January 18th, 2012
11:20 AM ET

Evangelical for Mitt: A South Carolina power broker promotes the frontrunner

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

Tune in Thursday at 8 p.m. ET for the CNN/Southern Republican Presidential Debate hosted by John King and follow it on Twitter at #CNNDebate. For real-time coverage of the South Carolina primary, go to CNNPolitics.com or to the CNN apps or CNN mobile web site.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (CNN) – You’ve probably never heard of her, but Cindy Costa’s tablemates at a Sunday prayer breakfast here hint at her influence.

Inside a hotel ballroom bulging with 400 socially conservative activists, Costa is seated with the headliners: White House hopeful Rick Perry and political operative Ralph Reed.

And when Rick Santorum and his wife Karen arrive at the Sheraton’s Ballroom E about 10 minutes into the program, they join her table, too.

It’s doubtful that many of the press photographers descending around Costa to snap pictures of Santorum and Perry, heads bowed in prayer, could identify her. But the power players seated around Costa know she’s a South Carolina Republican institution.

“In a critical early primary state, Cindy has bridged the historic divide between faith-based grassroots activists of the party and the old guard,” says Reed, who’s known her for 20 years. “That can be a much more difficult mating dance than it appears.”

Indeed, with the South Carolina presidential primary just days away, Costa – perhaps more than anyone in the state – embodies the mix of establishment party power and evangelical fervor that will determine the outcome here.

If she has her way, that outcome will be a victory for the candidate whose name she wears in a bright blue pin in her lapel: Mitt Romney. Costa says her support for the candidate is largely rooted in her evangelical Christian faith.

For 15 years, Costa has served on the 150-member Republican National Committee, the party’s governing body. But she says it’s her relationship with God, not politics, that guides her life.

“Happy New Year. God bless you!” she tells Republican activists swinging by her table at the prayer breakfast to say hello.

“My faith is the most important thing – my husband and family are second,” the mother of four says later, crossing the street outside the Sheraton to pick up her credentials for the following night’s presidential debate.

For Costa, Romney is a brother in Christ and a devoted family man – and the one candidate with the intellect and organization to defeat President Obama. “If Romney gets the right Congress,” she tells many activists she meets, “you’re looking at another Ronald Reagan.”

And yet Costa is clear-eyed about the challenges the former Massachusetts governor faces among many Bible Belt evangelicals, who are expected to constitute around 60% of voters in the Saturday primary here. Many are wary of Romney’s religion and past support for abortion rights.

Despite Romney’s strong showing in recent South Carolina polls, more than a few activists at the Sheraton are backing Santorum, the dyed-in-the wool culture warrior.

Whether Costa can coax people like them over to her side will go a long way in determining whether South Carolina anoints Romney as the all-but-certain Republican nominee or derails his march to the nomination, handing a victory to Santorum, Perry or Newt Gingrich.

No one knows that more than the Romney campaign, with senior campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom calling Costa a “good friend to Mitt and Ann Romney.”

“She's very down to earth, honest and sincere,” Fehrnstrom says. “Having her on the team is a big boost for us.”

For Costa, any concerns about Romney’s Mormonism were put to rest at a 2008 forum she attended in upstate South Carolina, an evangelical stronghold, at which the candidate spent half a day taking questions from pastors.

“They asked who he thought Jesus Christ was, and his answer was that Jesus Christ was his Lord and savior,” Costa says. “And I said, ‘OK, here we are. That’s what I believe.’”

Many evangelicals part company with Costa on that point. Though Mormons consider themselves to be Christian, surveys show that about half of white evangelicals don't think they are.

“I will let Romney define who he is,” Costa says. “If he says Jesus Christ is his Lord and savior, who am I to say ‘No, he’s not?’”

Roots of Mormon support

There are other reasons Costa is keen on Romney and comfortable with his religion. A day spent campaigning with Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, and a Romney daughter-in-law, Mary, in 2008 made Costa’s support for the candidate personal.

The committeewoman crisscrossed South Carolina with Ann and Mary on a campaign bus, with Ann delivering speeches at stops along the way.

“Relationships are a powerful thing,” Costa says. “When I was on the bus with them, I just felt like I was with people in my church. I felt like they were no different than me.”

Four years ago, plenty of other South Carolina evangelicals appeared to feel differently, with Romney placing fourth behind John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.

Costa, for her part, tends to be open to people from other religions. Her stepfather, who she has called “Dad” since he moved in with her family when she was 2, is Jewish.

