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January 7th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Reversing JFK: Santorum’s bid to marry faith and politics

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of stories looking at the faith of the leading 2012 presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. We also profiled the faith journey of Herman Cain before he suspended his campaign.

By Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editors

(CNN) - It was election night in November 2006, and Rick Santorum had organized a private Catholic Mass in a room at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. The senator from Pennsylvania had just lost his re-election bid.

The Mass, held just before his concession speech, included a priest and Santorum’s close family and staff. Though the occasion was somber, the soon-to-be-ex-senator aimed for a celebratory mood, said Mark Rodgers, then a top Santorum aide.

“Life is if full of what can be perceived as disappointments or hardships,” Rodgers said, “but Scripture tells followers of Jesus that we approach those situations with joy because there’s ultimate redemption.”

Santorum’s younger brother, Dan, remembers that many attendees - including the senator’s children - were weeping over Santorum’s landslide defeat at the hands of Democrat Bob Casey Jr.

But not the senator.

“You’d think he would have been crushed,” says Dan Santorum. “But he wasn’t even bitter. He didn’t complain. He just said it was God’s plan.

“That’s when I knew he was going to run for president of the United States,” Dan continued. “Because I think that God had another plan for him.”

It’s unclear if Rick Santorum, whose strong finish in the Iowa caucuses has breathed new life into his presidential campaign, interpreted his Senate loss the same way.

Santorum concedes his Senate seat in 2006.

But the hotel Mass, and Santorum’s apparent placidity in the face of an overwhelming defeat, illustrate what confidants say is the key to understanding him as a person and politician: a devout Catholic faith that has deepened dramatically through political and personal battles.

“When I first met him he was an observant Catholic but a fairly privatized one,” says Rodgers, who ran Santorum’s first race for the U.S. House in 1990 and served as a key Santorum aide in Congress for 16 years.

“The journey I saw him on was a gradual awakening to the importance of faith at an operational level within a democracy, the idea that free people need to have a moral foundation.

“The journey was also personal - growing in faith and sharing it with others,” Rodgers says.

Many politicians have ideological concerns about issues like abortion or gay marriage, but “in Santorum’s case, it’s fundamentally religious,” says Richard Land, public policy chief at the Southern Baptist Convention. “That’s the genetic code of his life.”

It’s also the part that most inspires his political backers - among them the Iowa evangelicals who helped fuel his stunning Iowa finish, eight votes behind winner Mitt Romney - and most enrages critics, who take deep offense at Santorum’s views on divisive issues like homosexuality, which he once lumped together with bestiality in a discussion of legal rights.

“I think it’s fair to say that he’s sometimes harsh in the way he makes those arguments,” says Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush.

Indeed, even Santorum’s own party is seeing a faith-based split around his presidential campaign, with evangelicals who dominate the primaries in states like Iowa on one side and more establishment Republicans in states like New Hampshire on the other.

As he works to convince skeptical voters he has a real shot at winning the White House, Santorum’s religious faith has emerged as both his chief political asset and his biggest liability.

Kennedy's ‘sealed off’ wall

His Catholicism may have deepened as an adult, but Santorum also has deep Catholic roots.

“Three pictures hung in the home of my devoutly Catholic immigrant grandparents when I was a boy,” he said in a speech last year. “I remember them well: Jesus, Pope Paul VI and John F. Kennedy.”

Santorum attended Mass with his brother, sister and parents virtually every Sunday. “You basically had to be on your deathbed not to go to church,” says Dan Santorum.

Both parents worked in a VA hospital in Butler, Pennsylvania. As teenagers, Rick and Dan would push the wheelchairs of patients to Sunday Mass in the hospital’s interfaith chapel. Rick would serve the Mass as an altar boy, wheel patients up to receive Holy Communion, then help his brother wheel them back to their hospital rooms.

Other than that, it was a conventional American Catholic upbringing in the 1960s and ’70s: The Santorums said grace before meals, sent their kids to Catholic grade school and spent absolutely no time discussing how religion influenced their public policy views.

American Catholics at the time were living in the shadow of John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech in which he insisted that neither his faith nor his church would have any influence on his presidency.

Santorum would spend his political life trying to reverse the effects of Kennedy’s pledge. He argued that Kennedy “sealed off informed moral wisdom into a realm of non-rational beliefs that have no legitimate role in political discourse.”

During college and law school at Penn State, Santorum wasn’t especially observant; neither did his religious faith factor much into his political views.

