ATLANTA — John Blake grew up in Baltimore, where he attended a Baptist church, and then studied journalism at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He honed his craft in Los Angeles before moving to Atlanta in 1990.
He covered religion and other subjects for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution until 2007 when he joined CNN. He is a tennis fanatic and music buff.
Editor John Pierce turned the tables on Blake — interviewing him about the dynamic and often controversial topics that are shaping American culture.
NF: You cover race, religion and politics.How did you get all the easy stuff?
JB: (laughing) It is crazy. They say you never talk about race, religion and politics if you want to keep your friendships — and that is all I do! I really like it, because the stories evoke so much emotion.
A lot of us rarely interact with people who see things differently from us when it comes to politics or religion. But I have to do that. So I bring together people who see things so differently, and I try to put them together in these stories. It is really educational for me — because I become familiar with the arguments on both sides.
People can get really emotional; they track me down on Facebook and insult me. When I wrote a story about the Confederate flag, a guy said, “I have never been so moved…; you deserve to have your ass kicked.” So it is fun, though it is dangerous too.
NF: You have to have a tough skin, don’t you?
JB: Yeah, but I have been doing this awhile and cannot think of anything anyone said that has really made me upset. There is so much anger out there now that I just get accustomed to it.
It is kind of easier because I am just a name. These people do not know me. Even when they think they do — if they reach out to me on Twitter or Facebook — I do not take it personally.
NF: Concerns over race and racism are everywhere and, before the focus shifted to Missouri and beyond, it was on your hometown of Baltimore. How was it different when you approached an issue or an incident with that kind of personal connection?
JB: That is a really good question because that was the first time I had that experience. I had covered the L.A. riots and all sorts of racially explosive stories. But I went back to Baltimore and saw that the riots took place literally in the neighborhood where I grew up.
Where I caught the bus to go to school. Where I went to church. Where I would walk at night to [see] my high school girlfriend. I never felt so sad writing a story, and am still digesting it.
Not only was it sad to see the place where I grew up look like one of those German cities after World War II, but also I have my family still there. A lot of my family is caught up with some of the same stuff that sparked the riot.
I have people in my family struggling with drugs, no education, single moms: that is all in my family. So all of that together weighed on me when I went back to Baltimore.
I tried to use it to give insight into what happened there in a way that maybe other journals could not. And I think I wrote one of the best pieces I have ever written because of that — calling it “Lord of the Flies Comes to Baltimore.” I compared what Baltimore was like when I was growing up with what it had become, and I tried to explain why people were so angry.
I tried to ground it not in a lot of sociological talk but in stories of people I knew.
NF: Attention shifted to Missouri, first at Ferguson and then the University of Missouri. What happened at the university dealt with issues concerning race and First Amendment rights. What was your take on the situation there?
JB: I saw it differently because of the First Amendment issues and because there has been a lot written now about the so-called coddling of young people. There is this belief out there that the new generation of college students is very intolerant when it comes to considering other points of view.
What got to me was seeing those students and teachers trying to keep out the photographer. As a journalist and a student of the Civil Rights Movement, that was bewildering to me.
What if at the Edmund Pettus Bridge march in Selma in ’65, [Martin Luther] King and John Lewis and all those people had told those photographers and journalists they didn’t want to talk to the media? “Get out of my face; I am trying to create a safe space here.”
That would have seemed so self-defeating and ludicrous because the press can be your ally.
So I see that in some of the younger activists, and don’t quite get it. In fact, I went to Morehouse [College] to cover a student protest about Ferguson and the students would not talk to me. They said the administration said they were not supposed to talk to media.
I am like, “You are on the campus where Dr. King attended. There is a statute of Dr. King looming in the background as you tell me you cannot talk to media. Here is this man who wrote beautifully about civil disobedience, how sometimes you need to create tension to have justice in the ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail.’ Somebody who talked about how you have to be a drum major for righteousness and stand up to authorities, and you cannot even stand up to a little college administrator to talk about racism?’”
I don’t quite understand it. I have been talking to some of my colleagues about it. Maybe it is because they grew up with a social media landscape. If you spend time with Facebook and Twitter, and do not want to consider someone’s point of view or if someone is irritating you, you can just “unfriend” them.
So maybe they see that as a virtue — a way of “unfriending” the media or people that irritate them. But I think it is self-defeating.
These people are young and they will learn and grow, and they have a lot of courage and energy. They put this stuff out on the map. You have to give them credit for that.
NF: Atlanta, where you live now, is the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. I thought about your book on the children of the civil rights leaders when President Carter announced last year that he was working with the King children to resolve their conflicts over their father’s valuable possessions. Are you still paying attention to what is happening with the offspring of civil rights leaders?
JB: Yes, I do. In fact, I just talked about it with a guy who is doing a documentary on that subject. He was interviewing me about it. I pay attention because I think it is fascinating.
For example, I remember for years going down to the King Center for all those celebrations of King’s birthday and all the dignitaries would gather and Mrs. King would get up and talk about how the movement was still relevant.
