As a born-again Christian, L.A. Times reporter Bill Lobdell was frustrated by media coverage of religious people. So he lobbied his editors and prayed for the religion beat. He eventually got his wish, only to lose his faith in the church and in God after eight years on the job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. The debate over whether the personal beliefs of journalists affect their reporting - the objectivity debate - is a hardy perennial. But we rarely consider the reverse scenario. What happens when the work of reporters takes a toll on their personal beliefs?
That's what happened to L.A. Times religion reporter Bill Lobdell. A born-again Christian, Bill lobbied hard for the religion beat at The L.A. Times. He eventually got his wish and became their religion reporter, only to lose his faith in the church and in God in the process.
Bill says he turned to religion at a difficult time in his life. His marriage was on shaky ground. He just had his first child. He was looking for guidance, and on the advice of a friend, he went to church. BILL LOBDELL: I fell in love with the church, God, everything else. Ended up going on a religious retreat, and at the end of that weekend, felt God actually coming into my heart. I actually felt it. It seemed like it was a tangible thing. And I felt that I had become a born-again Christian. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And was it at that point that you began to feel that the mainstream media coverage of religion was inadequate or basically wrong-headed? BILL LOBDELL: It was. I thought oftentimes that newspapers and the media in general treated religion like a freak show. Journalists didn't think people were serious about their faith, and if they were serious about their faith there was something very odd about them. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were moved to try and convince your editors at The L.A. Times to give you a shot at the religion beat, and by 2002 you were covering the Catholic Church sex abuse stories around the country, you were going to church twice a week and you were taking conversion classes in order to become a Catholic. What was that like? BILL LOBDELL: That was very tough. I interviewed literally hundreds of victims. I interviewed lying bishops. I interviewed their lawyers. And it was really tough to reconcile this church that I saw as being something great and something that I wanted to enter and what I was seeing in my day-to-day work. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know that one of your spiritual mentors told you that, look, this isn't about the church. This is about flawed human beings. You can still maintain your faith in the church. But you didn't think so. BILL LOBDELL: Well, they said, you know, keep your eyes on the man on the cross, not the person behind the altar. And that's true, and I get that this is human failing. But the problem is, for me, I thought the church - and any religious institution - should be somehow better than Enron or a corrupt government. In some ways, it was worse. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So on Good Friday in 2002, after a year of conversion courses, you decided not to convert to Catholicism. But even after that, even after you stopped going to church, Bill, you still maintained a belief in God. Eventually that was also lost. What happened? BILL LOBDELL: I think my mind caught up with my heart. My faith had been chipped away at through stories and through what I saw. It was something that I really, really didn't want to give up. And so I held onto it. I tried some spiritual counseling. I did try to double down on my prayer life. None of it worked.
The final blow came in a Portland courtroom. It was a hearing for a mother whose child was sick. She was trying to get more child support from the child's dad, who happened to be a Catholic priest. And she really lived a miserable life. She lived in a friend's basement for free. They got food from the food bank.
And the priest was on the stand. He had a great lawyer - just the sharpest attorney. She couldn't afford one, and so it was this mom, basically, against this high-priced lawyer. And his defense was, I took a vow of poverty and I don't have any money to give.
You know, I sat there and watched the Catholic Church pay for these high-priced lawyers so their priest could get out of paying child support. I saw the mom being crushed by this machine. And I sat there in the courtroom and I wasn't surprised. I kind of lost that sense of outrage, even.
And at that point, I realized I just don't believe any of this stuff anymore, and called my wife on the cell phone and just said, you know, I needed to get off this religion beat. It's over. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote at the end of the piece, "I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't."
So, Bill, do you think you would have lost your faith if you hadn't been reporting on religion? BILL LOBDELL: I don't know. I think that I was in a unique position. I saw things other people don't really see. I used to think faith was a choice. It's like going down the street. Are you going to go this street or that street? Which way are you going to pick? But for me, it became very clear internally I just didn't believe. It was like a light switch went off. And I could fake it, but it wasn't there anymore. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you wish you'd never asked for the beat? BILL LOBDELL: No. I'm glad. It's been a tough road, but I'm glad I - unless I go to Hell when I die - I'm glad [LAUGHS] that- BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wait a minute. I thought you don't believe in that stuff any more. BILL LOBDELL: [LAUGHS] Well, you know, [LAUGHS], it's always, it'd be nice to hedge on the other side [BROOKE LAUGHS] you know, if you're going to hedge one way or another. But, no, I don't believe in that stuff anymore. I just hope that - [BROOKE LAUGHS]- oh, God, that's bad to say, but I [LAUGHS] hope to God I'm right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's a hard habit to break, isn't it? BILL LOBDELL: Yes. Yes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's your beat now? BILL LOBDELL: [LAUGHS] I did a radical change. It's called "Living Vicariously in L.A." where it's sort of first-person accounts of - I was a paparazza, for example, or actually, I was a pastor at a Unitarian church, giving the sermon. I actually got to be a Botox patient. I got Botox. [BROOKE LAUGHS]
And [LAUGHS] it's a fun, needed change of pace for me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: A real relief? BILL LOBDELL: It's a real relief. I think part of me feels like I've kind of given up, and so that doesn't feel good, but the other part of me feels a huge relief off my shoulders. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thank you very much. BILL LOBDELL: Thanks for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Lobdell is a reporter at The L.A. Times.