After college he served as an aide to Doyle Corman, a moderate Republican state senator in Pennsylvania. Religion seldom came up.

“My husband and I are both pro-choice,” Corman’s wife, Becky, told The New York Times in 2006. “One of the interesting things about Rick is, the whole time he worked for us, we didn't know what his views were on that issue.”

Dan Santorum says a turning point in his brother’s faith life was his marriage to Karen Garver. They met in the 1980s while Karen was studying law at the University of Pittsburgh and Santorum was recruiting law students for the Pittsburgh firm where he worked.

“There was just a bond between them,” Dan says. “Part of that was that they shared their faith.”

That bond was on display last Tuesday during Santorum’s speech after the Iowa caucuses.

“C.S. Lewis said, ‘A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you’ve forgotten the words.’ My best friend, my life mate, who sings that song when I forget the words, is my wife, Karen,” Santorum said before embracing her in a long hug.

Santorum bows his head in prayer during an Iowa campaign rally in January.

Sometime after arriving in Washington following his 1990 House victory, Santorum began attending daily Mass before work.

The Rev. Eugene Hemrick, who frequently leads Mass at 130-year-old St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, says Santorum led Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback - who served with Santorum in Congress in the 1990s and 2000s - to the church.

“Santorum was always dressed up,” Hemrick remembers. “Brownback was in sweats a lot from running.”

The evangelical Brownback wound up converting to Catholicism, and the two were often joined in the pews by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“When you know these people are out there, you do a little more homework before you preach,” Hemrick said of his high-profile flock. “You try to make it a little more meaningful to them.”

Moral codes and absolutes

The 1990 GOP freshman class, a small group that managed to win in a poor year for Republicans nationally, took a confident line in airing grievances to congressional and party leaders.

Santorum was part of the freshman “Gang of Seven” that exposed the House banking scandal, and he kept up his penchant for bold, against-the-grain gambits after his election to the Senate as part of the 1994 Republican Revolution.

Soon he was taking aim at the overriding culture-war issue of our time: abortion.

Santorum helped lead the effort to impose the first federal restrictions on abortion that could survive court challenges since Roe. v. Wade - a ban on the procedure critics call partial-birth abortion.

Faith and politics may have been separate in Santorum’s childhood home and the homes of other American Catholics at the time, but by the 1990s abortion had become the symbol for the infusion of conservative faith into American politics. The issue forged a powerful political alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants.

On the wall of his Senate office, Santorum kept a picture of William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian whose evangelical faith stirred him to lead the campaign that ultimately ended the British slave trade in 1807.

The senator saw his campaign for the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act as his “Wilberforcean effort,” says Rodgers, now a senior adviser to Santorum’s presidential campaign.

Santorum’s comfort with using his faith to shape his politics was partly a reflection of Catholic intellectuals he had met since arriving in the capital, including Richard John Neuhaus, a priest who edited the Catholic journal First Things, and George Wiegel, a theologian.

For Santorum, such figures and books by Catholic writers like St. Augustine instilled the sense that free societies need citizens who are governed by strong moral codes.

“How is it possible, I wonder, to believe in the existence of God yet refuse to express outrage when His moral code is flouted?” Santorum said in a ’90s-era speech at the Heritage Foundation. “To have faith in God, but to reject moral absolutes?”

For Santorum, legalized abortion represented the ultimate flouting of that code.

The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act passed Congress in 1995, but President Bill Clinton vetoed it the following year. Santorum led a failed Senate effort to override the veto and helped revive the bill after the election of President George W. Bush, who signed it into law.

Such campaigns helped make Santorum a national hero to the anti-abortion movement and a bogeyman for abortion rights supporters.

“On the morning after the Iowa caucuses, there were millions of pro-life voters who woke up pinching themselves that one of their very own had emerged at the top rank of candidates, making sure it wasn’t a dream,” said the Southern Baptist Convention’s Land.

Around the time of the Clinton veto, Rick and Karen Santorum confronted a tragedy that added flesh-and-bone experience to their anti-abortion stance, which had up until then been intellectual and religious.

By that time, the Santorums had three children. While pregnant with her fourth, doctors told Karen her fetus had a fatal birth defect. In his 2005 book “It Takes a Family,” Santorum writes about Karen turning down the option to have an abortion.