Her mother had Southern Baptist roots, and the couple largely ignored both traditions, making for a secular household. But when an aunt took 7-year-old Cindy to a Baptist church one Sunday, she was hooked – though not necessarily on Jesus.

Costa says she grew up poor – her stepdad was a mail sorter – and she fell hard for the church’s supplies of crayons and orange juice.

The Charleston church’s Sunday School teacher, whom Costa knew as Miss Hopkins, would pick her up from home and take her to church every Sunday morning for the next decade.

“She saw a child that needs support in a household where she’d not been given that opportunity,” Costa says. “She will get credit for me in heaven.”

Costa’s dad didn’t bring up his Judaism much, except when his adolescent stepdaughter once asked why he hadn’t formally adopted her. “I didn’t want you to live with a Jewish name because I know it could be a really negative thing,” he told her. “It could affect who would even date you.”

Costa was grateful: “What great love that he was looking out for me.”

‘A culture in a moral decline’

Costa wasn’t too interested in politics until she saw Ronald Reagan. It was 1976, and he’d come to the Charleston County Republican Convention seeking support for his bid to wrest the party’s nomination from President Ford.

Smitten by Reagan, the 20-year-old Costa was miffed to find she couldn’t get a seat as a delegate at the convention. The reason: Her voting precinct had never been organized.

So Costa vowed to organize it, setting in motion her decades-long rise through county, state and national party machinery.

A stay-at-home mom in the 1980s, her budding activism was motivated largely by her born-again faith and her growing family. The fledgling “family values” movement, bent on restoring school prayer and overturning Roe v. Wade, spoke to her.

When Costa stumbled upon Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” on TV, she thought she’d found President Reagan’s successor: “He was the first one that seared into my heart that we were a culture in a moral decline.

“That was around the time we found out about AIDS, and Robertson was telling people you can’t do this,” she says, referring to homosexuality. “It seems like a simple thing, but no one wants to say that because it could hurt someone’s feelings.”

Costa volunteered for Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign. Though the candidate faded after a strong finish in Iowa, he put evangelicals like Costa on the political map.

She would go on to help launch the South Carolina chapter of the Christian Coalition, which rose from the ashes of Robertson’s campaign, and she became state prayer chairman for the group in the 1990s.

Her eldest daughter, Jenny, remembers watching her parents being interviewed on NBC News on Election Night 1994 about the swelling ranks of evangelical voters. Hours later, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

“There were some evangelicals at the time saying that politics is dirty and they should stay out of it,” says Jenny Costa Honeycutt, now a Charleston lawyer who was 15 at the time. “And my parents were willing to stand up and be heard. That was a big night for me.”

For Cindy Costa, the moral drift that Pat Robertson discerned wasn’t limited to politics. She saw it in her church life, too.

The same year she joined Robertson’s campaign, the Costas left their longtime Episcopal church amid talk that Episcopalians would start ordaining gay clergy.

“Once you do that, you have to ordain any sinful person,” says Costa, who wound up co-founding a nondenominational, evangelical-style church with her husband Louis and others in James Island, just south of Charleston. “The Bible is very clear on that.

“You start hacking up the Bible and take out this little thing you don’t like and that little thing, and you have something that’s not the Bible anymore.”

All together now

If she sometimes talks like a culture warrior, Costa hardly looks the part.

A former Mrs. South Carolina who is often introduced as a “true Charleston belle” at political events, Costa has high cheekbones, shoulder-length blonde hair and looks at least a decade younger than her 56 years.

The wife of a plastic surgeon, she says she's "benefitted from her husband's services" but won't discuss specifics.

She favors black scarves, knee-high boots and Ann Taylor dresses that are inexpensive enough that she can discard them with a clear conscience after a single season.

Costa, in other words, has the style of a card-carrying member of the national political establishment, which she officially joined in 1996 when she was first elected as one of the state’s three members of the RNC. (She is currently seeking a fifth four-year term.)

Like many of the political rebels who campaigned for Robertson against George H.W. Bush almost 25 years ago, Costa is now a party insider, balancing ideological stances on abortion with practical concerns like party unity.

“That’s a big change,” says Reed, who led the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. “These are no longer folks with funny hats whose noses are pressed against the glass of the party. Now they’re on the inside, they’re the party leaders.”

At a pre-debate reception on Monday sponsored by Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Costa watches Reed and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint throw out rhetorical red meat for a crowd of conservative donors before taking the floor herself.

But Costa strikes a decidedly different tone, calling on fellow Republicans to start thinking about the need for party unity after the brutal primary season passes.

