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Investigating and Profiling

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Christian exposers of corruption like Marchamont Nedham and Samuel Adams began their work with reflection on the biblical truth that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Wherever there is extensive power and influence, corruption is likely to follow unless leaders of organizations fear God. Even when the leaders do fear God, a fall may follow, but the likelihood is less.

INVESTIGATION

Bible-based investigative reporting dates back to Luke, and more recently (four centuries ago) to John Foxe. But when investigation results in the exposure of corrupt individuals, a question is often raised about the relationship between reporting scandal and a famous passage in Matthew 18:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you will have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (vv. 15—17 NIV)

Christian journalists should keep three aspects of that passage in mind. First, the injunction refers to "your brother"; non-Christians should also be confronted with the facts against them and given an opportunity to comment, but this particular procedure is for use among Christians. Second, the passage refers to private offenses ("sins against you") rather than instances of community-affecting corruption such as stealing from the temple treasury. Third, the passage deals with the initial way in which a person is helped to confront sin; normally, by the time a reporter learns of a public-affecting, sinful activity deserving of exposure, the steps listed in Matthew 18 already will have occurred–at least in part.*

The overwhelming majority of exposure situations that reporters face do not involve Christian brothers in private situations concerning issues with which they have never before been confronted. Typically, the offender already will have been challenged by an associate or associates, and will have decided to continue on his downward path. The reporter should attempt to find out if that initial confrontation has occurred, and if not, why not. The logic of Matthew 18 suggests that great care must be taken in reporting public as well as private offenses, but it does not argue for nondisclosure.

But what about those situations in which a Christian brother engaged in personal rather than public offenses has acknowledged his sin following confrontation and shows signs of repentance and reconciliation? Here is where it is helpful to remember the title of the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. A news publication should emphasize public occurrences, not private affairs, unless those affairs have public ramifications. A minister’s adultery, for example, can have an effect on a congregation different than that produced by the waywardness of a regular congregant member. For people in public positions who are supposed to model virtue and elicit trust, every offense has public ramifications.

When dealing with specific cases, particular nuances need to be taken into account, but the ethic of reporting need never be situational, for the principle that Christian journalists should expose wrongdoing is clear. A crusading minister-journalist of the 1830s, John McDowall, laid out the biblical rationale in his time; Appendix B contains excerpts from his analysis.

Investigation often is difficult because many people in sensitive situations and aware of potential repercussions do not want to talk on the record. Your task in a stressful situation is not to sweet-talk the source but to be forcefully honest with him about hardships as well as the benefits to be gained by truth-telling.

The good news about investigation is that often, sooner or later, someone who has been part of a cover-up decides to talk. Sometimes God has been at work on the person; sometimes he simply sickens of the deception. When a source during an investigation does talk, verification is vital. Those with strange tales should be asked to repeat them several times, to different people as you listen and see if the details change. Documentation is important: Ask sources to get verification of their stories on paper from files to which they have access.

Always ask for specific detail. Half a century ago, when Whittaker Chambers was trying to show that he had been the courier for Alger Hiss’s disclosure of diplomatic secrets to the Soviet Union, he mentioned that Hiss had been excited about seeing a prothonotary warbler during a bird-watching expedition. Hiss had denied knowing Chambers, but his deception began to unravel when he was questioned about his hobbies and mentioned how he had been entranced by the sight of a prothonotary warbler.

Ask sources to describe a specific place at which an incident occurred, and the weather at a specific time. When you verify detail by detail, sometimes the whole is as great as the sum of the parts. Here, for example, is part of a story based on the testimony of thirteen witnesses who offered solid specific detail:

Although Larson urges the hurting to call his radio program for comfort, screeners are instructed to make sure the callers want to talk about the day’s subject. Former employee Tammy Brown, who answered the ministry’s crisis-referral line and screened calls for "Talk-Back," said she has hung up on weeping callers whose problem wasn’t on the day’s agenda.

"A desperate listener can find hope and help by dialing 1-800-821-TALK," Larson wrote in Satanism: The Seduction of America’s Youth. But this toll-free number is answered only two hours each day during "Talk-Back", and even then a desperate caller must get past screeners.

The ministry offers two other lines. The Communicator Club line, a toll-free line reserved for donors, is open ten hours per day, five days a week. The Compassion Connection’s Hope Line, the line for helping the hurting, is open only four hours per day, five days a week, and it is a toll call.

Compassion Connection only refers callers to other agencies, although many former employees say Larson listeners believe it offers counseling and crisis intervention. Some listeners who can’t afford the long-distance cost call the toll-free donor line.

"We weren’t allowed to talk to them, because it was an 800 line. We would be reprimanded if we were caught counseling. It cost the ministry money," says Charlene Erickson, who worked in BLM’s donor services until last August, when she says she resigned.

