Peter Jennings's Magnifying Glass

Copyright © 1998 John D. Beckett, Loving Monday: 19-24.

NO WAY, I SAID TO MYSELF. We're not going to let ABC News barge into the R. W. Beckett Corporation, shoot a lot of footage, extract a few sound bites and say whatever they want to say about us on national TV!

So went my reasoning as I hung up after the phone call from ABC's headquarters in New York. After all, hadn't they told me they were considering other companies they could feature? Why us? It would just be an intrusion, and for what benefit? In fact, the wrong kind of coverage could be damaging.

The news team had learned about the Beckett Corporation a year earlier. I had spearheaded a national effort, taking issue with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) after the agency had issued a set of guidelines many thought would restrict religious freedom in the workplace—such as the right to display a poster for a religious event or sing Christmas carols at a company dinner. National media had run stories on the resulting controversy. Now ABC News was following up with our company, wanting to learn more of how we were relating our faith to our business practices.

I knew from earlier experiences with the media that we needed to be cautious. I thought back to the time a regional magazine did a satirical feature story on our company, lampooning some of our most important values. On the title page I was piously caricatured in a robe and a halo—not the most endearing way for a CEO to be profiled to the greater Cleveland business community! I didn't want something like that to happen again, especially in front of a national TV audience.

But ABC needed an immediate reply. As reluctant as I was to agree, something that had happened earlier that day gave me pause. In a planning meeting with our senior management team, I had talked about how we could do a better job of making an impact on the marketplace with our core values, such as integrity and excellence. I had referred to a verse from the Bible that speaks about our being salt and light in the world, "a city on a hill [that] cannot be hidden." As I recalled that discussion, I decided it would be hypocritical not to think seriously about ABC's request. We weren't going to scatter much salt or shed much light if we yanked the welcome mat from Peter Jennings, America's most widely watched news anchor.

The day after our affirmative reply, ABC's news team arrived at the company—a camera crew from Chicago, a producer from New York, and Peggy Wehmeyer, a correspondent from Dallas.

The Shoot

"We'll need to be here for two days," said Peggy. "Our crew may do as much as fifteen hours of shooting for our three-minute news segment. We'll need to see the whole operation, talk to your employees, speak with some of your customers and suppliers, as well as people in the community. We want to talk about your policies and practices. We need to interview you."

I could feel the knot tightening in my stomach. "Tell me again what you're looking for," I said, half hoping they would change their minds.

"We understand that you believe your faith has a bearing on the way you do business," replied Peggy. "We'd like to see the evidence of what you're doing. How is it affecting people's lives? How has it made you different from businesses down the street?"

There was no turning back. We were committed to walk out this risky but exciting endeavor—exposing our company, our beliefs and our reputation to ABC's magnifying glass. In spite of my apprehensions, I sensed we were doing the right thing.

"Peggy," I said, "we'll be very open with you—show you whatever you'd like to see and let you speak to anyone you want. But I want to ask a favor. As you know, a lot can happen between now and the final version of this piece. The story can come out a dozen different ways. All I ask for is an honest and fair portrayal of who we are and what we believe."

"John, I'll do my best," replied Peggy. "But the final decisions will rest with Peter. He's my boss and he really runs the show."

Show Time

The night of the broadcast, my wife, Wendy, and I held our breath as Peter Jennings eyed his twelve million invisible viewers:

"We begin another season of `The American Agenda,' and we start this September with our religion correspondent, Peggy Wehmeyer. It seems to us that everywhere you turn in America these days, millions of people are searching for greater meaning in their lives. Tonight we're going to concentrate on the growing tendency of business leaders in America to have their personal faith make an impact in their companies. In other words, they are using the Bible as a guide to business."

"Whew . . . that's a good start," I said to Wendy, as I eased back slightly on our den sofa.

Peggy's voice came in over the first clip:

Nancy Borer, an assembly line worker, is taking a six-month maternity leave with partial pay. On top of that, her employer made the extraordinary offer of three years off so she can raise her children. Eric Hess assembled oil burners until his employer sent him to school and paid his $1500 tuition. Now he's a plant supervisor.
The man who gave these unusual opportunities to Nancy and Eric is John Beckett, a successful Ohio manufacturer who takes his work and his faith very seriously.

So far so good. But at the next clip, I winced. No, this wasn't home video. It was national TV, and I was looking at my own face on that TV screen.

Instantly I flashed back to Peggy's hour-long interview with me in my office. As a cameraman had threaded the microphone wire down my shirt front, Peggy had chatted about Laura Nash's new book, Believers in Business, which she had skimmed on her flight that morning. "The book is great!" she had said. "It identifies seven areas of business conflict which Dr. Nash discovered in her interviews with sixty evangelical business people. These are conflicts between the walk of faith and the practical world of business. An example is the conflict between caring for employees in a downturn versus tending to the bottom line."

I saw it coming: I'll bet she's going to ask me questions that Dr. Nash took two years to research, and she'll expect sound-bite answers from me.

And she did exactly that!

One of those questions had concerned my life's purpose. As I sat watching the broadcast, I heard the response to that question that had made it into the final cut: "My main mission in life is to know the will of God and to do it."

I swallowed hard and said to Wendy, "You've just seen a miracle. Of all the jumbled answers I gave in that high-pressured interview, Peggy has extracted my main goal in life in one short sentence."

The rest of the news piece came across wonderfully. The integrity of the company, the enthusiasm of our employees, and the relevance of our core values to the everyday world of work were presented in a clear and compelling manner.

Peggy concluded her commentary by observing that for our company and increasing numbers of business people "lasting rewards cannot be measured in dollars . . . satisfaction comes from building a business without selling their souls."

The unusually positive report hit a responsive chord with viewers, and they let ABC know it. Peggy called me that evening to say the program had prompted the largest number of favorable phone calls ever received for their news broadcast.

We had been put under Peter Jennings's magnifying glass. What he found, although very imperfect, was a manufacturing company in northern Ohio where faith and work were not mutually exclusive but coexisted remarkably well.

What he didn't know as he closed his broadcast that evening was that one very relieved business owner was just then leaning over on the sofa, giving his wife a smooch and saying, "Honey, I think I can sleep tonight."