In her celebrated 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels, the scholar Elaine Pagels argued that a dissident theme in early Christian doctrine could have set the whole course of Western religion in a different direction--one less patriarchal and more open to women--if its teachings had not been suppressed and forgotten.
That book came out a few years after I worked at the Washington Monthly. Since reading it, I've often thought about the parts of any movement's founding message that end up being highlighted--and those that are overlooked. This can be true whether we are talking, as Pagels was, about a religion of world-historical importance, or, as I'm doing here, about something as limited and scrappy as the approach to journalism that Charles Peters invented fifty years ago--to which his young employees referred with affectionate mockery as the "rain dance" or, yes, the "gospel."
Charlie brought to his new magazine insights from a range of his previous roles and experiences, including West Virginia state legislator and summer-stock drama impresario. But the one we staffers heard most about was his time running the Office of Evaluation and Research under Sargent Shriver at the newly established Peace Corps. There Charlie would send evaluators, many of them professional or in-training reporters, out into the field to see how things worked, and didn't work, in Peace Corps projects around the world.
The second part of that function--learning how things didn't work--was naturally aligned with what draws people to journalism. Getting the real story, "afflicting the comfortable," asking the questions people would rather not answer, going places people would rather you not see--these are all functions that matter to the workings of society. They are also what most people who end up as reporters think of as the heart of our job and, to be honest, as much of the fun. It is why we read and admired Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens from the muckraker era, Edward R. Murrow and Rachel Carson a generation-plus later, and a hundred other print and broadcast reporters who tried to reveal the unpleasant truths about mid-twentieth-century America, from formal and informal segregation to environmental poisoning to the war in Vietnam.
The years when I worked alongside Walter Shapiro at the Monthly--following the staff editor team of Taylor Branch, John Rothchild, and Susannah Lessard, and before passing the baton to Art Levine and Tom Redburn--were rich in this kind of...