"We had to give them the toll number to Compassion Connection. They weren’t allowed to call that collect, either. They weren’t allowed to get any free help from the ministry. They always had to pay for the phone call."

On more than one occasion, supervisors who thought an operator was spending too much time on the phone instructed the operator to hang up even on distraught callers, say Ms. Erickson and other former operators.

"I hated that part of the job, hanging up on someone who was suicidal," Ms. Erickson said.

Unnamed sources can best be used when they are supporting information given by named sources, and when readers are given an explanation as to why the name of the source should not be revealed.

At least once, an operator transferred the call to the referral line without getting caught. "I went over the boundaries and gave it to a person in the Compassion Connection," said the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

She once refused a direct order to hang up on a caller, which she believes contributed to her dismissal a few weeks later.

Reporters are sometimes reluctant to investigate organizations that claim to be charitable, but you need to remember the biblical lament, "They rob widows." Given man’s sinfulness, it is not surprising to find financial corruption occurring all over–in big governmental or business structures–and within charities as well.

Charitable and religious organizations actually may be the easiest to steal from, since the assumption that no one would take candy from a sick baby sometimes leaves resources inadequately fenced; the New Era scandal of 1995 provided one more cautionary tale. And yet, since the financial records from these organizations are often public information, the results of covetousness can become visible.

On "Talk-Back," Larson frequently bemoans the ministry’s financial condition. But in the years 1989—91, the ministry paid Larson salaries totaling $607,806, according to Internal Revenue Service records. In 1991, the ministry provided an expense account of $76,300, which is more than Billy Graham’s salary. Larson’s expense account was $35,750 in 1990, according to the records, which by law are open to public inspection.

Other records show that those totals do not include royalties from his 21 books and consulting fees paid to Larson by the Canadian arm of Bob Larson Ministries.

Divorce records show family tragedy but provide insight.

Bob and Kathryn J. Larson exchanged marriage vows in Hamilton, Ontario, on Jan. 24, 1968. Eighteen years later, in the same year Larson condemned divorce in his Book of Family Issues, the Larsons began receiving counseling for their troubled marriage. Four years later, Larson asked his wife of 22 years to move out of their home and initiated their divorce.

The 1990 tax records show the ministry paid Larson $178,167 and allowed him an expense account of $76,300. Larson certified to the court under oath that his income in 1990 was $403,310.

When they divorced, the Larsons owned five pieces of real estate, including two in the Rocky Mountains, worth $539,200.

Between them, the Larsons owned more than $4,000 worth of porcelain, $13,000 worth of ivory, $8,000 in crystal and china, nearly $8,000 worth of carvings, $6,575 in jewelry, $3,000 in paintings, more than $4,000 in rugs and $8,000 worth of taxidermy.

The value of their marital assets at the time of the divorce was $1.4 million.

Public records–you may obtain previously closed ones through federal and state freedom-of-information statutes–often can show the amount of the take. Then, it is useful to detail how such wealth was won.

Larson expects screeners to prime callers for a dramatic encounter. "Bob would put them on hold and we would have to manipulate them, push them over the edge, so they could go back on the air with "Talk-Back" and be saved by Bob Larson," Mrs. Brown says. "We had to push until they said, ‘OK, I need God.’ We’re not to do that, the Holy Spirit is. I felt like I was being used to make Bob more money."

"They rob widows," the Bible laments, and organizations in recent times have done the same; others have misused funds designed for orphans. World reported charges by:

Thomas Naylor, an economics professor at Middlebury College, [who] blew the whistle on the Christian Children’s Fund and was then ousted from the Richmond-based CCF’s board of directors . . . he asked, "Is it humanly possible to stuff $112 million in five layers of management aimed at 400,000 kids in 40 countries, and have a clue as to whether it’s working or even what’s happening to the money?"

Naylor went on to point to specific incidents of mismanaged and misappropriated funds.

In Brazil, a project director gave his fiancee $31,000 in bonuses; in Oklahoma, funds meant for Cherokee Indian children were used to run a video rental business.

The article did not stop there, but moved on to the deeper question of whether the Christian Children’s Fund, even if the money was going to hungry children, is Christian at all.

CCF spokesperson Cheri Dahl explained that "there are no stipulated spiritual activities required for participation in our programs . . . the Christian in our name simply refers to the Christian philosophy of helping thy neighbor."

That’s not enough, says Ronald Nash, professor of philosophy and theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. There has to be an emphasis on the gospel as well as on giving . . ."those children should keep receiving the aid even if they reject the gospel–but you don’t stop offering the gospel."

Sometimes investigations do not require undercover searches, deep-throat interviews, or any other behind-the-scenes work; sometimes the information is out in the open but requires someone to conscientiously scoop out bits of data and analyze their significance.