In the ’90s, particularly, there was not a lot of energy out there about race or a lot of discussion about that. But now there is — and where is a Bernice King or a Martin [Luther] King III?
It seems like they could and should have an audience and that they have an opportunity to show that the King Center and the SCLC are still relevant. But I think because of all the infighting they have squandered any kind of political credibility they could have had.
So that voice is silent. You do not really hear anything about them like you should. This is a great time. Instead of going around giving these speeches for however much they might get, they could really speak to this stuff.
NF: You previously covered the religion beat for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Religion reporters for daily newspapers are not as common as before. Overall, how do you think religion is getting covered now, and has social media filled some of that gap?
JB: I think there has been a tremendous loss, and social media does not really fill that gap. With newspapers you had trained journalists who were expected to be fair and know the subject and give all sides a voice. But they have been kind of weeded out because of the collapse of newspapers.
Often the people writing or talking about religion on the social media landscape are more like shouting about religion as opposed to covering it. It is a lot of bloggers, a lot of “my opinion.”
But I think we miss the reporting of people like Gayle White who used to cover religion for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So I think religion coverage has suffered.
NF: How is CNN at covering religion?
JB: I think we are doing an excellent job, and I am not saying it just because I work here. We have been recognized by Religion News Service, the American Academy of Religion and other groups for our coverage over the years.
We have had some really good people. They were giving a lot of emphasis to religion when I came here. I was really surprised at that. I think they saw that when we write stories about religion they get a lot of coverage. It is a good journalistic decision.
We have Daniel Burke, who used to work for Religion News Service, and they don’t get any better when it comes to religion. It is not just Christianity; we do a lot with other faiths and things about spirituality and the so-called “nones.”
Our religion coverage appears primarily in two places on the web. We have a religion section. But a lot of our religion stories just appeared on the main page and then they migrate to kind of a religion section that people can go to if they just want to see all religion stories.
Then we have the network coverage of religion, and they are coming closer together because Daniel will go on TV a lot and do videos and talk about the pope and other religious subjects.
NF: There are certain religion stories you cannot miss, like the pope’s visit. I guess some of the lesser stories require you to raise the visibility of the religious factors. We know that religion is not a completely separate topic from politics and race.
JB: I agree.
NF: How do you use social media, and do you find it hard to separate professional from personal dimensions?
JB: I am kind of a timid user because I do not really want to spend too much time on social media. I have found that, for example, I might go on my Facebook page to look at something and 15 cat videos later two hours of my life have gone by.
And I find that it is like an echo chamber. Everybody is kind of saying the same stuff, so I try to be sparing about my time spent in social media. I put my stories on Facebook [and] I go on Twitter, but I am not real aggressive in that landscape even though I get a lot of people reaching out to me.
Some of the best stories I do come from reading books. We only have so much time, and I would rather read a book than spend two hours on Facebook.
So I just try to put myself out there, put my stories out, go on Twitter — but that is it. That is a challenge because a lot of really angry people want to debate about stuff.
You asked about the personal side. I think the challenge is not to get personal. I do not try to change people’s mind. I do not try to debate. I do not try to tell them what I think because I do not think they really care.
I just listen, and a lot of times I will call them. I had one guy who was really mad at me, cursing at me. I called him and he was just stunned. I said, “Let’s just talk it out” — and I just listened to him, and he was cool.
NF: It is [easier] to post a hateful, angry comment or even send an email than it is to talk on a phone. It is actually kind of frightening to see the level of hostility over religion and politics that can grow in social media.
****Let’s shift direction: As a producer and writer, what are you looking for? What kinds of stories catch your attention**?
JB: Stories that are original. They say you tell a great musician by just the sound of their instrument. If you hear a couple notes, you know that is Coltrane or Carlos Santana — because no one sounds like them.
I like reading stories I have not read before — something distinctive that readers have not thought of before. That to me is one of the most exciting things and is what I try to do.
NF: You said that you get some of your story ideas from books. Where else do you fish for stories?
JB: Actually, I do not fish for stories. They come to me. I am really fortunate in that, for whatever reason, I have always had a lot of ideas that just come to me. I think maybe because I am very curious and I pay attention.
When I go outside I am not looking at my cell phone while walking down the street. I look at people; I listen; I eavesdrop; I wonder; I ask questions — and things just come to me. And I get upset about stuff. I get curious, and things just happen.
For example, last year I was on vacation and heard about Hulk Hogan. He was caught on tape using the N-word. Then he came out with a statement saying, “Well, that is not who I am; I am not a racist.”
I was in my backyard mowing the grass and thought: I am so tired of what happens when people get caught blatantly saying racist things. No one is ever a racist.
I asked myself what would happen if somebody just admitted it. As a person of color, I would respect them more. Then I thought that could be an interesting article — to ask that question.
Are we at the place now where a person could admit that they struggle with racism like we can admit now we struggle with drugs or whatever? So I wrote the story with the headline, “Go ahead: admit you’re a racist.”
It was one of the most popular things I’ve written, and I had not read that story anywhere. It just came to me because I was thinking about Hulk Hogan.
NF: The up and down sides to what we do is [that] you are never off the job, are you? I have stopped mowing the grass many times to jot down an idea or a line or a phrase.
