By Adam Bernstein
The Washington Post
They've long delivered the Good News. And now, simply news.
The Eternal Word Television Network, which, from an unlikely start in the garage of an Alabama monastery, has become one of the world's biggest religious broadcasting operations, is bulking up its presence in Washington this summer by starting its first evening newscast.
The live, half-hour show, scheduled to start next month, is a major step for the Catholic broadcast company, whose message is typically expressed through devotional talk shows, replays of Mass and religious education programming such as series on the Eucharist or the saints.
By planting a stake in Washington — in an office space near Capitol Hill — EWTN hopes to raise its profile on issues where religion converges with public affairs: abortion, contraception, stem cell research, immigration, the death penalty, terrorism and repression of Christians abroad.
"It's a deliberate choice to be in the midst of everything," said Michael P. Warsaw, EWTN's president and chief executive. "We hope it has an impact on policymakers and the inside-the-Beltway crowd."
Experts on media and Catholic affairs said EWTN will fill a void, because there is no other daily news TV program that is pitched to the estimated 75 million Catholics in the United States. And while the network's guests include a steady diet of those who represent the conservative wing of the church, EWTN does not stoke right-wing fury like a Fox commentator.
"EWTN has a lot of people on its air, and they don't all sing from the same songbook," said John L. Allen Jr., a Vatican authority and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
EWTN's influence, and presumably that of its newscast, derives in large measure from its devoted audience and sheer reach — there's hardly a place on Earth its signal does not go. Exact viewership numbers are impossible to know, especially because it's available in more than 140 countries and territories. Nevertheless, said Allen, EWTN is "the biggest game in town in the Catholic-broadcast universe. The big prize is trying to get on their air or get them involved in what you are doing."
The network is almost entirely funded by donations from a committed audience — its pitch: "Keep us between your gas and electric bill" — and in recent years EWTN has bought a Catholic newspaper and expanded its radio holdings.
The core audience for the news show, Warsaw said, will be Catholics who think the secular media fall dramatically short in representing the church's views on politics, international affairs, social issues and conflicts within the church. But Warsaw said the aim of the program, which will feature interviews with political, ecclesiastical and cultural leaders, will also be to attract "anyone with a moral and ethical framework for how issues of the day play out."
The commercial-free newscast, which is scheduled to launch July 29, will be modeled on network-style news shows at CBS, NBC and ABC. Stories will be filtered through what Warsaw called a "Catholic lens," rather than hewing to a particular political line.
"The church prohibits assisted suicide, which aligns with a conservative political philosophy," he said. "But the church also prohibits capital punishment, which aligns with a more liberal philosophy. We're hoping for a show guided by a Catholic framework, so it's not really a mini-Fox or a mini-MSNBC," networks that openly convey ideological slants.
The host of "EWTN News Nightly With Colleen Carroll Campbell" is a 38-year-old journalist and author who has written speeches for President George W. Bush and earlier this year anchored EWTN's live television coverage of the papal conclave from Rome.
Campbell said she hopes to represent the perspective of women who often feel "committed to their faith and don't see it as an impediment to being vocal in the public square." She added, "too often there's a caricature of Catholic women as a bunch of sheep."
To Campbell, the attraction of EWTN is its "broad catholic — with a big C and a small C — outlook on issues." She said an attempt will be made to show viewers how their Catholic faith can connect them to issues such as conflicts abroad, poverty and cultural battles that were not on their radar.
Stewart M. Hoover, director of the University of Colorado's Center for Media, Religion and Culture, described EWTN as "a general-interest Catholic service, though with a clearly conservative-traditionalist bent" that would appeal to an older and conservative viewership.
Hoover said he monitored EWTN's coverage of the papal transition earlier this year. "They didn't seem so much like a hard news service as a soft-feature framing of the events," he wrote in an e-mail. "I'd expect their news service from Washington to be similar: Catholic, traditional, tending to soft-pedal controversies in place of serious advocacy on issues like opposition to abortion, et cetera. I'd expect the Bishops Conference to get a lot of attention, too."
"Will it be the Fox News of Catholicism or religion? I'd doubt they'd be that strong or strident," he added. "More likely a gentle, dolorous, pious framing of events with strong coverage of Catholicism and its presence in U.S. public culture. Some of the impulse is to try to recreate the Fulton Sheen era," referring to the bishop and Catholic media star of the 1950s and 1960s.
The network's founder is Mother Angelica, a native of Canton, Ohio, who was born Rita Rizzo and later became a Franciscan nun. She said a miraculous healing following an injury led her to promise God she would build a monastery in Irondale, Ala., a notch of the Bible Belt.
She and a small group of other nuns sold what they called "St. Peter's Fishing Lures" to help start the monastery in the early 1960s. EWTN went on the air in August 1981 — the same month as MTV, but with decidedly less flash and glitz.
Now 90 and incapacitated by a stroke in 2001, Mother Angelica was for decades the charismatic draw for millions of viewers who admired her rambunctious, unpolished, orthodox style.
Her influence reached to the highest echelons of the Vatican, and Pope John Paul II, a conservative on Catholic doctrine, became an admirer. Her show, "Mother Angelica Live," remains an EWTN programming mainstay in repeats.
Even with the network's lodestar sidelined by ill health, EWTN continues to expand its holdings. Under Warsaw, 48, a former spokesman for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, EWTN bought the National Catholic Register newspaper and broadened its radio presence, which now includes a network of hundreds of AM and FM stations, a Sirius satellite radio channel and a global shortwave-radio service.
Ninety-seven percent of EWTN's annual support comes from gifts, grants and contributions provided by individual viewers and listeners, said spokeswoman Michelle Johnson. The balance comes from other sources, such as Catholic institutions.
It was one such institutional donor — Warsaw declined to say the donor's name — that provided seed money last year in the "low, low, low millions" to launch "EWTN News Nightly." He said the amount is not enough to endow the project in perpetuity, but he said he is "confident" of a funding stream to sustain the operation.
Warsaw said the new Washington show will have about 30 editorial staff members, including on-air reporters, producers and researchers.
The executive producer overseeing the show is David Kerr (pronounced "care"), a Scottish-born veteran of senior production and reporting jobs with the BBC. He also ran as a member of the Scottish National Party for a seat in the British Parliament. Several other senior editorial team members have worked at the BBC and ABC, noted Kerr, a 39-year-old Catholic and a past member of the conservative movement Opus Dei.
He wrote in an e-mail that he found the BBC's "intellectual center of gravity was both radically secular and socially liberal, meaning that its news coverage, often unwittingly, had an institutional bias on issues such as the dignity of human life, marriage and the family or even the worth of Christianity's contribution to the common good. Coming from a Catholic perspective, 'EWTN News Nightly' would hope to inject a greater degree of fairness into the coverage of such key social and ethical issues."
Warsaw emphasized that EWTN hopes its newscast will try to balance the foundational audience's expectations but also find way to intrigue non-Catholics.
"Our mission as a network is to give people an understanding of what the church teaches across the board, and our news program has to fit within the larger mission of EWTN," Warsaw said. "I think it can do that and be balanced, truthful and accurate without being a show simply shilling for a particular office within the bishops conference or some particular think tank or organization."