with the Author: (different from the
audio and video interviews)
S. Collins, author of The Christian Science Monitor:
Its History, Mission, and People is interviewed by George
Spitzer, Publisher, Nebbadoon Press:
GS. Any organization has to be distinctive or it eventually
disappears. What is distinctive about the Monitor?
KSC. At its best, the Monitor lifts people up.
In the face of a lot of the news, its quiet approach can
seem inconsequential. But when things get really emotional
and even scary, like September 11, or there are serious
problems that need exposing and healing, like human trafficking,
the Monitor tends to shine, or at least it has in
the past. That's a combination of the journalists letting
their compassion and insight into human character show,
their willingness to care enough about readers to turn their
reporting into compelling stories, and--this is something
that I think most people don't understand about the Monitor
and a lot of what makes it different-the readers themselves
focusing on dealing with their own fears, and in many cases,
praying with some understanding. I do believe that insightful
prayer among even a small body of readers can make a huge
difference in how the world thinks.
The Christian Science Monitor used to be highly respected
as one of the best newspapers in America, maybe even the
world. It's lost a lot of its cachet in recent years. People
don't talk about it like they used to, and today it's just
one of many news organizations on the Web. What happened?
KSC. A combination of things, from financial problems,
to a big internal blow-up in the 1980s, to a dearth of star-quality
journalists in recent years. But I really think we have
to be cautious in how we judge the success or failure of
the Monitor. It has always had a huge hill to climb--higher,
I submit, than any other newspaper in the world. Its founder,
Mary Baker Eddy, who also founded the church that publishes
the paper, said it had "to injure no man, but to bless
all mankind." Can you imagine The New York Times
or any other paper taking that as its motto? It would probably
lose most of its journalists the first week, let alone a
lot of readers. But the Monitor keeps going, trying
to take journalism in a direction that doesn't just inform
but also encourages, comforts, inspires, and even heals.
Really, the success of the Monitor can be measured
only on its own terms. The question really is, How well
does it meet its own standard?
GS. Your answer?
KSC. Sometimes it gets there, or at least comes close, but
in my view, not that often. I don't think anyone who works
for the paper today would deny that it has a long way to
go. Was it closer to the ideal of so-called Monitor journalism
at its peak in the 1960s, when it was highest in terms of
circulation and winning big prizes? Not necessarily. But
there have always been individuals who, I think, grasped
what the paper is about better than others. They produced
some extraordinary journalism, at the same time showing
the possibilities when a newspaper really does what the
The Monitor has millions of online readers since
it converted to a Web-first format in 2009. Are things looking
up for the paper?
KSC. I don't think you can tell by the numbers. Yes,
millions read it now, but most of these are only occasional--once
or twice a month. The more important measure is what they
do after they read.
How thoroughly or how quickly the Monitor covers
the news, or how accurate it is in predicting trends--these
more conventional measures of the quality of a newspaper
are almost beside the point with the Monitor. The
Monitor is a good newspaper (or news organization,
which is what they prefer to call themselves now) in the
conventional sense. It has one of the higher ranking news
sites on the Web. But it does not exist primarily to inform.
Information is the medium, of course. But the paper exists
mainly to heal--or, more accurately, to help its readers
do so. At least that's the conclusion I've come to.
Speaking of that, the Monitor is published by a church
that believes in spiritual healing. How has the church affected
the paper over the years?
KSC. The two can't be separated. People sometimes forget
that Mary Baker Eddy gave the Monitor two missions:
Besides "to injure no man, but to bless all mankind,"
the paper is supposed "to spread undivided the Science
that operates unspent." Some Monitor journalists
over the years have wished the church would let the paper
alone just to be a good paper, and some church members have
wished the paper would adhere more closely to their political
views, whether left or right. Neither is going to happen.
The paper was started by the founder of the church as her
last major act. In fact, she gave the order to start it
the morning after she had had a healing through prayer of
a life-threatening illness. The paper's purpose mirrors
the purpose of the religion. The times when the paper has
had the most trouble--twice it came close to disappearing--were
times when some of those who were managing the paper drifted
away from the core of the religion in some key aspect and
almost destroyed the paper in the process.
One of those periods, I assume, was the 1980s, when television
almost eclipsed the newspaper, and the editor and many of
the top journalists left the paper. The issue is still sensitive
for some people who lived through it. Did you try to achieve
some kind of objectivity in how you wrote about that period?
