The loneliness of the pro-life journalist
“You got the place to yourself,” the cop said, laughing.
I was on the sidewalk directly in front of the White House. A few feet away from me, a group of about 10 people were kneeling. They were pro-lifers protesting Obama’s Health and Human Services mandate requiring Catholic institutions to provide their employees with health insurance plans that cover contraception. I was the only journalist there.
And I do mean the only one. The police had cordoned off the area for the media, and the closest people, aside from cops and protesters, were about 50 yards behind me. It was an eerie feeling. I was born and raised in Washington, and since I became pro-life in the early 1990s and began writing about abortion, I had often been the only journalist at pro-life events — even at the most interesting ones. But I had never had the entire White House sidewalk to myself.
I began to set up my camera and tripod (you can watch the film I made that day here). I had parked a few blocks away, in front of the Washington Post building. As I walked past the Post, I gave silent thanks to God that he had spared me from ever having a job there. Growing up as a journalist in D.C., the Post was the ultimate goal, the entry into the elite class. But had I pursued that goal, I would have given up the freedom to speak my mind and seek the truth. I would not have been able to cover pro-life events, much less write pro-life editorials. Winning the race would have meant losing my soul.
The race metaphor is an apt one. It is reminiscent of the great short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by British author Alan Sillitoe. It tells the story of Colin, a poor kid who gets a jail term for various petty crimes. To deal with his situation, he takes to running, and comes to the attention of the prison authorities. They recruit him, looking for a public relations victory by having Colin win a race against a prestigious local school. Colin gets breaks, and sees the hypocrisy of the prison system, which mirrors the corrupt class system in England. Colin is easily winning the race when, close to the finish line, he simply stops. He stops, and stands there, and looks the warden in the eye as the other runners pass him (yes, this was the original “Longest Yard”). Colin cares more about the truth of things, about injustice, than about serving a corrupt master.
And to think, there was a time when I would have finished that race, and thanked the warden on top of that. In 1989 I was asked to come into the Post’s offices to talk about writing some articles for the Outlook section. It was around this time that David Ignatius, who was then the editor of the Outlook section — he’s now a columnist for the paper — announced that the Post should hire more “weirdos, misfits, outcasts,” folks who had something interesting to say, who could add sparks to the paper. Of course, his advice went nowhere. I was told by one editor that the Post was an iceberg that “moved in micro-millimeters.” They could talk about change all they wanted, but the template was set.
A better metaphor would have been that the Post was not an iceberg, but the Titanic. Because shortly after my Post meeting (and I did wind up writing many pieces for the paper), I became pro-life. Then the Internet happened. Suddenly, freedom was in the air. And the Post didn’t move their ship. Well into the digital age, the parameters were set: nothing pro–life, nothing too blatantly Christian, nothing arguing about natural law or homosexuality — unless, of course, it was a performance of conservative switchback, like when Laura Ingraham wrote about her love for her gay brother.
Inevitably, I ran up against the liberal orthodoxy. It most strikingly occurred in 1994, when Outlook ran, at a full page, an op-ed of mine about saving the Howard Theater, one of the oldest historically black theaters in America. I went into detail about the history of the Howard, yet something strange happened to my copy when I got to the 1960s. I had referred to the “moral and cultural collapse” that had destroyed the Howard and the surrounding neighborhood — the drugs, rioting, and black racism that had brought down that part of town. The night before the paper came out, I was called and told that the phrase “moral and cultural collapse” had been changed to “social upheaval.” This was an editorial in the editorial section.
One album I reviewed reminded me of Easter, I wrote in one piece. Rejected. When it bounced back, I simply removed the Easter reference and sent it to a different editor. It was published two days later in Style.
To think what could have happened had I sucked it up, sold out, and gotten hired there. To think, I could have been a Dana Milbank. Better to blog for an audience of three than that.
Back at the White House, the pro-lifers started getting taken in by police.
“You done?” the policeman, seeing me fiddling with me camera, asked. In fact I was just changing lenses.
“Nope,” I said. “I’m just gettin’ warmed up.”
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.