Prayers before punditry

Times Staff Writer

Political reporter David Brody is punching his keyboard with two fingers, checking the Web for mentions of his stories. Up pops a liberal blog quoting one of his recent interviews. He's delighted -- until he sees the snippet is attributed to "Pat Robertson's CBN."

"Pat Robertson's CBN," Brody says in frustration. "We take that as a dig."

Brody does work for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, and mostly he's proud of that fact. But stereotypes are inevitable when you cover politics for a network run by a standard-bearer of the religious right. Brody, 42, has made it his mission to confound them.

By turning his blog into a sounding board for presidential candidates -- testing their appeal to the much sought-after evangelical voter -- Brody has turned CBN into an unlikely go-to source for political junkies, routinely cited by the mainstream media. In a breezy style with a dash of irreverence, he embraces some liberals and takes aim at some conservatives. That surprises people, and keeps them coming back; his blog, the Brody File, draws about 25,000 page views a month, triple last fall's numbers.

To Brody, this is not just good journalism. It's a way of serving God.

CBN's stated mission is to prepare the world for the second coming of Christ. Brody sees respectful, balanced coverage as one means to that end.

"Whatever stereotypes people have of Christians as hateful, intolerant -- all those words -- I'm here to say, 'You have a totally wrong perception. Totally wrong,' " Brody said. "Maybe people will realize that Christians are not so bad after all."

Brody took an unlikely path to Christian media.

He was raised Jewish; in a recent blog posting, he compared the frenzy on the campaign trail that greets Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to the praise his family showered on him after his bar mitzvah.

In college, he began attending an evangelical church with his future wife, warily at first, then willingly. One night in 1988, Brody felt his heart racing, his soul reaching. He rose and accepted Christ as his personal savior.

Even so, Brody had no interest in joining Christian broadcasting, which tends to focus on televangelism, talk shows or commentary. But when he lost a job as a producer for secular TV in 2000, Brody was unable to land another. After two years of unemployment, he took a job as a radio reporter at the conservative ministry Focus on the Family, which fights abortion, pornography and homosexuality. "Their values and my values matched up," he said.

He moved to CBN a year later, in July 2003, to report for "The 700 Club," an hourlong blend of fundraising pitches, news and inspirational features that claims a weekday audience of nearly 1 million.

To prepare a recent piece on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Brody flew to Boston for a 20-minute interview with the former Massachusetts governor. As the CBN crew strung lights, Romney's staff staged the bare interview room with an American flag and Romney family photos. Brody grabbed his makeup bag.

He never imagined when he gave his life to Christ that he would become adept at smoothing on foundation and penciling in his eyebrows. But this was where the Lord had led him, and when he returned from the bathroom, a smudge of beige on the collar of his crisp white shirt, Brody bowed his head in thanks.

Chatting with Brody before the cameras began rolling, Romney mentioned that he likes watching football on high-definition TV. CBN will be switching to the sharper format soon, Brody told him. Then Brody grinned, as though he couldn't help what he was about to say.

"Pat Robertson in HD," he murmured. "Lord help us all."

Robertson is still a forceful presence on the network he founded nearly half a century ago. He co-hosts "The 700 Club" four days a week, sometimes closing his eyes to report on miracles he senses at that moment. ("The Lord is healing someone with stomach cancer!") He's prone to incendiary comments, such as when he suggested Hurricane Katrina could be a sign of God's wrath at abortion.

But in an era when few Christian radio or TV outlets do their own reporting, CBN stands out for its 60-person news team.

Reporters sometimes talk about their faith on air. A feature Brody did last summer on the Grand Canyon tilted sympathetically toward a creationist fighting "secular geologists." It ended with video of a rainbow and Brody's comment: "You can't silence images like this, a majestic reminder that God is ever-present."

When it comes to mainstream news, however, CBN's coverage is fairly straight and quite comprehensive, with many pieces running four to six minutes.

The goal: to attract not only Christians, but channel-surfers who might never have intended to watch the Pat Robertson network. Perhaps they'll be drawn in by an analysis of the Iranian nuclear threat and stay through a feature on the healing power of faith -- "a deeper message," news director Rob Allman said, "that might transform their life."

Brody brings a pop-culture sensibility and cornball sense of humor to CBN.

This is a guy who keeps "Mission: Impossible 2" in his home entertainment center, near a DVD entitled "The Dangers of Evolution." When his preschool daughter searches for dance tunes on the playroom computer, she has her choice of Christian praise music, Michael Jackson or the Village People.

Brody opened a piece last fall on Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's split from the Democratic Party with footage of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt and the voice-over: "Breaking up is always hard to do." On his blog, he's referenced Britney Spears, Mick Jagger and the '80s pop group Wham!

In a vintage Brody File moment, he posted a 1994 letter in which Romney pledged to work toward gays serving openly in the military. "It's at this point that I need to take a break ... and resuscitate the millions of evangelical Christians who have passed out," Brody wrote. "As my Jewish mother would say, 'Oy-Vey!' "

Much of Brody's reporting isn't fresh; he relies a lot on Google and YouTube. But he has a knack for digging up quotes that document a candidate's flip-flops and suspect turns of phrase -- cliches that might sound harmless to an average voter but signal apostasy to the kingmakers on the evangelical right.

For instance, he recently posted a 1999 interview in which Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona talked up adoption as a way to reduce abortion. "While that may be true, among the dedicated pro-life community it is code for being wishy-washy," Brody wrote.

An equal-opportunity critic, Brody has picked out potential weaknesses (some quite obscure) in all the top GOP candidates and asked his mostly conservative audience to weigh in:

Does it matter that former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani once appointed a judge who stuck taxpayers with the tab for a young man's sex-change operation? Do they care that Romney calls himself "pro-life" but would allow destruction of some human embryos for stem-cell research?

"He's holding the conservative candidates accountable for their conservatism," said Shira Toeplitz, a staff writer for Hotline, a daily political briefing put out by the nonpartisan National Journal.

Hotline frequently quotes Brody's work, as does the widely read daily report by ABC News, The Note, which recently dubbed one of his postings on Giuliani a "must-read." Brody's interviews with candidates regularly turn up on the Associated Press wire; a video clip recently made Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" on NBC.

Some of his postings have made the rounds of left-wing blogs. In an e-mail to supporters, the liberal evangelical group Sojourners cited -- with surprise -- positive comments Brody made about Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. (Brody posted an old interview in which Clinton talks of Jesus' atoning grace, then wrote that she could make a case that she's guided by biblical values on issues such as environmental protection.)

Brody has also commented favorably about Obama, noting approvingly in one post that the candidate plays authentic come-to-Jesus songs at his rallies -- "you know, the ones you sing in church," he wrote.

"I don't think CBN is the first place many [Democrats] look to get their message out" -- but it's a good opportunity to reach new markets, said Stacey Bernards, an aide to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. She encourages Democratic members of Congress to talk to Brody.

Eric Sapp, a consultant who helps Democrats woo religious voters, also urges his clients to go on CBN: "David's voice is the kind we need in this discussion," he said, adding that Brody "comes across as reasonable and fair."

Not everyone shares that assessment. One viewer e-mailed, in all capital letters, that Brody betrays a "VERY LIBERAL bias" -- and added: "This is confusing because of WHO you work for -- CBN."

Brody loves that e-mail. He calls it "my badge of honor."

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stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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