“The eyes of the nation are on us tonight,” she says. “So behave yourselves, and smile for the cameras.”

Afterward, walking to a Faith and Freedom Coalition rally at which she’ll lead the Pledge of Allegiance before the five remaining Republican presidential candidates deliver remarks before the debate, Costa says the quest for unity is a hallmark of her life that’s rooted in the Bible.

She explains how she and her husband apply the principal at the plastic surgery center they run in Charleston, asking employees to resolve differences among themselves before coming to them for help. Cindy is the center's business administrator.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Costa’s pursuit of party unity – a preoccupation for any establishment leader - as much as her support for Mitt Romney, who many grassroots conservatives distrust in part because of his establishment backing.

After watching Romney deliver a well-received speech at the pre-debate rally, she darts off to be interviewed by a young evangelical radio host who broadcasts in the most solidly evangelical part of South Carolina, around Spartanburg and Greenville.

The host, Josh Kimbrell, is a Santorum supporter but asks Costa to talk about Romney.

“I had the opportunity to do a bus trip across the state with Ann Romney, and it was a real bonding experience,” she says, leaning into the microphone and wearing a pair of big headphones upside down so it doesn't mess up her hair before the debate.

“I’ve come to respect the family tremendously and just know he’d be a great president.”

When Kimbrell asks what she expects to happen after Saturday’s primary, Costa again picks up the banner of unity, sounding about as far away from a Pat Robertson culture warrior as you could imagine.

“As Republicans, we need to be winsome in our message, be kind and loving,” she says.

“There’s no reason to be hateful. That’s just not who we are.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Politics • South Carolina

soundoff (1,003 Responses)
  1. Memo from Jesus

    Money changers in the temple.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  2. Of a truth...

    Oh my goodness, she thinks Christian beliefs are the same as Morman beliefs? She must have hit her head when she fell out of the pew. Mormans believe that every person can become a god. They believe that God and Jesus were both mortal men and became a god because of the good works that they did. Mitt Romney, Glen Beck, etc all believe the same thing...that they can become gods that are equal with Jehovah and Jesus Christ. Research the Morman faith before backing Romney.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • A Little Help


      January 18, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Mormonism isn't any more ridiculous than the other supernatural-based dogmatic systems. It's leader has, however been fully exposed as a fraud (check into his lies regarding his translation of cryptic texts), which makes it even more puzzling that there are still millions of followers of the religion.

      It does however point out that truth is not a central requirement in gathering followers of a religion.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • And?

      So what? If I subscribed to religion, it seems like something I would want to believe. Besides, most Christian teachings are at odds with their own Bible. The idea of the Trinity as it's understood by most is absurd. Based on the baptism account, I would say Mormons are one of the few that have that right Biblically. And don't Christians believe they're the children of God? Why is it farfetched, when the Bible actually says "ye are gods" to assume that children of God can become gods themselves? And didn't Christ admonish his followers to do what he taught? If you don't follow His teachings, when He comes back didn't He say He'd reject you? The whole belief-only idea is ludicrous. And if it wasn't, Romney's already professed Christ is His Savior, so he's already saved. Someone needs to read His Bible and stop attending Anti-Mormon sermons (funny that churches dedicate sermons to bear false witness and sew hatred instead of preaching what they believe the truth to be... shouldn't your beliefs be able to stand on their own, despite the existance of Mormons?). All that said, Romney's still not a good candidate, but it has nothing to do with his religion.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  3. rick

    To an evangelical, money is more important than what demon you worship.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  4. zulfahmed

    American people are so prejudiced and ignorant about the world, fed as they are on Zionist media, that they are happy to hate Muslims and you have Michelle Bachmann just BALDLY lying about Ahmadinejad and how he poses an existential threat to Israel. And bin Laden had nothing to do with 9/11 but Americans were cheering when he was killed in the streets out of bloodlust. It's pretty disgusting.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Puzzled

      I thought he was killed in his living room.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Norman

      At any rate, the armpit of the world is centered on Iran. Israel is part of it too. If you could all have at each other without affecting the rest of us I'd say "Go to it!".

      January 18, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • And?

      I won't argue that Americans are brainwashed and ignorant, many of us are. That said, you're obviously brainwashed as well. Your terminology betrays your intentions.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Wow, and you call us predjudiced and ignorant. That's pretty funny. And what media were you fed on @zulfahmed?

      January 18, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  5. W.G.

