God bless Curt Autry.
If you go to the NBC 12 anchor's Facebook page, you'll see many sentiments like that. And like this: "Love your reporting, unbiased and informative. Also, your faith shines through. Keep it up." And this: "Love the faith part. It's refreshing."
That's because Autry stuck his journalistic neck out back in October when 8-year-old Robert Wood Jr. went missing in Hanover County. The search, the drama, the heartbreak and the final relief played out over six gut-wrenching days.
On day three, I'm guessing Autry just couldn't stand it anymore. Feeling as helpless as the rest of us did, he turned to God in a startlingly public way. He started a prayer circle, right there on the Facebook page of a network-affiliated news outlet.
"I don't mean to offend anyone," Autry posted. "I normally wouldn't bring up religion here, but I do believe in the power of prayer. To that end, I've created a prayer circle on my FB page for Robbie Wood. For those so inclined, feel free to click on it — contribute, or share it with your FB friends."
It was stunning, really. When I first saw it, I admit I felt a zap of journalistic angst. But almost immediately after, my private self said, "Well, good. We're all praying separately. Why not pray together?" I understood Autry's impulse, and I wondered how much he went back and forth before hitting the return button on that post. I confess I might not have had the guts to do that before I was a columnist, back when objectivity was like a holy sacrament of my job.
Of course, it might not have been that big of a risk on Autry's part. He may have easily calculated that the praise for his prayer circle would drown out the one or two "keep your religion to yourself" comments that popped up afterward. That post received more than 2,100 likes and hundreds of comments of support. Clearly, he was preaching to the choir.
I am sure I stand in the pie-chart sliver of journalists not distraught by this prayer circle thing. I was much more disturbed a month later when Autry used Facebook to ask viewers how he should cover a story:
"WHAT SHOULD I DO? Amy Black is a talented tattoo artist here in Richmond, whose gift is making breast cancer survivors feel whole again. She's able to re-create nipples lost to cancer. Her story is amazing — but telling it on TV is problematic without ‘actually' showing her work. At the 11 o'clock hour, I don't think it's an issue — but I know not everyone will agree. I'll defer to your judgement."
Huh? Never mind the venial sin committed against the AP Stylebook with his spelling of judgment, it was the deferring part that hit me in the gut.
Social media has helped narrow the gulf between journalists and readers or viewers. Back in the day, you could hand-write a letter, mail it, hope it arrived, wonder if the editor ever read it, and maybe, possibly, against all odds, it might be chosen to run three weeks later in the Letters to the Editor section. But now you can fire off a tweet to Anderson Cooper! And he might respond to you personally!
This is all good. What's not so good is when the tail wags the dog and suddenly viewers are determining what news should be covered and how. For anyone ready to argue that the viewers deserve a voice, I'd simply reply that, yes, your opinion matters, but trust me, you don't want journalists deferring to your judgment any more than you want the doctors, dentists, plumbers and accountants of the world deferring to your judgment. If networks deferred to the judgment of viewers, the news would be wall-to-wall kitten videos.
Autry's viewers wisely made the right call: to show the video. It's a call he could have and should have made without consulting the masses.
If only he'd had a little faith in himself.