JB: Yeah, I think it is fun.
NF: I do not know if this connects with you, but it does with me. In both a specifically theological sense, but also much more generally, people seem drawn to stories about redemption.
JB: Yes. It is one of the most popular things, but very difficult to do because it can easily collapse into clichés. But I love those stories.
I wrote a redemption story about D.E. Paulk, known as the nephew of Earl Paulk who founded this big church — Chapel Hill Harvester — in Atlanta. But D.E. discovered that his “uncle” was really his father.
I called to see if he would talk to me. Not only did he talk to me, but his mother — the one who slept with her husband’s brother — talked to me. And her husband talked too.
They all talked about their feelings — and about what happened and why. It took me about six months to do it. But it was a story about redemption.
[D.E.] remained a person of faith and found a way through it. And his parents are still together. That was a story about redemption that was really powerful.
NF: Finally, we know that diversity is easier to seek than to achieve. From your perspective, are Americans in general and within religious groups more specifically losing or gaining ground when it comes to diversity? Do you see any hopeful signs in the coverage that you do?
JB: That is a big question. I see both hopeful and troubling signs when it comes to diversity in religion and in this country.
In religion there are hopeful signs because a lot of megachurches now are interracial. You hear a lot more churches talk about that, and I think it is good. But I think some churches misunderstand diversity.
They think it is simply putting a certain amount of people of color in the pews. But for a community to be truly diverse, those people in the pews should be represented in the leadership as well. Their culture should be represented in worship styles and things like that.
That is harder to achieve than just simply stacking the pews with different colors. I do not think a lot of churches still get that. As far as diversity in this country, I think the future is going to be very rocky.
There is this belief that younger people who grow up and see so much diversity in popular culture are going to automatically be more tolerant. I do not believe that. We are still very segregated in our lives, in schools, in churches — and as this country becomes browner, I just think there is going to be tremendous tension.
This is kind of rare in history. We are a multiracial democracy. We have gone from a country that was built on white supremacy to a country that is going to in a sense be led by people who come from a different point of view and different history.
That is a wrenching change, and I think you see a lot of the fear and anger. So I do not think it is going to be an easy road.
In history there have not been that many democracies. This thing could fall apart. People just assume it is always going to be this way. But it does not have to be this way.
With a demigod and enough fear out there, democracy can collapse. I hope that is not part of our future.
Sociologist Robert Putnam, who wrote the book Bowling Alone, did research on interracial communities that had been previously all white. What happened when people of color started moving in? Did these people seek out one another?
If you live in a neighborhood that was all white, but then you have a Latino person down the street, then you have a black person, does that create tolerance? He discovered that when you bring different groups together in this country, it creates more intolerance. He said they “hunker down.”
They withdraw from community. So just because you bring all these people together demographically does not mean they are going to reach out.
So we can have a future where different groups hunker down, withdraw and see the other as the enemy. It is just continual tension; that is what I get concerned about. I just think it is going to be a struggle.
NF: You mentioned there are some hopeful signs in the religious communities, but on the other hand there are also some very fearful religious people who are driving the division and the fear that leads to hatred. We know that hatred grows out of fear. So is there a mission for religious communities to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem?
JB: Yeah. During the Civil Rights Movement you had leaders who played to people’s fears or to their hopes. Someone like George Wallace played to people’s fears. Someone like King played to people’s hopes. I am hoping we will have leaders who can play to people’s hopes.
Those stands can be very unpopular. You have to be prophetic although you might lose money and influence. For example, I am wondering who is going to be the first mainstream evangelical pastor who gets up in a pulpit on a Sunday morning and says, “Guess what? I do not just tolerate gays and lesbians; I affirm them. We are not going to play the game where we know you are there but we do not say anything.”
What a lot of churches do now is like: we are not going to make a big issue out of it; we are just going to let it be.
But what happens if a pastor does that? I mean, that is prophetic and you could pay the price. During the Civil Rights Movement you had white pastors who did not talk about race because they did not want to stir up a storm.
But then you had white pastors who got up there and said, “This is wrong. This is immoral. We cannot treat people different because of their skin color.”
And they paid the price. That was prophetic, and as this country changes with all this tension, we are going to need pastors to be prophetic.
I do not know if that is out there, because in many church models now the big pastors are more like CEOs — the business types who have these religious empires. It is hard to be prophetic when you have so much to lose.
NF: I read a news story about First Baptist Church of Orlando grappling with the immigration issue after a well-loved Hispanic family in the church was designated for deportation. It went from being a political issue to a personal one.
****We see that with gay/lesbian issues as well as immigration and other concerns when it moves from political philosophy to personal relationships**.
JB: I totally agree. I think people who speak out and do not hide themselves in the pews will help that process. I have seen it in my own life. I think about things I used to believe and why they changed.
Almost always, it does not come from reading a book or someone persuading me to change. It’s because I met someone. I got to know them and realized a lot of my assumptions were misplaced.
The best thing about covering religion — and I have been doing this for a while — is that it has really changed me. NJF
Story and photos by John D. Pierce