For example, one World story took a complaint frequently heard at pro-life meetings–that many ministers shied away from taking a stand on abortion–and concluded, in a cover story headlined "Silence of the Shepherds," that large numbers of evangelical pastors have "offered their flocks little or no leadership as abortion practices have grown more lenient and the death toll has risen." Investigative work needs to be thorough to warrant a broad charge of that sort, and reporters need to spell out, with even pedantic detail, the way in which they gathered evidence.

Three sets of evidence bear this out.

In a study by World of the preaching of 20 noted Christian leaders, only six men provided a full sermon preached on abortion, and only three more could provide even an excerpt.

World phoned each pastor’s assistant to notify them of an incoming fax requesting a sermon–printed or on tape–addressing abortion; or, as a second option, an excerpt on abortion from a sermon. An electronic confirmation verified that each fax was successfully transmitted. World followed up with phone calls to each pastor or his assistant, continuing to seek a response.

The second set of evidence concerning silence in the pulpit is a new study by Molly Stone of Last Days Ministries in Tyler, Texas. For her master’s thesis at Regent University, Ms. Stone polled 104 pastors from evangelical, charismatic, mainline, and fundamentalist churches in the South Hampton Roads area of Virginia. She found that while 76 percent agreed that life begins at conception, and 69 percent believed the church should take a clear stand on the issue, only 39 percent ever devoted an entire sermon to abortion.

The percentage who preached a sermon on abortion was higher among those classified as evangelical in the study pool–58 percent–but Ms. Stone’s basic conclusion remains the same: "The average clergyman does not actively encourage his church to be involved in pro-life activity," she wrote. Ninety percent of the clergy had at least mentioned abortion some time in a sermon, but less than half ever announced a pro-life event from the pulpit or church bulletin.

"Even actions that clergy say are highly acceptable are typically not performed," notes Ms. Stone. For instance, 70 percent of the pastors said crisis-pregnancy centers were their pro-life activity of choice, yet the exact same number said they did not actually support a crisis-pregnancy center.

Only a third ever encouraged walking in a march for life or ever showed a pro-life film. Only one-sixth had endorsed pickets or prayer at abortion clinics. Rescues had been encouraged by 7 percent.

The third body of evidence World drew from in identifying a silence in America’s pulpits was the unanimous opinion of ten pro-life leaders interviewed for this article.

The response of Life Issues Institute Director John Willke, medical doctor and former president of the National Right to Life Committee, is typical. The silence of pastors is documentable and "deadly," says Dr. Willke. "You see it in every denomination."

It is the silence of the shepherds.

In such a broad investigative story, opinions of informed sources are not a substitute for documentary evidence, but they can be excellent supporting material. Writer Joe Maxwell bulwarked the claim of "a gaping hole of silence from the Protestant pulpit" on abortion by quoting experts.

"One of the greatest travesties of the church is its silence on abortion," theologian R.C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries told World, "particularly the evangelical church."

Said O.S. Hawkins, pastor of First Baptist Church (Dallas, Texas), in a recent sermon: "The main reason convenience abortions on demand are the law of the land is not because of the militant minority of the women liberationists and liberal politicians. . . . Perhaps the thing that is most amazing is the silence of the grand old flagship churches in the hearts of cities across America. Where are all the voices from all the First Baptist Churches of our land? Where are the voices from the First Presbyterian Churches and the First Methodist Churches?"

It is important to show, when some people defend themselves by saying that a particular failure or omission was inevitable, that others similarly situated acted wisely. For example, when over one hundred Christian organizations lost millions of dollars to the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy, which was engaged in a pyramid scheme, World reported that Westminster Theological Seminary (Pennsylvania) fell for the scam but "Westminster’s sister campus in California ‘was wary’ of the proposal and declined an invitation to give money."

Similarly, the "Silence of the Shepherds" story included specific detail about a Christian leader who had realized that silence is wrong.

Preaching outright on abortion wasn’t an easy decision for Charles Swindoll, recalls his friend James Dobson in a foreword to Mr. Swindoll’s book, Sanctity of Life. "I was sitting in my office at Focus on the Family . . . when the telephone rang," recounts Dr. Dobson. "A minute or two later, my secretary came in to inform me that Dr. Chuck Swindoll was on the line." He was calling to say he had decided to speak out "with intensity" against abortion, a decision that had Dr. Dobson "fighting back the tears."

"Making a strong public statement against abortion was an evolving decision in Chuck’s mind," he continues. "It is not a position at which [Swindoll] arrived with ease." Mr. Swindoll worried about dragging his church into politics. "But on this issue of abortion," Dr. Dobson notes, "we are confronted with one of the most terrible evils of all times. . . . How can we as Christians continue to sit in our services and ignore this unprecedented crime against humanity?"