    She´s motivated by her evangelical faith and she´s backing a momon ?? Talk about the rats jumping a sinking ship !
    (no pun intended )

    January 18, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Willie12345

      And you point being ?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • bnb42

      Pun's are not funny... I should know I told ten puns to a group of people to see if any would get a laugh....

      No pun in ten did.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • rick

      You don't understand.....it was a REALLY big check..

      January 18, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  6. Zulf Ahmed

    That Iran was not building a nuclear bomb was clear all along, so the US government and politicians were lying about this all along. IAEA has not detected any diversion of uranium from their nuclear power facilities and 20% enrichment is not sufficient for a bomb. They are signatories to the non-proliferation act and Israel is not. And yet, there is great effort to lie about them to attack them. This is the manipulative behavior of the Israel-centric neoconservatives who believe that the "noble lie" is a necessity. The truth is that no lie is ever noble, and these people planned and executed the 9/11 false flag.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Well thanks for that. I wasn't sure if you were retarded, but now I know.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Norman

      Why should the world trust yet another Islamic mini-state with nuclear materials and an enrichment program? Pakistan found it in their interest to build nuclear weapons. Why not Iran?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • jo jo

      Don't post here anymore. I think you are in the wrong forum. The crap you are writing about makes no sense ! So, stop it !

      January 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  7. Credulity

    “They asked who he thought Jesus Christ was, and his answer was that Jesus Christ was his Lord and savior,” Costa says. “And I said, ‘OK, here we are. That’s what I believe.’” Cindy needs to ask a few questions. What version of Jesus Christ is Mitt referring to? In what sense is he Mitt's Lord? What has he saved Mitt from? What has he saved Mitt for? For all Cindy knows, Mitt is talking about his cat.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Mr. Whiskers has SPOKEN! All hail Mr. Whiskers!

      January 18, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Zom B


      January 18, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  8. Jesus was a Socialist

    She is probably going to use the tax money she saves for breast enhancement.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  9. george in texas

    we must endure this republican dance every 4 years.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • bnb42

      Yeah... But I keep get Lap Dances from Newt!

      January 18, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • @usxpatriate

      Yes, if we don't they'll force us to watch their 0rgy instead.... Such horror.... So many little boys.....

      January 18, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  10. Father Guido Sarduci

    If you believe any of the crap coming from this evangelical pop tart, I have a bill from the last brunch I will sell you.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Dude! I haven't heard from you since the 70's!! Where have you been?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  11. Stacey

    How can any Christian vote for this guy? He is pro-choice! As an atheist I am amazed at how disgusting these Christians are! Have they read the bible? Did they see anything about "thou shall not kill"? I am so sick and tired of Republicans and Democrats.

    On top of that, Romney is for NDAA 2012.. Guess what, you dumb Christians, who do you think a repressive goes after first?

    January 18, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Ian

      The translation is "murder" not "kill. Aside from that, I have issues with evangelicals getting behind him as mormonism is not Christianty. Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy all have "relatively" the same core beliefs. Mormons do not, regardless of their campaigns to tell people otherwise. Ask them about the "plates". Ask them if they truly think Christ is God when he was on earth as a man or if He is man-God on this planet. Why did the book of mormon rip off the King James verison of the Bible and Smith claim it was his own? That's my beef with evangelicals getting behind Romney.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do you REALLY think Christians are against a woman's right to choose? I have news for you. You're mistaken. There are many Christians who do not wish to see R v W overturned. They aren't "pro-abortion", as some idiots would have you believe. They simply don't think it should be a decision made by the government. They actually realize that women have brains and are the best ones to decide what is right for themselves.

      January 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  12. Joe

    Republicans really use race as a secondary motive, their primary is money through redistribution of wealth to the 1% through markets they declare as "FREE MARKETS" that are nothing more than monopoly's controlled by US commerce legislation, Patent Law, Copy Right Law, and banking. So another words they'll do business with anyone as long as they don't mind leaving after they rob you blind.

    Republican SPEAK EXAMPLE – A "RIGHT TO WORK" law basically makes it illegal for anyone to collective bargain and gives all power to the corporations. Yet the call it right to work so it sounds like its a workers rights law!!!! Every policy they have is called or referred to as "FREEDOM, LIBERTY" OR THE LANGUAGE USED GIVES THE APPERANCE OF LIBERTY. BUT ITS ONLY LIBERTY FOR THE BIG CORPORATIONS ALL THE REGULATIONS CONTROL WHO THE PLAYERS SO THEY KEEP CONTROL

    January 18, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  13. winstonsmith

    This woman probably believes in her faith about as much as she does in its ability to net her fame and $$$ and contacts.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  14. Joe

    So I think it's safe to say, "Society must separate Church & State for everyone's sake!!!!!!! But the church's have crepted into politics on all fronts. WE AS PEOPLE OF ALL FAITHS MUST REALIZE THIS CANNOT LET HAPPEN, IT KILLS EVERYONE'S BROTHER'S SISTER' FATHER'S MOTHERS'

    January 18, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • bnb42

      If anybody kills my Brother's sister's father's mother there have to answer to ME....

