent four years immersed in both the strengths and weaknesses of Calvin, I strongly disagree with the wild accusations presented in your article. We are encouraged and guided in our examinations of the Scriptures in all areas of our education, from discussions in the biology laboratory to lectures in the religion classroom to the extracurricular opportunities we pursue.”
Current student Cara Sukolsky echoed Friesema, saying World was too hasty in its denunciation of Calvin. “As a junior at Calvin, I would say it is a more liberal Christian school,” she wrote. “However, Calvin encourages its students to think and engage the culture around them, a culture they will have to live in after graduation, outside of the bubble the Christian community provides.”
Congressman Vernon Ehlers added: “As a student in the 1950s, a member of the science faculty in the 1960s and 1970s, and as someone who lives with the campus literally on the other side of my backyard fence, there is no doubt in my mind that the administration, faculty and student body of Calvin College are committed to maintaining the school as ‘the flagship of Christian liberal arts education.’”
But Alan Waddilove said: “I graduated from Calvin in 2000 and would like to affirm your findings about Calvin College. I believe Calvin is precariously close to becoming an institution dedicated to the glorification of its own view of the philosophy of Abraham Kuyper rather than anything directly related to Jesus Christ.”
For Schultze, such letters affirmed his first take on the World reporting.
“The World article relied very heavily,” he said, “on personal quotes from a couple of students. And those quotes were used in such a way as to ‘reflect’ what ‘the college’ believes. The problem is that our students come to Calvin from a wide variety of church backgrounds, and not surprisingly they do not always agree about how to live faithfully.”
“In fact,” added Schultze, “the subsequent letters (to the editor) showed that diversity of perspective at Calvin much more clearly than the article did. World’s initial reporting seemed designed to portray Calvin as an increasingly secular school. Anything that contradicted that assumption was ignored in the final reporting. For example, the writer spent over an hour with (Chaplain) Dale Cooper and went to the LOFT (Living Our Faith Together) service on Sunday night with him. None of that ever appeared in the piece. Nor was there any reporting about the decidedly Christian character of the teaching here.”
While Schultze and others reacted strongly to the story, the college did its best to remain calm in the face of both angry e-mails from prospective students and words of reassurance from current students, alumni around the country, sister colleges and more.
Calvin president Gaylen Byker wrote a thoughtful response to the articles, which was used on the Calvin Web site and as a reply to letters, phone calls and e-mails. Calvin also placed on its Web site the letters to World by Schultze and by visiting professor Steve Garber and used both those letters in its responses to concerned constituents.
“The college was careful not to overreact to the World articles,” said Tom McWhertor, Calvin vice president for enrollment and external relations. “We were disappointed by the pieces and by the lack of care we saw in the reporting. Yet we did not want to reply in kind. We were confident, too, that alumni and others who know Calvin well would write in to World to correct its mistakes.”
Schultze remains disappointed by the whole affair.
“I do think,” he said, “that the college’s reputation in some Christian circles was damaged. If this fiasco ends up being a wake-up call for World and spurs them to practice ethical journalism, then perhaps some good can come of this. I hope so.
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