Finally, Mr. Swindoll told himself, "Remaining silent . . . is no longer an option."

So in January 1990, around the time of the 17th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a convinced Charles Swindoll stepped into his pulpit at First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, Calif., and did something he had never done before: He preached to his congregation against abortion.

Whether an investigation requires undercover work or reading not only the covers but the insides of many reports, the hard-and-fast rule is: Be very careful, and verify everything numerous times. Inflammatory words should be avoided; when writing up the results of an investigation, remember the motto, Sensational Fact, Understated Prose.

PROFILES

Profiles are in one respect at the opposite end of investigative stories–profiles tend to be friendly, investigations adversarial–but they require considerable digging as well.

The first step in writing a profile is to do background research. You should run down newspaper and magazine stories about the subject; the computerized service Lexis/Nexis, or resources available over the Internet, are helpful. You may also ask the interviewee to send biographical data. It is convenient and respectful to have basic information before the interview: this includes the spelling of the subject’s name (be careful), his place of residence, age, and marital status; the number and ages of his children; his educational and work background.

You will also want to talk with your subject’s friends and enemies, often including colleagues, competitors, neighbors, and relatives. If you can find some generally obscure piece of information with which to confront the subject, you will be able to show him that you mean business.

As far as the interviewing process itself, you should use information in the chapter on reporting and interviewing, but keep in mind that the subject of a general interview is not the interviewee; in profiles, the subject of the interview is the interviewee, and he or she is more than words.

Since profiles are great ways to express ideas and make points, some committed reporters have the tendency to make them a set of sound bites. That is a mistake: The goal of a profile is to bring a person to life through descriptive detail and narrative, along with contextualized use of quotation.

You will need to spend time in person with the subject of your profile: Remote-control profiles based on news clips or telephone interviews are almost always inferior to those that give a sense of the whole person. Profiling with discernment requires not only perceptiveness but the kind of close, in-person observation that leads to three-dimensional portraits, with the subjects almost seeming to walk off the page.

Good profiles require investment not only of interview time but also of time searching for anecdotes and impressions from all who know the subject. As discussed in the chapter on interviewing, you always need to press for revealing stories. That is particularly true for biblically directed profiles, for they should get into the deeper questions. Ask about beliefs; give your subjects opportunities to declare their faith in Christ, if they have it.

Along those lines, keep in mind the acronym PROOF: Purpose, Road, Obstacles, Overcoming, Future. That means: Ask a subject about his purpose in life; ask how he started down the road to fulfilling that purpose; ask about the obstacles he encountered, his ways of overcoming those obstacles, and his expectations of future obstacles.

Ask questions in a down-to-earth style: What do you really hope to do? What do you have to do to fulfill that hope? What problems have you faced, how did you handle them? What is your next step? In general, start with specific questions: not, Do you enjoy being in the major leagues? but, Why did you suspect that the pitcher would throw you a fast ball in that situation? And ask short questions: Get the subject’s voice on tape, not yours.

Remember that you want to see as well as hear. You will certainly want to describe physically the subject of your profile. Since at least one photo generally accompanies a profile, facial features are the least important aspect for you to describe; more significant is how the person moves or sits (stolidly or shifting). Watch body language and facial expressions when you ask hard questions. (One interviewee who had "grown" from his evangelical background easily danced around abstract theological questions, but poured out buckets of sweat in reaction to the straightforward, "What do you think of Christ?")

To show a person in action, you may want to spend a few hours with him as he goes about his business, but you can also obtain anecdotes from the subject and from others. One way to push subjects to provide anecdotes (and in a way that reveals worldviews) is to use "superlative" questions: What was the happiest day of your life? What is the angriest you have ever been? Which experience was the most exciting? the most dangerous? If a particular approach yields an anecdotal pearl, fish some more: What was the second most exciting experience?

Here is a basic checklist of what you generally should know by the time you complete the interview:

• Physical Characteristics:

Description of home or workplace, outside and inside.

Subject’s overall appearance, clothing style, hair style.

Subject’s mannerisms.

• Basic Background:

Birthdate, birthplace

Schooling

Military service?

• Religious Experience:

If a Christian, when he became one, how has he developed since then, how he puts faith into practice; denominational and church affiliation.

If not a Christian, what he believes, why he believes it, does he think that what he believes is objectively real or is it something that makes him feel good.

• Family:

Spouse–when married, spouse’s activities.

Children–ages, names, activities.

Parents–what he learned from them, what he did not.

• Personal:

Hobbies, recreations, pets.

Favorite books, movies, presidents, hymns.

Volunteer work, other community service.

Memberships in organizations.

