Born in Glen Cove, N.Y., John McCandlish Phillips was a journalist for The New York Times for 21 years (1952-1973) and served as a faithful Christian until his death at 85 from pneumonia. Phillips most notable work for The New York Times inspired the 2001 film “The Believer,” when he uncovered the Orthodox Jewish heritage of Daniel Burros, a prominent member of both the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. Phillips was given the Page One Award from the Newspaper Guild of New York for the article exposing Burros.
Phillips was also known for the lyrical quality in his writing, an eye for offbeat feature stories and his keen observations in writing profiles about people. He demonstrated a love for humanity in the way he portrayed New Yorkers and the City of New York in particular. The former managing editor Arthur Gelb once called Phillips, "the most original stylist I'd ever edited." Another colleague at The Times and now a noted author, Gay Talese, said in a 1997 profile in The New Yorker titled “The Man Who Disappeared” that Phillips was the “Ted Williams of the young reporters” at the Times. “There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips,” Talese said. “Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize. He is not interested in demeaning people. …He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer. Phillips is not even in the same jungle.”
The central point of Phillips life was his Christian faith. He became a Christian as a young man while in the US Army. After he became a star reporter at The Times he was offered jobs at rival newspapers during the heyday of gonzo journalism and new journalists such as Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson. But he chose to stay at The Times. And he kept a large Bible on his desk. In 1962, Phillips helped to found the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, an evangelical church in Manhattan that continues to minister in Manhattan.
Phillips believed strongly in the role of the press as truth-teller and watch-dog. He understood how journalistic freedom and religious freedom played starring twin roles in maintaining a liberal democracy and a free society. And Phillips believed journalists bore a great responsibility as well as privilege in their positions. Phillips wrote, "The irreducible, elementary, primary, essential requirement of news is that it be factually accurate. The journalist who is a Christian will be as accurate and balanced and fair and faithful to facts as possible. That journalist will not lie, will not distort, will not make things up, and will not embroider the story for effect or state it out of balance." The Phillips Journalism Institute strives to embody this ideal.