“Karen and I couldn’t rationalize how we could treat this little human life at 20 weeks’ gestation in the womb any different than one 20 weeks old after birth,” Santorum writes. “So instead of giving our child a death sentence, we gave him a name: Gabriel Michael, after the two great archangels.”

The premature baby died two hours after birth. The next day, in a move that has widened the public opinion gap over Santorum, he and his wife took the dead body home so their children could spend time with it before burial.

“Gabriel died as a cherished member of our family,” Santorum writes in “It Takes a Family.”

Karen captured the episode in a 1998 book, “Letters to Gabriel,” describing to her late child the reaction of one of his sisters: “Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, ‘This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.’”

For Santorum, who now has seven kids, holding Gabriel was a lesson about the fragility of human life.

Santorum, wife Karen, and his seven children.

“At that moment, eternity became reality,” Santorum writes. “After Gabriel, being a husband and father was different, being a legislator was different. I was different.”

Conservatism and the common good

Santorum has received a glut of media attention for how his religion shaped his culture-war stances, but allies say his faith has made him a compassionate conservative.

As a senator, Santorum was known for his work on poverty and combating HIV/AIDS. He says such efforts are rooted in the Catholic notion of working for the “common good.”

“Just as original sin is man’s inclination to try to walk alone without God,” Santorum writes in “It Takes a Family,” “individualism is man’s inclination to try to walk alone among his fellows.”

Santorum and those close to him say that impulse motivated his work on welfare reform during the mid-1990s.

Many conservatives “would have taken a fairly harsh view of welfare reform as a waste of taxpayer dollars,” says Rodgers. “Rick’s view was that publicly funded programs are justified when it’s for the least of these, which comes from Catholic social teaching.

“There’s a compassionate side of the Catholic faith that says you prioritize the poor in public policy, and there’s also the side that says work should be a component of that care, that not working strips you of your dignity.”

Santorum championed welfare-to-work programs in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that Clinton signed, as well as the idea of charitable choice, which gave states the ability to partner with religious institutions to address social problems like poverty and addiction.

Success on welfare reform provoked Santorum and a handful of other religious Republicans in Congress to begin discussing conservative solutions to poverty and other social problems that had mostly been the province of liberals.

Among the participants in those sessions was Gerson, who would join Bush in Texas as a speechwriter in the run-up to his 2000 presidential campaign and bring some of the ideas of the congressional group with him.

One was a plan to start a federal program to help level the playing field for religious groups applying for government money to address social problems.

For Santorum, employing faith groups in such a campaign was partially grounded in the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, which calls for addressing problems closest to where they are. In many troubled communities, the thinking goes, the strongest local institutions are churches, ministries and other religious organizations.

The notion of outsourcing government programs to religious institutions also appealed to Santorum’s beliefs about government’s limits.

“The problems currently afflicting us reflect an impoverishment of the soul more than the pocketbook,” Santorum has said, quoting conservative education scholar Chester Finn. “Government is simply not equipped to address problems of the soul.”

The idea for a government faith-based program had critics on the left and right, who feared government-backed religion and a welfare system for churches.

“A lot of people have a hard time getting Rick Santorum because they’re used to a debate between liberalism and complete free market approach and he’s not either of those things,” says Gerson, now a Washington Post columnist.

Bush created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships via an executive order days after his 2001 inauguration. Santorum helped organize a conference to tell religious leaders from across the country about the new program.

“It was on that day that I decided to swallow my constitutional concerns about it,” says Richard Land, who attended the conference despite reservations.

“Seventy-five percent of the people attending the conference were either African-American or Hispanic,” Land says. “They wanted people who lived where the problems were making decisions about what should be done. They were in a lifeboat situation.”

Santorum was also a key Bush ally in creating the president's $15 billion global AIDS initiative, with the senator’s staff sometimes lending office space to rock singer Bono while he was lobbying for the program on Capitol Hill.

President Barack Obama has continued support for both the faith-based office and the global AIDS initiative. The programs are evidence that Santorum can be more than a culture warrior, and their staying power suggests he's gone a long way breaking through JFK’s sealed-off wall between religion and politics.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Politics • Rick Santorum

soundoff (2,874 Responses)
  1. Dale

    Isn't it better to have a catholic president than a cult member (Romney)???

    January 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • SafeJourney

      NO, Not with the with the extreme views that Santorum would bring to government.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • lolwut

      they're actually both cults.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  2. ELH

    Santorum and his devoted followers (yes, followers, not supporters) want nothing less than a theocracy. He would extend the government's control over the physical aspects of your life to taking control of your morality and personal belief system.