As the start of the checklist indicates, it is vital to see the subject in his surroundings–generally, his place of work or home. You will want to convey a sense of the person by relating your perceptions of him to your description of the environment.

Ron Lewis’ church is not easy to find–unless you know your way around Hardin County, Kentucky, like he does. More people are finding out about Lewis, and the kind of people he represents, since a May special election put him in Congress. The 47-year-old Lewis, a conservative Republican Christian, is the kind of person that Democratic Party leaders say Americans should fear. People in Kentucky’s 2nd Congressional District see it differently. And they’ve seen Lewis up close.

White Mills Baptist Church sits on a hill away from Highway 84, tucked between the White Mills Christian Church and a campground. You know you’ve gone too far when you take a sudden turn and you’re on a one-lane iron bridge across a river. Though the church’s exterior looks like it might have appeared a century earlier, the steps are covered with new indoor-outdoor carpet. Central air conditioning is evident inside the glassed foyer. Like Lewis, there’s subtle sophistication here–a savvy about technology that works. An advanced electronic soundboard blinks just inside the rear doors.

Observe, observe–see what the subject likes in clothes, home furnishings, office momentos. Often you will not be able to get into an office beforehand, so rejoice if your subject is interrupted for a minute or two: This is an opportunity for you. A person’s office shows important things about him or the way he wants to present himself to the world.

A look at Henry Hyde’s inner office suggests more ambivalence than first meets the eye. His two Illinois-obligatory busts of Abraham Lincoln are outnumbered by three statuettes of Don Quixote, whose impossible dreams were not of, by, and for the people. Standard photos of Hyde handshakes with smiling Presidents are overshadowed by a large portrait of a weary George Washington at Valley Forge: "His force of character kept 11,000 men together during a terrible winter," Hyde says.

What is not in an office can be as important as what is.

Don Wildmon does not have embroidered Bible verses hanging around his office. In fact, his small office, which has the faint aroma of cigar smoke, has absolutely nothing hanging on the walls. His desk serves as a cluttered file cabinet, yet he knows where everything is.

After tying together setting and person, the next step in profiling is to look closely at the person. Do not be shy about making obvious physical characterizations: big or little, beard or clean-shaven, suit or shirtsleeves, wingtips or boots, shoes scuffed or polished, manicured fingernails or nose ring:

Wildmon is an unlikely national celebrity. He is not a charismatic leader, per se. He does not turn heads when you walk with him into a restaurant. He does not wear Armani suits and his shirts do not have stitched monograms, let alone cuff links. He does not wear Christian lapel pins or try to impress you with his importance. He does not try to turn up the charm when he talks to the press.

Be sure to include gestures and mannerisms: Does he speak quickly or slowly, does he move his hands as he talks, does he pause before answering questions, does he reach for hamhocks with both hands? Record not only what he says but what he eats, what he drinks, whether he smokes, whether he smiles just with his mouth or with his eyes also. How do people respond to him? Watch, smell, take notes.

On Sunday after church, before he has to hurry back to Washington, Lewis and his wife, Kayi, pull into a small drive-in down the road from the church. Before Lewis can make it across the parking lot a man jumps from a parked car to shake his hand. Wide-eyed, he tells Lewis he has followed the campaign and hopes the congressman can "turn things around." They talk for a moment, and as they part, the man says, "We’re with you all the way." Lewis first met his wife across drive-in lanes in Ashland, Ky. Today, she orders the food for them. This drive-in is famous for steakburgers and thick onion rings–topped with local chatter. The lot is full of open car doors and people less intent on eating than on seeing each other.

In questioning the subject, ask about crucible experiences: tragedies, births of children, military experience. Ask about beliefs: about God, about man, about life and death. Then connect the dots. How does a person’s worldview affect his actions on the job, as well as his habits: Does he like gangsta rap or Rotisserie baseball? Show what your subject thinks about his work, past and present. Here is an example:

Jack Kevorkian despises the banal. More than 30 years ago, he found his style cramped in an oil painting night class with little old ladies whose artistic tastes ran from clowns to kittens. Planning to quit the course, he decided to assault sensibilities and exit remembered.

"[I painted] a skull, with the top of the skull leaning back a little, the jaw twisted to one side, like it’s kind of laughing out of the side of its face. . . . Then, there were some bones coming underneath, and a broken femur under the thing. . . . Tacked up on the wall behind, where you can barely see it, I have this pasty yellow-green skin, peeled off the head and hanging there. . . . I called it "Very Still Life.’" They loved it.

Paintings followed: "Fever," "Nausea," and "Coma." But when 64-year-old Jack Kevorkian quits his earthly course, he will not be remembered for his offbeat paintings or his own exit but for assisting others in theirs.

