ABC News drops religion correspondent and sets tie with Web site

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- ABC News has dropped network television's only full-time religion correspondent and announced a tie-in with beliefnet.com, an interfaith Web site that has laid off its own news producer.

Peggy Wehmeyer, of ABC, and Ira Rifkin, of beliefnet.com, confirmed that they were released from their respective work places because of financial cutbacks.

Wehmeyer, who was told May 14 that ABC was eliminating its religion correspondent slot, had no comment after learning of the beliefnet.com deal Monday.

ABC spokesman Todd Polkes said beliefnet.com will now ''contribute story ideas and reporting,'' while various ABC correspondents handle on-air religion assignments. Beliefnet.com and ABC will also conduct joint polling. beliefnet.com's Jocelyn Weiss said Rifkin will continue as a consultant on story development and research.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights urged ABC to cancel the deal, contending beliefnet.com's approach to Catholicism is ''baiting at best and bigoted at worst'' and that Islam and Judaism in particular are given milder treatment.

beliefnet.com countered that its Catholic materials are ''respectful and diverse in approach -- sometimes provocative but often quite traditional and reverential,'' including writings from ''a wide range of Catholic conservatives.''

Since ABC hired Wehmeyer in 1994, no competing commercial network has assigned a religion specialist. Her pieces included interviews with President Bill Clinton and presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Last June beliefnet.com cooperated with ABC in promoting Peter Jennings' special ''The Search for Jesus,'' which drew fire from some conservatives.

In another development in broadcast coverage of religious affairs, a $6.6 million grant from Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis will fund the fifth season of ''Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,'' starting in September.

WNET in New York produces the show, hosted by veteran TV correspondent Bob Abernethy. The show is carried by 210 PBS stations.

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On the Net:

beliefnet.com: http://www.beliefnet.com

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics



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