    Santorum's vision and his notion of God would become the law of the land. This country was founded in order to prevent such draconian behavior on the part of those who lead us.

    Santorum and his cult are dangerous and need to be contained at every turn.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Dale

      Catholicism is an established religion based on a man and people who existed. Not a cult...unless you're one of those ppl who say all religion is a cult in which case you have no credibility

      January 8, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • rlowens1

      I never trust adults with imaginary friends or those who do not believe in death. You never know what they'll do.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Hello

      good time to learn who created the christian myth and WHY. got a radio date at 10pm ET

      http://caesarsmessiahdoc.com/Radio/radio.html?utm_source=Caesar%27s+Messiah+List&utm_campaign=6ca09a7fb4-NewYear2012&utm_medium=email

      January 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  3. LCSWquilter

    Joe Biden who is a devout Catholic also lost a young child and a wife, with his two sons left in critical condition following a fatal car accident. Yet he did not go about turning the death of his child into political motivation for a pro-life position. Instead he returned home to take care of his sons. Is Rick gallavanting around talking the talk of being pro-life, but not home helping his wife raise the kids?

    January 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  4. Jake S.

    There is something about this man's zealotry that is frightening. It is not edifying to see these politicians pimp their denominationalism in public. Morals and ethics have a place in politics but not this vulgar display of one's persoanl faith. As for his Catholicism, Santorum comes off more like a Baptist than a Catholic. Moral concerns do not involve only the bedroom as he would like to make it seem. Catholic social justice teachings do not square with Santorum's politics and I suggest he follow more the example of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker Movement than Adam Smith.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Hello

      you don't need to believe in mythic tales to be moral... just human.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  5. Agnostic lady

    I don't understand why people think Christianity is bad and wants to keep it away from politics. Christianity is nothing but love and good stuff. Jesus was an awesome historic person and taught us good stuff. There's nothing wrong with Christianity. Christianity has no laws regards to forcing people with anything, no dietary laws, no strict sabbath law etc.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • binky42

      But Santorum does want to force people to live a certain way. He basically wants to run the country out of everyone's bedroom. Read about some of the things this guy wants to do. It will shock you. For example, he wants to ban birth control!

      January 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Simone-Bergdoff

      Please go and check the Old Testament, Deuteronomy, Mark, Luke, Mathew. Chritianity is full of violence. Just keeping on repeating the mantra of "love" "love" "love" does not make it so. Jesus himself said, "...I bring you sword..."
      Thank God I left Christianity.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • binky42

      Just realized you were being sarcastic. Never mind

      January 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Prometheus

      Somehow, I suspect that you are neither an agnostic, nor well-read. Christianity is no more benign than any other metastizing cancer.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Prometheus

      binky42, if her post was meant to be sarcasm, it was truly a terrible attempt.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  6. JC in Western U.S.

    Troll Alert. The person posting as "Grandma" is a troll. Don't give him the satisfaction of a response.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  7. Julia Rickity

    Guys, if we think we really have made progress in this world and we do have, we need to stop being so ultra-religious. It seems that after 911, all these creeps have been taking the cue of Evengelical Christians, Zionist Jews and trashing the other countries and trying to "bring the democracies" to the other countries and insisting them to separate islamism and politicis binding. Now we are going in the same direction. Stop preaching and start practicing, US!

    January 8, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  8. Nicoli Pi

    God told me to not vote for Santorum.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Hello

      every religious party member has stated at one time or another, that god told him or her to run for office.
      Kinda makes you wonder about the sanity of the religious party members.

      January 8, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  9. Paramus, NJ

    I love Bergen County's Blue Laws where the government force retail stores to be closed on holy Sundays 🙂

    January 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Nicoli Pi

      Saturday is the Sabbath. Things got changed around for convenience. How's that feel?

      January 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Agnostic lady

      Sunday is the Christian sabbath. Monday is the first day of the week of going back to school and work. WeekEND is Saturday & Sunday. Don't get fooled by the U.S. calendars showing Sunday as first day of the week because Jews makes the calendars, that's why they put Jewish holidays on U.S. calendars too when only being 2% of the population.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Hello

      Texas dumped its all its Blue Laws except the booze after midnight Saturdays...hope that goes too.

      I remeber when the now gone Gibson's stores had to rope off sections of the store on Sundays so no one would try to by the
      Blue Law banned goods.. it was so funny...It was a sin to buy toilet paper...on Sunday...

