Brad Knickerbocker is a Staff writer and editor for The Christian Science Monitor. He has been in journalism since 1971 and has covered it all, even from the sky in an airplane for his "Small Plane/Big Planet" project. Brad shares insights he gained from reporting on terrorism linked to the Oklahoma City Bombing and 9/11. He explains how ideas from the Bible help us pray about current issues, how the "tares and wheat" can help journalists, what's important for successful journalism, and more.
How did you get into journalism?
I had been an English major in college. After spending six years flying high-performance aircraft in the Navy, including a combat tour in Vietnam, and most of a year traveling around Europe with my wife Carol, I found that I was very interested in national and international issues. Combining that with my love of language and literature pointed me toward journalism. My first job was in Rochester, New York, on the morning newspaper, where I covered everything from dog shows to the Attica prison riots.
It was about this same time that I began to read The Christian Science Monitor, which showed me a different kind of journalism -- one with a sense of idealism combined with a high level of professionalism. After a year and a half in Rochester, I applied to The Monitor for a reporting job in 1972 and was hired to begin work in Boston.
What stories or experiences that you've covered stand out to you?
There are many stories and projects that stand out over the years: covering school desegregation in Boston, major environmental issues across the American West, national security and intelligence stories (including domestic and international terrorism linked to the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11), and various national political campaigns. Among major projects were a lengthy series on Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential campaign and the "Small Plane/Big Planet" project flying a small aircraft from southern Africa to Alaska in 2000. With a laptop computer, digital camera, and satellite telephone, I filed twice a week to The Monitor's "Home Forum" page and every night to a special interactive website, making me The Monitor's first blogger. (Read inspiring accounts of God's direction and protection regarding this trip.)
How did reporting on the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 affect you and your prayers?
One way had to do with safety -- my own, my family's, and that of others' generally -- in the face of domestic terrorism. Both the Old and New Testaments have many instances of protection from harm, especially the experiences of Jesus (passing through angry crowds unharmed) and Paul on his various adventures (ship wrecks, beatings, imprisonment). Those are great studies in courage. Seen prayerfully, they can be a comfort and a guide in times when public thought is marked by fear. We can be "delivered out of the hand of [our] enemies" (Luke 1:74 KJV).
We're also instructed by Jesus: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matt 5:44). That certainly must apply to our perceived enemies, whether they're international terrorists, violent anti-government radicals in the United States, or just those of a different political persuasion.
Are there any other biblical ideas that have helped you as a journalist?
There is much in the Bible that is helpful. Paul's letter to the Galatians is particularly apropos to seeing across (or perhaps through) the partisan divide and increasingly rancorous discourse that seems to define national politics today: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). Of course, that applies to the sectarian and social disruption seen across much of the Middle East and northern Africa today, as does Isaiah's admonition: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Is 2:4 NKJV).
Recently, I've been thinking about Jesus' parable about the tares and the wheat (Matt 13) and how this idea can be specifically helpful for a journalist sorting through the onslaught of information and conflicting opinions.
How does the parable of the tares and the wheat help journalists?
For one thing, we journalists can prayerfully separate fact (wheat) from opinion or mere assertion (tares). Proverbs is very instructive here: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths" (3:5, 6). Another example of "tares" is the typical journalistic worry over deadlines and trying to "beat the competition." Paul (who, in modern terms, might have had good reason to seem "stressed") provides a solution when he writes in Philippians, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (4:13).
What has made your success as a journalist possible?
Success to me is in the day-to-day work, which adds up over time to a career. It comes from approaching the work humbly and prayerfully and with a sense of openness to new ideas and insights -- as a friend says, "a willingness to be surprised." My career and life would have turned out very differently without a spiritually uplifting perspective and the continuing supportive partnership of my wife, Carol.
What is good journalism, and why is it important?
Journalism, as has been said, is the first draft of history. In my opinion, it's also an essential tool for democracy and a civil society. People can't be expected to make wholly intelligent choices about the society in which they live -- particularly its political dimension -- without good journalism.
A good journalist starts out, as I've said, with a sense of humility (recognizes what he or she does not know) as well as a sense of fearlessness about seeking and reporting the truth no matter where that leads. That's the ideal. Under deadline pressure, we don't always get it right. But there's always the opportunity to write subsequent historical drafts.
What is your objective when you write?
To inform, to clarify, to summarize, to entertain (where appropriate), and to point in the direction of solutions. I try to write with a sense of compassion, authority, and perspective.
Are you trying to have a positive influence on the world or just trying to be objective?
Actually, being "objective" itself has a positive influence on the world. Determining "objectivity," of course, involves many decisions, most of which may be subjective -- deciding what to emphasize, whom to talk to, what to leave out in the typical 800-word article.
What keeps you writing, or what do you like about your work?
The challenge and enjoyment of learning something new, then trying to explain it clearly in a way that's helpful to readers. I also enjoy meeting a wide range of people -- heads of state and other political leaders, experts in a variety of fields, people quietly trying to make a difference in their own realm. As broadcaster Bill Moyers has said, "There's nothing better than journalism to turn life into a continuing course in adult education."
Looking back, I would say that in most every story I write, I find a source of inspiration -- a new way of looking at the human spirit, evidence of the infinite ways in which mankind is progressing. And the longer I'm in the business -- some 40 years now -- the more I also find inspiration in the energy and intelligence I see in the younger generation of journalists. I'm very glad to be among them.