If possible, you should schedule about ninety minutes for an interview, because you have many questions to ask. Some of them will relate specifically to the subject’s reason for being newsworthy, but others are more generic: Who or what has had the most impact on your life? What is the most important thing you have learned during the past year? What was your most frustrating experience? What would you change about yourself if you could? What do people say about you behind your back? If you could invite any person or persons for dinner, whom would you invite? What do you like most about your job? What do you dislike the most? What are your best and worst habits?

Do not be afraid to ask bland, prepared questions such as some of those above, or others including: What do you expect to be doing ten years from now? If you could make that decision over again, what would you decide? Was there a turning point in your life? Are you satisfied with your present job or way of life? People who take pride in their craft are generally willing to explain how they accomplish a particularly difficult task. Ask a couple of how-to questions; the answers may be instructive, and they give you a safety net.

Also ask about parents and children: What did your parents teach you? What do you hope to teach your children? You want to provide readers with a sense of the person as a member of a family, not a disembodied voice or a Lone Ranger–unless he is one. And be sure to ask about the person’s attitudes toward God; come back to the question several times in different ways if the subject dodges.

As in other directed-reporting assignments, you will have a tentative theme as you go into the story. After you gain chunks of information from your interview, and supplement that material with information gained from others, you need to arrive at a definitive theme: Who is this person you have interviewed, as best you can determine? When you feel that you have a fix on that, go through your notes and see what specific details are salient.

As with other articles, profiles can have a variety of structures. One workable variety proceeds locationally: from outside a person’s office or dwelling, to inside, then to the person. Another starts with an anecdotal lead that suggests the essence of the subject, then includes a paragraph presenting the theme and explaining why the profile is significant, and then moves chronologically to summarize the subject’s past, present, and future.

A third type of structure begins with a catchy lead but then deliberately alternates achievements and warts; such a story often concludes with an anecdote that tries to reconcile the contradictions. Other profiles may follow the lead with a chronological account of a person’s day; such articles may lack drama but tend to evoke a sense of realism.

Often, it is useful to see the subject in action, responding to questions from others and working at his craft. This is particularly true when profiling teachers, coaches, and others whose job it is to interact with other people.

Some people can gaze at a spreadsheet and glimpse the problems of a corporation; others can look at a magazine article and see how it should be restructured; hitting coach Mike Easler, standing at the batting cage, can watch a swing and instantly know the correction that is needed. "Keep that right shoulder down," he reminded third baseman Scott Cooper. "Timothy, you must think right-center," he instructed Tim Naehring. "Control with your hands, power will come," he told Mo Vaughn.

"I’ve been in baseball for 25 years and I can see the physical automatically," Easler, who is also a licensed Baptist minister, noted. "What I really work on is reading the personality." Easler said he counsels non-Christians and Christians differently: for Christians, he shows them Scripture about Providence and God’s care, and for non-Christians, he brings out material from Proverbs about hard work.

The student’s view of impact is relevant:

This spring Mo Vaughn talked about what Easler’s teaching had meant to him: "He knows how to prepare you not only about batting but about life. . . . I don’t go to a church and stuff like that, but I know there’s Someone you’ve got to answer to. You’ve got to look truthfully at yourself and not worry about failure, as long as you’re prepared."

In spring training, Vaughn still had not grasped the truth about God’s grace: Vaughn said that his belief is, "You have to be good, and good things will happen to you." But Easler is at work: "Mo is thinking, but he hasn’t accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. I’m not going to try to force it on him, but I’m going to let him know, ‘That’s going to be your big battle in life, that’s what will make you complete.’ We’re talking, and this year, before spring training is out, I will present the gospel to him, point-blank."

Whatever the structure, it is vital to avoid falling into a series of sound bites. The best way to do that is to couch quotations in brief descriptive material.

Hyde is relaxed as he rocks softly in his office chair, but there is an edge to his voice as he talks about colleagues who roll over under media pressure: "People want to do what’s right, but unfortunately they would rather be perceived as doing right than as actually doing what’s right. I think they are torn, and perception wins out, because the adoration of the secular press is heady."

Physically descriptive material can be related to current concerns.

Hyde is concerned about future leadership for the pro-life cause. He was once square-jawed and lean, but years on the rubber-chicken and chocolate-mousse circuit have softened the lines. He senses a similar aging taking place in the prolife movement. The future of abortion, he argues, is tied to development of a new generation of prolife leaders.

Biographical detail can be placed in the context of current reputation.

Now Hyde walks the floor of Congress with burly grace, but almost a half-century ago, during the last half of a 1943 NCAA playoff game, Hyde at 6’3" and 180 pounds ran the floor of a basketball court well enough to hold DePaul great George Mikan to one point. Hyde has similarly outplayed top-rated liberal politicians year after year so that even Cokie Roberts of Left-leaning National Public Radio grudgingly admits, "Hyde is one of the smartest men that ever walked."