      She owes me Money!

      January 18, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • bnb42

      They'll.* (not there)

      January 18, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • JoJo

      (BROTHER'S SISTER' FATHER'S MOTHERS').......this is a trick question. And the answer: your aunt. Right?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  15. I AM

    As a believer myself, I question Cindy Costa's agenda and also her faith. I see the people she hangs around with. She likes to be in the lime light. Is she really going to persuade evangelical believers to vote for Romney? I doubt it.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  16. Cindy

    This sounds like one dumb woman. In SC the only thing wrong with Obama is that he is a black man. They are congratulating Gingrich for putting Juan Williams, that uppety black man, in his place. They are promoting a Mormon, a man that took a Mormon oath against the US, rather than voting for a Christian black man.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Willie12345

      What oath against the US ?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Mittens

      It's a well-known secret oath that Mormons take secretly and in secret. Don't tell anyone.

      January 18, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  17. Joe

    Brain'ssssssssssssssssss Go Zombie Republicans keep up the good work selling yourself out pretending your part of the 1% or will benefit over others if you follow their drum beat!!!!! SUCKERS, BUT THAT IS COMING FROM A FORMER ZOMBIE SUCKER SO DONT TAKE IT PERSONAL....

    January 18, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  18. Zulf Ahmed

    The sickness of this planet shows itself clearly in the 9/11 false flag and the resulting drama in people's minds, but not in reality, about the forces at play in the modern world. This false flag had nothing to do with Muslims. But blaming the Muslims ALLOWS people in the west to sleep easier with 655,000 civilians killed in Iraqi by the US/NATO military. THAT is a great atrocity, far greater numerically compared to 9/11, and even after this, after killing 300 children in Gaza, people in New York could march around with signs that said "Islam=Cult of Hate". The universe is actually an eternal four-dimensional sphere of fixed radius, it has existed infinite time in the past, and there was never a creator-God of the universe, for when could such a God have created it? We must uproot and destroy the false Abrahamic religions that divide the single human race and embrace the spiritual ideals of Truth, Justice, and Freedom that is the birthright of 7 billion of our race.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      While I agree with your "uproot and destroy the false Abrahamic religions that divide the single human race and embrace the spiritual ideals of Truth, Justice, and Freedom that is the birthright of 7 billion of our race." Your tone comes across as very fascist. The other stuff just comes across as slightly wacko. Who killed 300 children in gaza? Not the U.S. 655,000 civilians killed in Iraq by the U.S./NATO? That number sounds far-fetched. I've seen it touted before, but I still find it unlikely unless you are counting the goats as people too. War is not pretty, civilians unfortunatly get in the way or are in the wrong place at the wrong time. If people didn't die, it wouldn't be called war.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • JoJo

      Huh! Yeah ! The fourth dimension. Sphere of fixed radius. Very good. What is the name of that drug you took before writing this clap-trap ?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • SteveX

      @zulfahmed – sounds like you are spouting the mis-information that is being fed to you. While there is little doubt about the political nature of your post, the numbers of Iraq Civilian casualties (since 2003) is estimated between 104,796 and 114,470. That's FAR less than the ridiculous number you posted. It's a number that is WAY TOO HIGH, but war is ugly, and many of those were KILLED by their own countrymen and not US/NATO forces. I'm continually amazed at how much inaccurate info is posted in these comments by folks who NEVER CHECK THE FACTS first !!

      January 18, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  19. Joe

    The Christian right wing fringe is just another corrupt corporation that takes advantage of it's consumers, that is people that go to church. Unfortunately we've got alot of people so disenfranchised that they follow corrupt church leaders anywhere. But it's no different than any other business with their hand out for government benefits

    January 18, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • rick

      The devil works in very devious ways through others.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  20. HawaiiGuest

    Just look at all those pictures. In most she looks like a smiling plastic person with absolutely nothing behind her eyes. In others she looks almost demonic and just waiting for some unsuspecting fool to get close enough.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:02 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.