KSC. I did not set out to write an objective history
of the Monitor. As most journalists admit these days,
objectivity is an impossibility. Everyone has a viewpoint,
whether admitted or not. I have mine about the Monitor.
For one, I think the Monitor is very important for
the world. I can't pretend I'm neutral about the paper.
The task of the serious writer is not, in my view, to pretend
objectivity but to expand his or her viewpoint so it encompasses
all sides and is fair to everyone, whether or not he agrees
with them. That's what I tried to do with the book. You
can easily paint heroes and villains when you write about
times like the 1980s, but what does that accomplish? I've
tried to recognize the motives of all the key people involved.
I believe that 99 percent of people do their best. That's
not worthy of condemnation, it's worthy of understanding.
Sometimes, in the long run, what seemed bad or good then
is not obviously so now.
I think most people don't really understand what makes the
Monitor tick, why it covers the news the way it does.
In the book I've tried to illuminate that aspect of the
paper--how Monitor journalists think. To me that's
key to understanding the paper. You can't do that if you
are just trying to be objective, which tends to lead toward
In the 1960s, the Monitor won three Pulitzer Prizes
in a row. That's never been done before or since at the
paper. Was there a reason it was so successful then? Or
was that purely coincidence?
KSC. I don't believe it was coincidence at all. First,
there was a sense of limitless resources then. Financial
problems at the paper didn't start hitting until the 1970s,
which was when the world also started focusing on limited
resources. But more important, I think, was the attitude
at the top. The editor during this time was DeWitt John,
a former reporter at the paper as well as former head of
the church's public affairs arm, the Committee on Publication.
He was also a teacher of the religion. This was no guarantee
of success--another teacher during the Monitor's early history
who was editor was perhaps the biggest disaster, although
he also accomplished some important things--but John had
an approach to editing that brought out the very best in
reporters, and he was unabashed in his application of Christian
Science to reporting. It's really not surprising the paper
was so successful under him.
You are a Christian Scientist. Did that make you biased
in how you approached the subject?
KSC. Yes and no. Yes, as I've mentioned, I admit a desire
to see the paper as well as the church continue. I think
both can do a tremendous amount of good. But I did not avoid
any important topics just because they are sensitive to
the church. I looked fully at periods like the 1980s, and
the late teens and early 1920s, when another crisis hit
the church, and tried to tell the story of what really happened.
But in the spirit of the Monitor, I've also tried
to injure no man and bless where I could.
As you conducted your research, what surprised you most
about the Monitor's history?
KSC. How difficult it has been for Monitor journalists
to put the paper's mission into practice. It hasn't happened
very often or with much regularity. Many people have made
sincere attempts over the years, but in my view, only a
handful of editors and reporters really "got it."
KSC. Well, you've got to read the book!
What kind of future do you see for the Monitor?
KSC. They have a dedicated and knowledgeable team at
the top now, with the editor and the business manager working
closely together, something most news organizations are
coming to see as essential. The Board of Directors of the
church is supportive and perceptive in its approach to overseeing
the paper. That hasn't always been the case. The Monitor's
success, however, depends on how well the paper accomplishes
the purpose the founder gave it. It is doing well in terms
of numbers, including financial numbers. It is moving toward
being a stand-alone operation financially, meaning the church
won't have to subsidize it. It will never be separate from
the church's mission, but the church does not want the paper
to be a drain on resources, which makes sense. But being
financially independent is only the beginning of what the
paper has to accomplish. The harder job will be to achieve
the kind of journalism I believe the Monitor is meant
to offer in every story. That will take a revolutionary
One more question, a more practical one about the book:
The history of a century-old newspaper is a big subject
and potentially a very dry one. How did you approach the
subject, and how long did it take?
KSC. People are never dull! I focus on some of those
I felt contributed a lot to the Monitor's history.
I couldn't touch on everyone--there have been hundreds of
good journalists who have worked at the paper in its hundred-plus
years--but those I deal with, I tried to get into their
thinking as well as their reporting and editing, or in some
cases, their business work. The book is really the stories
of people inside the story of an idea, the idea of a respected
newspaper with a religious mission. As to how long it took,
I started with one interview, in 2003, with a former reporter-foreign
correspondent Takashi Oka--and worked off and on for almost
a decade. The most concentrated work happened over a three-year
period, beginning in 2008.
Permission to reprint this interview is granted.
© 2012 Nebbadoon Press