The Preacher and the Press
How Billy Graham got the mainstream media to broadcast God’s message to the world.
- LARRY ROSS
Billy Graham’s ministry spanned more than six decades. He preached the gospel to more live audiences than anyone in history—nearly 215 million individuals in more than 185 countries and territories. Billions more were reached by media outlets around the world.
Preaching with “a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other” constantly put Graham at the intersection of faith and culture. He always contextualized his message, showing how the Word of God speaks to personal and societal problems in every era. He sought every means possible to reach as many as possible and had a progressive use of technology in all its forms: radio, television, film, satellite transmission, and the internet.
One of the distinctives of Graham’s ministry was his ability to make positive points for the gospel in any media situation. He always had a policy of engagement with the press, which greatly increased his influence beyond crusade audiences.
Numerous and unique news opportunities provided print and electronic forums for Graham’s message. In the absence of an official spokesman for evangelical Christianity, Graham was long perceived as a senior statesman and the perennial go-to authority for the media on issues regarding evangelism and the Christian faith.
“I’ve never believed the success of our work depends on or is a result of publicity,” reads a wall plaque at the Billy Graham Center quoting the preacher. “However, I am convinced that God has used the press in our work, and that it has been one of the most effective factors in sustaining public interest through the years.”
It’s been said that an individual’s reputation is how he is perceived today, while his legacy is how he will be viewed by future generations. My own involvement in handling media relations for Graham since 1981 reflected that continuum: from responsive media liaison to proactive reputation management to a focus in recent years on codifying his unique ministry into the media of the future.
Our objective was to tell the story of Graham’s ministry in the context of traditional news values, thereby extending the impact of Graham’s crusades through the media to a broader audience. We weren’t out to promote a man or publicize a ministry; we were out to create greater awareness of the message. Our task didn’t involve manufacturing an image, but projecting an already-existing identity to convey what God can do through a life totally yielded to him.
While working closely with Graham, I’ve observed three unifying principles that defined his unique approach to media.
First, he approached every media encounter as a ministry opportunity, seeking platforms for his message rather than for publicity, and doing so out of the priority of relationship, never losing sight of reporters’ spiritual needs.
He once told me while discussing an interview request, “I have had more cover stories than anyone deserves in a lifetime, but if it will give me a platform for the gospel, I’ll do it.” At a TV studio sound check, many interviewees will count to 10 or describe what they had for breakfast. Graham always quoted John 3:16, so that if he didn’t get a chance to present the gospel in the interview, at least the soundman heard it.
Second, in all media situations, Graham remained pastoral rather than political. He often said, “I’m not for the left wing or the right wing—I’m for the whole bird.” But he never hesitated to address issues people perceive as political (or economic or social) from a spiritual perspective, speaking directly to matters of the heart.
Third, as many ministries have become more “activist” in recent years, Graham remained the “voice of moderation,” serving as an advocate for the Christian faith, stressing the centrality of the gospel and the importance of personal faith and religious freedom. He always strove to find common ground with every reporter, but without compromise, realizing that like him, they were in the news business. While a journalist seeks to give his audience the “hard news,” Graham emphasized the Good News.
Credit- Christianity Today
Larry Ross served as Graham’s director of public relations from 1981 to his death.