Wolf Blitzer’s Faith-Based Journalism in Oklahoma

Americans are accustomed to reporters framing tragedy in divine terms. Survivors were the beneficiaries of “miracles.” Everyone should pray for the victims and their families. And so on.

For CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, such religious pandering recently backfired embarrassingly.

He was on the ground in Oklahoma after a powerful tornado devastated the town of Moore. It destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed two-dozen people, including many children as it tore through two schools.

Rebecca Vitsmun and her 19-month-old son Anders survived. Standing before ruin, Blitzer interviewed her about it. She told her harrowing story in an engaging piece of television journalism.

Vitsmun, a Louisiana native, had always heard from her husband and other Oklahomans that she should hunker down when tornadoes approached. So when this one came, she put on a helmet and climbed in the bathtub with Anders.

She watched the tornado’s forecast path on her laptop and saw that it was approaching her street. Ignoring what she had been instructed to do, she decided to flee in her car. A few minutes later, the tornado destroyed her home. She and her son almost certainly would have died if they had been there.

Blitzer let her tell her tale, a smooth interviewer gently nudging her along. (Watch the full interview at the bottom of this column.) Then, story complete, Blitzer committed one of the cardinal sins of journalism. He put words in her mouth.

“We’re happy you’re here. You guys did a great job. And I guess you gotta thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the Lord for that split second decision?” he asked.

In fact, she did not thank the Lord or any lord. After a pause, she replied, “I’m actually an atheist.” Awkward laughter ensued.

Blitzer’s blunder is offensive for reasons beyond just poor journalism. He made a terrible assumption that everyone in Oklahoma is a believer. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh suggested, “He found the only atheist in Oklahoma, and he didn’t know it.”

On the contrary, although religiosity remains strong in America, it is declining. Surveys in recent years show a corresponding increase in disbelief, particularly among young people. A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation, and 13 million of them describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. Some of those nonbelievers even live in Oklahoma. A previous Pew survey found that only 80 percent of Oklahomans believed in God with absolute certainty.

Worse, Blitzer trivialized Vitsmun’s actions. Atheists are questioners who rely on reason. Her skepticism saved her life. Had she blindly accepted the Oklahoma dogma that you stay put, she and Anders would probably be dead. Instead, she analyzed the circumstances and made a rational decision. She is a woman with no need of gods, only her own quick thinking and courage.

If there was any miracle in her escape, it was technological, not theological. Thank the Internet connection that streamed information to her laptop despite the storm. Praise the engineering of the car that outran a tornado.

The usual religious debates have flared up online. How could an all-powerful god allow this to happen? If he had the power to save people, why did he choose the ones he did? Why did he let children die? Was the tornado divine punishment for some slight?

The day before Blitzer’s faith-based reporting, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case about prayers at government meetings. Judicial precedents say that traditional, ceremonial invocations are constitutional, but the government may not pick sectarian favorites. Regular prayers to Jesus exclude those of other faiths and of no faith.

The best thing would be if government simply got out of the religion business and stopped leading prayers. City councils and state legislatures might find that difficult, however, when conservative Christians so vehemently push for public endorsement of their beliefs.

Take the Arizona lawmaker who happens to be an atheist. Rep. Juan Mendez recently gave the daily invocation in the legislature, a stirring call to embrace the good in humanity and to serve the people. A Christian colleague took offense and demanded a do-over because the atheist dared to declare humans could do good work without the help of a deity. A secular invocation is no prayer at all, he said, which is true, at least in the most literal, closed-minded sense.

Blitzer’s blunder was indicative of just how deeply ingrained faith is in a nation founded on the notion that government and religion should not mix. What god to worship, if any, should be up to the individual, not imposed by peer pressure or the state. And no serious journalist interested in reaching the truth should assume every person believes. Blitzer might just as well assume every Texan is a conservative or every Oregonian a liberal.

Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance, pursues a couple of book projects and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

Full Wolf Blitzer interview with Rebecca Vitsmun:

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

  • Mick

    “…only 80 percent of Oklahomans believed in God with absolute certainty.”

    Are you saying that with tongue in cheek?

    ONLY 80 percent !

  • Chris Trejbal

    For anyone interested in helping out Rebecca Vitsmun’s family, multiple atheist-friendly groups are raising money. Links to opportunities here.

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