A few years ago, Terry Mattingly, nationally syndicated columnist, wrote about a conversation he had with famed ABC news anchor Peter Jennings.
Jennings described the typical story involving survivors of some sort of disaster. A reporter will ask, “How did you get through this terrible experience?”
The survivor often answers, “I don’t know. I just
prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”
Jennings said this tends to be followed by an awkward silence, after which the reporter, in not so many words, asks, “Now that’s very nice, but what really got you through this?”
The awkward pause, he said, represents the gap between the way most Americans and journalists view matters of faith and religion.
That gap looked like the Grand Canyon the other day as the late Jennings’ former network reported on a boating accident in Utah’s Bear Lake on the show Good Morning America.
Three young girls and the 45-year-old father of two of them died when a sudden storm arose, causing waves to capsize their boat in cold water. Two girls, Tiffany Stoker, 14, and Tylinn Tilley, 13, survived despite spending hours in the water.
Tilley’s father told KSL that medical professionals said it should not have been possible for them to go so long without succumbing to hypothermia.
From the girl’s point of view, however, there were unseen powers at work. Tylinn Tilly described feeling someone grab her lifejacket and pull her away from danger when the boat capsized, threatening to trap her beneath it. She and Stoker became separated from the rest, and they kept each other going by saying prayers — sometimes yelling prayers so each other could hear over the waves, wind and thunder — and singing songs they knew from the Primary organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
They told all of this to the crew from Good Morning America. But when the segment aired, it didn’t mention a single word about faith, prayers or Primary songs.
Instead, it credited the girls’ survival to a song from the Disney movie, “Finding Nemo,” using a clip of the animated character Dory saying, “Just keep swimming.”
After a Facebook post about the segment generated several outraged responses, including phone calls and texts to the network, the show updated its website so the headline read, “Utah teens credit friendship and prayer for keeping them alive,” although the video itself didn’t change. Meanwhile, the network’s official response to inquiries from KSL about the segment was, “No comment.”
Tilley’s father told KSL he believes all the talk about religious things made a reporter or producer uncomfortable. “We had all mentioned too much of God, faith, religion,” he said. “Some person doesn’t believe in God, and so that means that the rest of us can’t have that displayed.”
That may not be what happened, but Good Morning America isn’t exactly scurrying to set the record straight.
Much has been made lately about the ongoing secularization of Americans. The Pew Research Center published a poll recently showing the number of Americans who don’t identify themselves with any organized religion is rising. Pew nicknamed these people “nones.” They make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. public.
It’s enough to make people think no one believes in miracles any more.
But there is another side to those statistics. Pew found that two-thirds of the “nones” still believe in God. And, not to be overlooked, about 75 percent of Americans do identify themselves with a religion.
Many in this overwhelming majority likely would find strength in a factual account of what two girls say they believe helped them survive a storm-tossed lake.
The columnist Mattingly, who runs a website called getreligion.org, pointed me to another column he wrote seven years ago, in which he quoted political commentator and former White House press secretary Bill Moyers saying many journalists are, "tone deaf to the music of religion."
That may be the best way to describe the gap between Bear Lake and Good Morning America. It’s an unfortunate tone deafness. It certainly did a disservice to two grieving girls who, as Mattingly put it, were calling on a higher power than an animated fish.