      January 8, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Raven

      Just what we need a redux of this radical! Him and Toomey (not to metnion clueless Corbett in the Governor's Mansion) and we might as well just write-off the entire Commonwealth as a Grover Norquist bastion.

      July 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  10. Pest

    I'm not Catholic, yet he wants to force me to abide the tenets of Catholicism. This is no different from what the Islamofascists do.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Mary

      He is not forcing his religion. Only wants to give our country values that we lost – 50 million babies were murdered in 35 years. Why do you think our economy is in such a mess? Let's kill somemore and see where we are in 10 years. Read the history of the Roman Empire – kind of resembles the US? See where they ended up. Catholic Christian values have been around for 2,000 years. Funny how Christianity has survived but no government has lasted that long.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • SafeJourney

      Mary, Santorums views are way to extreme. He will not be elected .

      January 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  11. Speakieforlife

    Dear Cnn,
    You can not have a Mass without a Priest, but, ah, nice try to make the Mass sound really controversial.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  12. NJ

    Our founding fathers would be happy about keeping state and church together. We are a nation under God.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Bob

      You forgot the sarcasm tag.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • binky42

      Maybe you should read about what some of the founding fathers had to say about organized religion. Start with the letters of Thomas Jefferson, and then maybe you can stop kidding yourself. I have no idea why people started assuming they were pro-religion, because most of them were quite outspoken AGAINST organized religion.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Nicoli Pi

      "Under God" was pencilied in at a later date

      January 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • joe

      That was a long time ago. Before blacks had rights. Before women could vote. Are our values really the same today as when the founding fathers lived?

      January 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Rob Hannigan

      Not all founding fathers some of them for that reason put in a law freedom of religion. An religion should not effect some one's vote. It has no pull or affect on me.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Jon

      "One nation under God" was added in 1954 in the midst of Communist paranoia. Also study your history and see that you can't say "the founding fathers" like they all agreed. They all had very different points of view and even changed their own minds about serious issues many times. One of those issues in which they were divided was "church and state."

      January 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Hello

      and the religious party wants to make sure the citizens UNDER god are still getting ==> from god everyday with their help.

      January 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  13. jorn

    republicans are against pro choice until their mistresses get pregnant.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  14. ThinkAgain

    We need to abolish the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program. It is in direct violation of the First Amendment's prohibition on the government establishing a religion.

    We all know that the only reason GW Bush started this program was to throw a bone to the evangelicals. It needs to go NOW!

    January 8, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Daniel

      Absolutely!!

      January 8, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Mary

      Faith based organizations are more successful than government giving jobs to their friends. Take a look at history. Faith based organizations take care of people not themselves. Who founded the first schools, hospital and orphanages in the US? Oh yeah – the Catholic Church. Wow – study real history – not made up by someone who likes to write fiction.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Jon

      Judge the programs on whether or not they work, not based on a religious connection. This coming from a liberal atheist, btw. Stop giving the rest of us a bad name by making the same mistakes republicans make (judging book by its cover).

      January 8, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Hello

      its a bone we keep paying and paying for... thousands of so called church schools were created by scam artists so they zuck in the funds and make the behind the closed doors owners filthy rich...
      They also own multi million dollar corps that are tax free for the members of those churches.

      it is a scam... gone way out of hand.

      January 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  15. F

    I am 57 and have no doubt that I will ever see a Cathlic or a Mormon president as long as there is a pope and living Mormon prophet.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  16. Marty

    Don't get excited. He is unelectable with that crazy religion crap.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  17. just a dude

    oh no this guy is nuts! Church and state are seperate so get out of here with that Santorum

    January 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  18. rjo3491

    .

    January 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  19. Jesus

    Don't look at me, I didn't write the bible. It was made 60 years after I died.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Dan613

      well, in fact you, for the most part, were also made of tales and pagan myths too, so, no much jesus anyways...

      January 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • F

      More like 300 yrs. after.

      January 8, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  20. gwats

    If Rick's Catholic Faith is this strong in him, let him pursue it full time.... as a Priest.
    Jesus shunned the Politically ambitious of his day, saying the his Kingdom 'Was no part of this World" Worship freely in Churches, Mosques, Temples in America. Freedom of Worship is guaranteed here, but leave your extreme views outside when you visit the White House, boy. Any attempt to marry the two is doomed to failure.

    January 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.