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A World Newspaper Falls on Parochial Bottom-Lines

<i> Cynthia Parsons is the editor of the Vermont Schoolhouse Press and the author of "Seeds" (Woodbridge Press)</i>

Eighty years ago the Christian Science Monitor began its remarkable publishing history. Born during the heyday of yellow journalism, the Monitor was heralded for being objective and fair and non-parochial, from its first issue.

The Monitor was a gift from the Christian Science Church to the whole globe. It was one of the first newspapers published in the United States to carry news from around the world, and eventually gained widespread respect for its coverage of foreign affairs.

People of all faiths learned to respect its objectivity, and embassies worldwide found its coverage of sensitive events to be accurate, analytical and fair to all sides.

The Monitor has won its share of prizes over eight decades, including several Pulitzers, and I’m grateful that several of the prizes and citations I received in 14 years there as education editor are still on display in the church’s publishing house in Boston.

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But for those who do not already know, the Monitor has trimmed its sails.

Two months ago, Katherine Fanning, editor of the Monitor, and her two assistant managing editors resigned in a dispute with the church’s five-person Board of Directors over the issue of editorial control.

On Jan. 3, a truncated version of the Monitor appeared, carrying no breaking news, no home and family news, no investigative stories, no sports. The new Monitor offered full color, in contrast to the old black-and-white pages, plus pie charts and capsulated features.

The drastic change in one of the world’s most highly respected newspapers has brought on a firestorm of protest, both inside and outside the church.

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A brief explanation is necessary here of what it means to be a Christian Scientist, and how Boston’s First Church of Christ, Scientist, is administered.

It’s difficult to be a Christian Scientist. That’s been true for a century, since the church’s founding by the still-controversial and often misunderstood Mary Baker Eddy. Turn-of-the-century Christian Scientists suffered public ridicule, with Mark Twain leading the way.

Few would quarrel with the sense of hope inherent in a key statement from Eddy’s textbook (“Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures”): “Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need.”

For a member of the church, this means eschewing medical solutions, embracing prayer and spiritual healing whenever the student of Christian Science feels strong and firm enough to do so.

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This brings each Christian Scientist to a life of compromise--between a trust in God, and the need to live, work and play in a material, not spiritual, world.

The Monitor has been at the forefront of the church’s teaching these 80 years--that is, in the marketplace putting the laser beam of “Divine Love” on “human needs” throughout the world. But now the beam has been diminished and diffused.

As the head of the Monitor’s Washington bureau, Charlotte Saikowski, wrote Fanning’s replacement, Richard J. Cattani, on Jan. 3: “You should know that reactions in the Washington community to events at the Monitor have been heart-rending. I have heard expressions of concern from members of Congress, White House, State Department; foreign diplomats; academics; leading representatives of the print and television industry, and many other readers.”

There have always been those extremely critical of the Monitor, particularly from politically ultraconservative members of the church. The current five directors of the church, and the three former directors who are now the part-time trustees of the church’s publishing society, belong in that critical group.

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I posit that these eight church officers, concerned about lawsuits challenging the right of members to turn wholly to prayer for healing their children, worried about declining membership in adult church ranks and shrinking Sunday school enrollments, not only did not know of the Monitor’s influence among decision-makers around the world, but have never themselves read and loved the paper.

These eight church officials are bureaucrats--the membership does not vote directors or trustees into or out of office; they are self-perpetuating. In the Christian Science Church, which has no priesthood nor clergy, these few officials, along with a clerk and a treasurer, are the top decision-makers regarding the business of the church.

And the Christian Science Monitor is church business. It’s been a remarkable history. Monitor reporters and editors have always been “different” from the usual church workers. Away from the sheltering walls of the Mother Church, the Monitor staffers investigated child prostitution rings in South America, the fundamentalist Christian movement in the United States, reforms in the Soviet Union, the tangled politics in Beirut.

When the current manager of the church’s publishing society drew up a plan to shrink, if not eliminate, the daily paper in favor of a multimillion dollar evening television news program and a slick monthly magazine, the directors not only went along, but were enthusiastic.

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Church directors and trustees were impressed by the manager’s arithmetic. If a publication that incurs a $20 million annual deficit--alleged to be the Monitor’s shortfall--is serving only 160,000 subscribers (ignoring its multiple usage in libraries around the world), and $40 million or $50 million can reach as many as 8 million television viewers via cable TV, then the move to television news serves two purposes: a) less cost per person and b) more persons in all.

The directors and trustees are wrong to truncate the Monitor. I think they are foolish to have distrusted it, and even more foolish not to have understood its importance to the church as a gift to the world at large.

The manager of the publishing house is replacing church mission with dubious bottom-line reasoning. The audience that used and counted on the Monitor for eight decades will sorely miss its top-quality journalism--its breadth, depth and special perspective on world events.

What will faithful Christian Scientists do about all this? They will, as they have for a century, pray; they know, and have long-since proved, that prayer heals.

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