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Weiss selected as 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient

Monday, August 21, 2017   (0 Comments)
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By Ken Chitwood //  RNA Treasurer // University of Florida

 


 Jeffrey Weiss (photo courtesy of Louis Deluca, Dallas Morning News)

 

In 1998, three years before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Jeffrey Weiss asked some insightful questions about terrorist Osama Bin Laden, his theological leanings, and the Saudi oil money that gave rise to Al Qaeda.

That prescient piece in The Dallas Morning News is just one of many highlights from Weiss’s storied, award-winning career, which includes reporting for eight years at The Miami Herald, to a 21-year career at The Dallas Morning News, and his current column for the Religion News Service, “My Way to the Egress” — the euphemism for death that he coined after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2016.

To honor his contributions to the religion beat, and his dedication to the profession, Weiss is being awarded the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to individuals who demonstrate exceptional long-term commitment and service to the Religion News Association and its members, and to the field of religion reporting.

Weiss always has considered his job as a religion reporter to be more than coverage of “religious organizations and theological battles.” While he did a fair share of those stories on the beat, he primarily aspired “to explain the behavior of believers.”

“(Religion) was an important link to many, many news and cultural events,” Weiss said. “And over my time on the beat, I learned about lots of religious outlooks, from the Southern Baptist Convention to the Brahma Kumaris (a religious movement that teaches meditation), and how they helped explain individual and group human activity.”

Readers and members of the religious community respected Weiss and appreciated the precision that he brought to religion coverage, said Bruce Tomaso, the former religion editor at The Dallas Morning News. He remembers Weiss saying “there’s no subject on which it’s easier for reporters to unintentionally offend people.”

“I think his realization of this helped make him scrupulously careful,” Tomaso said.

 
 Dallas Morning News religion section staff, early 2000s. (Front) Berta Delgado and the late Diane Connolly (Back) Marcus Stewart, Jeffrey Weiss and Paul Buckley. Photo courtesy of The Dallas Morning News.

 

Even when there were tensions between the Morning News and parts of the Muslim community, Weiss remained a trusted reporter who could always get someone on the phone, Tomaso said.

“He was the Jewish guy on the staff who by far had the best contacts in the Dallas Muslim community because people knew him,” Tomaso said. “He was friendly, agreeable. They knew he was going to be fair. They knew he was concerned and smart and nobody ever harbored a grudge against Jeff.”

Beyond exploring the roots of Bin Laden’s deadly dogma Weiss also had the opportunity to survey the wafer-thin theology of most TV Christmas classics (spare, he said, for “‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ of course”), interview an apostle from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and talk to the Democratic party’s 2000 vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, a modern Orthodox Jew.

“He was very good at finding religion stories where you wouldn’t think there were religion stories,” Tomaso said. “Religious themes in superhero movies? Spirituality in Harry Potter? He would pitch these things and they would seem like off-the-wall ideas and they would turn out to be innovative ways of looking at things.”

When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas in February 2003, Tomaso recalls ripping up that weekend's religion section and tapping Weiss to crank out a story on what religious traditions offered to help make sense of the disaster.

“Why did God let terrible things happen? In 24 hours, Jeff was always the person to turn around a story for you,” Tomaso said.

In more recent years, Weiss wrote for Politics Daily. These stories were among his favorites, he said. Not only did he get to explain the mystery behind why so many state government documents included the Christian phrase, “the year of our Lord,” but he also highlighted how the exploits of Westboro Baptist Church, a Topeka, Kansas church known for headline-grabbing attacks on homosexuals, “inspired others to do good in response.”

Finding a positive spin, or at least bringing clarity and levity to a situation that many may not understand, is one of Weiss’s specialties. He now brings the same candor and humor to his column at RNS, “My Way To The Egress.”

In 2016, Weiss was diagnosed, and treated for, glioblastoma — an extremely aggressive  form of brain cancer — and on Dec. 28, 2016 he kicked off his series on death, life, and the religious and spiritual angles of his current path.

“I’m still enjoying using what I learned about a variety of faith traditions to help explain how I am considering my limits,” he said. “One of the columns is all jokes, including a Torah quote. One is about the Tao Te Ching and how it helps me. One is about why I love the Muslim idiom ‘insha'Allah.’

For Weiss, RNA has “always been a cooperative community.”

“When I climbed onto the beat, I knew very little about the specifics,” he said. “No kidding, I could not have been able to describe the differences between Baptists and Presbyterians. Or many others. The RNA conferences were always a quick way to help me climb a bit up the mountain.”

“It was a team sport, in the best way,” he said. “As I became a veteran, I always tried to offer the same bootstrap-pull to any other journalist who looked like they wanted some guidance.”

With this goal in mind, he returns to his former Dallas newsroom every Thursday to talk shop. Weiss said he wants to become a Johnny Appleseed of journalism, leaving a legacy that inspires other journalists to convey to readers why their stories matter.

RNA Board President Manya Brachear Pashman remembers Jeff’s guidance and enthusiasm when she interned at the Dallas Morning News in the summer of 2002, then later at subsequent RNA conferences and in Rome when, for different papers, they covered the transition from Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI.

“Spotting Jeff in St. Peter’s Square in the midst of a challenging assignment was both intimidating and inspiring,” said Brachear Pashman, a religion reporter then and now at the Chicago Tribune. “Unless I wore my awe on my sleeve — entirely possible — I don’t think Jeff knew how much I revered him: wicked smart with endless energy, boundless enthusiasm and stellar instincts. Just listening to him was exhilarating, yet daunting. I did and still do consider him a superhero on the beat and didn’t want to let him down.”

For that reason, Brachear Pashman relished calling Weiss 12 years later to invite him to  Nashville and tell him about the award.

Likewise, Weiss said he is thrilled to get the award.

“Odds are, based on medical data, I’ll be at the egress in a year or two because of my glioblastoma,” he said. “Maybe not. But getting an invite to attend one more RNA conference, several years after I left religion coverage behind as my top focus, was a joy from the very start … No matter what happens to me on my future path, insh’Allah — God willing — I will feel plenty good enough to enjoy this recognition.”

Weiss will receive his award on Sept. 9 in Nashville at the 2017 RNA Annual Conference Awards Banquet.

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Contact:

Tiffany McCallen
740-263-7875


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