CBS, NBC and ABC may be the big guys on the block, but from the beginning the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) has owned the story of Laura Walker Snyder, the daughter of alleged Soviet spy John Anthony Walker Jr.
First, CBN's talk show, "The 700 Club," advised her to let Jesus into her life, prompting the woman to tell the FBI about her father's alleged espionage activities. Then the Christian evangelists scooped the world by airing an interview yesterday with Snyder, in which intimate secrets of the troubled Walker family were laid bare.
CBN is a different sort of network.
Housed in a beautiful brick colonial-style building on a 200-acre tract in Virginia Beach, the network operates a multimillion-dollar media empire that is the brainchild of controversial evangelist M.G. (Pat) Robertson, who also hosts "The 700 Club."
Robertson, the son of a former Democratic senator from Virginia, started CBN in 1960 with $70 in a dilapidated television station in nearby Portsmouth. As has fellow Virginian Jerry Falwell, Robertson has been criticized for using his evangelical broadcasts for political goals.
CBN runs the nation's fourth largest cable network, picked up by 5,600 cable stations and subscribed to by 3 million households.
CBN also owns four television stations, in Boston, Norfolk, Dallas and Beirut, and plans to start a nightly news program in the fall.
Calling itself "the family entertainer," the network broadcasts a wholesome brand of television from an earlier era, including reruns of "Wagon Train," "The Lone Ranger," "Flipper," and "Gentle Ben."
"Our television is minus the sleaze and minus the raunchiness you find on the other networks," said James Whelan, the new managing director of CBN News. Whelan is a former editor and publisher of The Washington Times.
In addition, the network also runs CBN University in Virginia Beach, with 500 students and a general education curriculum, as well as a nationwide string of 90 Christian counseling centers. The centers are staffed by 4,500 volunteers who answer 2 million telephone calls a year.
That's who answered Snyder's call for help two years ago, and employes at CBN's elegant headquarters were celebrating yesterday not only their journalistic coup, but also their role in bringing faith to Snyder.
"That's the greatest story in this whole place," said Terry Heaton, producer of "The 700 Club." "People actually get helped."