The Final Cut: Omitting the Samaritan Woman’s Story
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
Some interesting reactions to the Vashti McKenzie program this past weekend, both positive and negative. This interesting e-mail in particular was mentioned during our Monday morning staff meeting, coming from Kathryn in Davis, California. She mentions a segment around 01:12:00 in the full interview that we cut out of the final production. The segment is about 6 minutes long, and survived through a couple of rounds of edits before it was ultimately cut out.
I am a big fan of this show and admire your talent, Krista. The editing on this particular show disturbed me, however. By her own account, and yours, the essence of Vashti McKenzie is discovered in the the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s an incredibly profound teaching in the same way that Native American stories are so deeply wise and transformational. (One can understand how Christianity of the mainstream stumbled so badly by failing to understand the meaning of this core teaching. Rev. McKenzie finally gets it right.) And yet, it didn’t make the final cut.
When I look at what did make the cut — the emphasis on the Jeremiah Wright exegesis — and the timing of this interview, it tells me that you used Speaking of Faith and Vashti McKenzie to make an appeal to nervous undecided and conservative voters to support Barack Obama, much like the just released movie about George “W” Bush did.
This is your show, you can do that, and I hope it works. That said, the story of the Samaritan woman holds so much more meaning and value for viewers here and around the world than whether or not undecided voters now might feel a little better about Barack Obama’s Christianity. Rev. McKenzie’s teaching goes both to her core and the central mission of your show. Your rough cut managed to miss the mark on both counts.
There are a couple of things there. The first thing is the apparent support for a candidate. Depending on what we’re covering on a particular week, we often hear from listeners who think we’re supporting this or that political ideology. Just as an example with this program, some listeners suggested that even mentioning Jeremiah Wright at this stage meant we were trying to derail Sen. Obama’s bid. It seems to go with the territory no matter how much editorial rigor we subject a program to, and that’s fine, we’re happy to talk about our process.
But as with most Speaking of Faith programs, we try to contribute something to the conversation in the larger American community. Talking about race in the context of this presidential election might seem cynical, but I don’t know if there’s ever a wrong time to talk about racism.
Maybe the story of the Samaritan woman contributes to that larger conversation in a more enduring way than anything that can be said about the Wright controversy. Rather than reflecting an ulterior motive, this is where the desire to be newsworthy comes in. Krista is talking to someone who is a prominent leader in the African-American community, and who had close ties to Jeremiah Wright. There is a journalistic responsibility to address it openly. To be honest, in the full interview, I detected some reluctance in Bishop McKenzie’s voice as far as talking about the Wright controversy. There is more discussion of the controversy throughout the interview, but we edited a lot of that out because the segment we had in the final program addressed the issue without belaboring it. And there was some thematic redundancy between the story of the Samaritan woman and other parts of the interview. With our eyes on the clock, we make room for some things at the expense of others.
The show itself was meant to act as part of a reflection on how race and gender have been used in this campaign. And when we decide to re-broadcast this show at some future point, it’s highly possible that we swap out the Wright discussion — which will no longer be timely — with the story of the Samaritan woman.
For now, we’re still trying to draw something positive out of the uglier aspects of the campaigns. Bishop McKenzie talks about defining moments. In our public life, we often hear about missed opportunities to turn crises into teachable moments — “transformational” is a word Kathryn uses above. I don’t know, what do you think? Samaritan woman, or Jeremiah Wright reaction? Timely or timeless?
Selecting Audio for “African American. Woman. Leader.”
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
I’d like to talk about some of the journalistic, editorial, and aesthetic considerations that go into using audio clips in Speaking of Faith. We’re not a documentary program, so we use clips sparingly to keep the focus on the conversation. When we do use these elements, there are a number of reasons:
- To illustrate or cap off a theme that was just discussed by Krista and her guest;
- To elaborate on something that was implied in a conversational moment (e.g., a passage in a book written by the guest)
- To cover something that was cut from the interview (e.g., part of a question or answer, the explanation of a concept, a reference to some historical event, etc.);
- To break up a block of interview that goes on too long; or
- To add something worthwhile to an interview that’s been cut relatively short.
We had a couple of needs to satisfy in this program with Vashti McKenzie, and created room for two audio clips. One, we decided, had to be of Bishop McKenzie preaching.
I have to admit that I was breathless after watching her Easter sermon at Trinity. There’s this hypnotic build-up to a series of emotional crescendoes. She’s like an orchestral conductor at work. The most powerful, moving, and provocative parts of her sermon are, inevitably, the ones where she reaches those crescendoes. You can’t take your eyes off her. She’s forceful when she’s up there. And it’s tempting to use a clip of that moment in her sermon to illustrate her style of preaching.
The problem is that to go from an intimate interview with Krista to the middle of a highly emotional sermon is jarring to the ear. Worse still, there’s the danger of taking powerful preaching out of its context, turning it into a sound bite, sensationalizing it, pushing people away from it, and hurting the people who are closest to it. That’s exactly what happened earlier this year with the sermons of Jeremiah Wright. It’s not something we want to contribute to.
Because of time constraints, we are looking for a quick snapshot, but a snapshot that tells a story. I use the word “snapshot” deliberately because of its ties to our journalistic cousin: photojournalism. Is it possible to tell the story of a complex issue in one photograph? Is it possible to capture the essence of a human being in one portrait? Maybe, maybe not. But to stretch the analogy further, think of a great photograph accompanying a great article — sometimes it tells its own story. Sometimes a photo or an image layers itself onto the richness of the text, helping to give it concrete shape.
In various sermons we considered excerpting from, there were positives and negatives. In one, she’s putting out this intense call to a young generation to rise up and be heard, yet ironically her own voice is drowned out by an unfortunate echo, especially during moments of high intensity. Her Easter sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ is powerful, but does it work as well with an outside audience as it does to members of the church? Are there stories that are short enough and self-contained enough to illustrate her socially conscious preaching and her pulpit personality?
We had trouble isolating something like that from that Easter sermon. And really, because it touches upon the Jeremiah Wright controversy (something we delve into in the second half of the program), we couldn’t use it at the end of the first half, where we had some time for a clip.
We needed to cap off the idea of her social activism, and the reference to “merry-go-round agendas” in her National Cathedral sermon seemed like a great fit. Plus, she talks about Moses, who was so important in abolitionist theology. She’s also strong and forceful, and the audio quality is good.
It’s not an exact science, and we do have a lot of back and forth for elements like these, listening to a clip by itself, listening to it with the preceding segment, talking it over, asking ourselves what works and what doesn’t, and going forward until we’re all satisfied that the clip has added something to the interview rather than detract from the Krista Tippett conversation that we all enjoy.