When you profile someone who is not a Christian but has broken from liberal secular orthodoxy, your goal is to get at the why.

Hentoff read widely and was surprised in 1984 to find that every article about an infanticide case much in the news that year, that of Baby Jane Doe, had an Orwellian spin to it. . . .

. . . When some of his teammates on the Left then asked him why he was making a "big deal" about a "late abortion," Hentoff realized that the slippery slope spoken of by pro-lifers was angled more sharply than he had supposed. When Hentoff began to label killing of children born or unborn as just that–killing–he again got strong pressure to back off.

Contextualize biographical anecdotes in a discussion of why the subject did not give in to conventional pressure.

Pushing at the headstrong Hentoff has never worked, however. He regularly tells interviewers of the time he was 12 years old and sat on the porch of his parents’ house on Yom Kippur, the holiest last day of the Jewish year. On that porch, in full view of the Orthodox Jews walking past the house to the synagogue a block away, he ate a huge salami sandwich very slowly. Many of the passers-by shook their heads in disgust. One shook his fist. Another spat and Hentoff, in his autobiography, Boston Boy, recorded the overall experience as "quite enjoyable."

Do not hesitate to push theologically, and then come to an evaluation:

Hentoff has a glib answer when pressed on religion by his theistic prolife allies: "I’ve always wished I could make the leap of faith and believe, but I can’t." And yet, Hentoff does not seem to have any desire to try; despite his voluminous reading, he admits to having never read any evangelical theology. When pressed harder, he simply snaps, "I’m an atheist. I’m really not interested. . . ." Clearly, Hentoff has a sense of right and wrong, and admirable courage in standing by his core values and beliefs: "You shouldn’t lie. You shouldn’t kill developing human beings." But when asked why others should listen to him, he is unable to ground right and wrong beyond his own rationality: "I have developed for myself a moral sense." And if others have developed other moral senses? "They’re wrong," he says with a twinkle. And why? "They are." In the end, this self-described member of "The Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-necked Jewish Atheists" sees himself as a god unto himself–and the urgent need for God’s grace becomes more evident than ever.

A good ending to a profile often places the subject once again in his environment, to suggest either the isolation of the interviewee or the community in which he revels.

Hentoff drinks from a Village Voice coffee cup and decorates his office door with a sign that reads, "Card-Carrying Member ACLU." His windowless office (about 7 by 8 feet) is so crammed with books, folders, and jazz albums that when Hentoff sits in the chair behind his paper-strewn desk he almost seems to be sinking beneath a sandbag barricade. He does not join the young Village Voice staffers scurrying to the conference room to preview a new MTV commercial for the newspaper. Nor does he head off to "a 401(k) Pension Plan presentation" for all permanent staff. Soon Hentoff will take the elevator down to the first floor and walk away from the building that is both home and isolation cell. He will walk through a neighborhood that is in many ways a consequence of the ideas he has expressed, past signs advertising "Urban Scarecrows," "Hell in a Handbasket," and "Biohazard: Infection Approaching." But in the meantime, Hentoff sits in his bunkered office, alone.

The profile of Hentoff ended in sadness; the profile of Congressman Lewis ended on an upbeat note.

Lewis’ time before had been split between people in the pews and people across the bookstore counter; his time is split differently now, but those same groups are his concern. At a recent congressional meeting a woman approached him and remarked that a few weeks earlier he had been "just like us." The difference, Lewis says, is that now he has taken a step down. Now he is their servant.

Is the Hentoff ending too sour, or the Lewis ending too sweet? It is hard to say from afar; that is why the profilist has such a responsibility to be discerning enough to do justice to his subject. Just as reporters need to avoid thinking the worst of those they are investigating until the proof rolls in, so reporters who cover attractive individuals, need to avoid adoration. We should adore God but suspect man, and that means we should distrust profiles that contain no criticism. Trust, but verify, by asking for opinions about the subject by those who know him: How is he different from his reputation? What are his shortcomings?

When profiling Christians, we need to concentrate not so much on testimony about the time of conversion but on what has happened to the person since: How has the subject walked the talk? All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and those who are redeemed remain sinners; the question to ask is whether that sin is decreasing as the years go by and whether the enjoyment of God’s grace is increasing.

A profile in World of the Cooneys, who as mentioned in chapter two have adopted many children, brought out this aspect well. First came scene-setting.

Bel Air is a town set just off the interstate that passes from Maryland to Delaware, and it’s not too fancy. Along the highway are malls recently erupted from raw earth, and behind these are aging subdivisions. At the foot of a cul-de-sac is a circle of modest ranch-style homes; the one in the middle, the one with the big gray van with pro-life and adoption bumper stickers, looks like it could belong to any suburban family.

Then, the distinctiveness:

This is not an ordinary family, but a Rainbow Family. Terri and Jim Cooney founded Rainbow Families five years ago, to bring together people who, like them, had adopted kids across racial lines. . . . The Cooneys began their family the usual way 27 years ago with a son, Andrew; he is now a Methodist pastor. When no further pregnancies ensued they adopted a daughter, Christine, who lives near enough to come help her mom with the laundry.

"Then Nathan came to us as a foster child in 1982," Terri says. "He is African-American and Mexican; his dad took flight when he heard Nathan was on the way." Nathan, almost 13, is serious and quiet, but is prevailed upon to show some of his artwork.

Then came Leanna, 9, and Joshua, 7. Joshua, who has been in and out of the room during this conversation, looks heavy-lidded, lethargic, and big. "At his one-year checkup Joshua was very normal, and at his two-year checkup he was very abnormal," Terri says. An initial diagnosis of autism has been amended to "severe manic depression with thought disorder. He became very manic and violent, would hallucinate, would cry for no reason. With medication he’s coming around."

Amidst the gravity come touches of humor.

At this moment Joshua comes up the stairs with his pants around his ankles, and Terri exclaims, "Yay! You left your pants on!" then confides, "Usually he strips." Isaac is laid on the couch while Terri goes to redress the situation.

Terri takes her shoes off as she resumes her narrative. "When Joshua was diagnosed we had already adopted the next one, Sarah, who’s now 6. Up to that point we felt that we were not to handle special-needs children, but once we got through the grief with Joshua we found we could handle this kid and find joy. We knew from that point on that we would request special-needs kids." But it was not a ministry they could undertake alone. "Through prayer we came to understand that God was not sending this child only to us, but to the whole body of Christ."

Joshua comes up the stairs wearing matching purple T-shirt and underpants, but the underpants are on his head. "Well, it was nice of you to match!" Terri says. "Joshua, look at Mommy’s face. Go to your room and find some pants."

At this point Jim comes home with the other kids, who have been to an Easter party at the mental health nursery where 4-year-old Janee attends. ("She has bipolar disorder," Terri says. "So does Leanna, but we didn’t realize that until after Joshua was diagnosed.") Janee shakes a plastic Easter egg and rattles the pennies inside.

More background about the children constantly pours out, not in textbook manner but in the context of a flowing narrative.

Terri settles on the floor as a tide of children flows around her. Leanna wants to go to the park alone, but her parents explain that it is too dangerous. She suddenly bursts into sobs, then just as suddenly stops. Two-year-old Stephen comes in wearing yellow star-shaped sunglasses, and Terri exclaims, "Look at you! You are downtown!"

Stephen, she says, was born at 28 weeks and weighed only two pounds; doctors said he would probably never walk. It appears they were right: He runs everywhere, and has broken the blades off two ceiling fans by hanging from them. "He’s very, very hyper. We asked God to touch him, and now we wish maybe he’d done a little bit less." As we watch, Stephen steps up on the hinge of the storm door and, reaching up with a book, flips the hook latch open. He is immensely pleased with himself.

Sarah is small enough to look like Janee’s twin. The two little girls come in with babydoll strollers that they propose to ride in, though Terri suggests this will not work. Joshua reappears with his shirt on his head and his pants down. "Sweetie, I love you, and it’s a good thing," Terri says to him, and to me: "Lithium causes very loose bowels."

We will discuss in a later chapter how authors may involve themselves in stories; here, writer Frederica Mathewes-Green gracefully did it in a way that moves readers to understand even more the immense task that the Cooneys have taken on.

While Terri tends to Joshua, I change baby Isaac’s diaper. He wiggles and grins, and the white dot of a cataract shows in each pupil. When Terri returns I am not ready to give up holding him.

Finally, with readers given a vivid sense of the who-what-when-where-how of the Cooney home, discussion of the why comes naturally.

"Our story challenges everybody’s reasons for not adopting," Terri says. "Age, income, space . . . we had all of those problems. But if everyone in the body of Christ would adopt just one! There are thousands of kids out there who need homes, but they’re older, black, or special-needs. If we could just embrace one we could take care of the kids. Why save them from abortion if you’re not going too save them for the kingdom?"

Because you want to have a tidy, quiet, comfortable life. Terri and Jim got a glimpse of that life; their two older kids saved for four years to surprise them with a 25th anniversary party and a week in Hawaii. "We stayed in the best hotels, ate the best food, and listened to retired people talk all about their travels. At the end of that time we realized that we had chosen the better portion. That was when we came home and applied to adopt Stephen."


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