Covering Methodist preschool kerfuffle, Washington Post gives readers just one side


There's this preschool, you see, that's housed in a United Methodist congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the tony suburbs which seem to ring Washington, D.C.

For years, we're told by The Washington Post, the school was rather secular and all was well. Parents pitched in to help run the "cooperative" nursery school, and everyone, with or without a religion, felt welcome.

Now, however, the United Methodist pastor of the United Methodist congregation that sponsors the Concord-St. Andrew’s Cooperative Nursery School wants to teach the children enrolled there about the Christian faith.

Cue the scrupulously balanced Washington Post story on all this, headlined, "‘A breach of trust’: A preschool, a church and a change in mission."

Wait, "balanced"? Not exactly:

A small preschool in Bethesda has a big problem on its hands, and God -- or at least teaching about God -- is at the center of it.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Concord-St. Andrew’s Cooperative Nursery School has been educating young children without including much, or anything, in the way of religious instruction, say numerous parents at the school, some of whom attended when they were children. That secular approach was fine with many at the close-knit school, where families and teachers come from a range of religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds and find harmony in their divergent viewpoints.

Comes now the Rev. Sue Brown, a United Methodist cleric of more than 20 years' service in the Washington, D.C., metro area, who has been pastor at Concord-St. Andrews since 2014. Because the school is a ministry of the church -- it says so on the website linked above -- Brown has instructed Amy Forman, who directs the school, to incorporate Christian teaching into daily lesson plans. Religious ministries tend to do this sort of thing.

If the Post is to be believed, there's not a lot of joy over the decision. One typical comment:

“It feels like a crusade where they’re trying to bring God to the godless nursery school,” said Kate Mueller, who is Catholic and has a 3-year-old daughter in the school. “It took so much time and energy and devotion to build what is there now, and now it’s being stomped on.”

I'm not at all sure where parent Mueller's Catholicism lies on the post-Vatican II spectrum, but "feels like a crusade" and a "godless nursery school" that's sponsored by a Christian church? How does an editor publish a statement such as this without asking a reporter whether or not this Catholic parent understands what a church-related school is about.

Three parents are quoted in the story, and not a single voice -- not one -- supports the actions Brown has taken.

To be fair, Brown and Forman declined the chance to tell their side to the Post reporter, and I'd count that as a huge mistake. (I personally am a big believer in the need for, and the positive impact of, good media relations for a congregation, and wrote a long article about this for Adventist Review magazine a few years back. It's denomination-specific, but I believe the basic principles apply across the board.)

Again, how does an editor approve a story such as this, without even one pro-Brown voice?

There's an ongoing debate in journalism about whether or not all subjects need or merit an even-handed approach from reporters. As we of GetReligion have noted innumerable times, this one-side-fits-all doctrine is called "Kellerism," after the former New York Times editor, Bill Keller, who first enunciated it.

But I would submit that in this case, the Kellerism doctrine has to be shoehorned in. Again, while I believe it's regrettable that Brown and Forman didn't speak to the Post, surely the reporter (or their editor) could have seen this on the school's aforementioned website:

The school was established in 1958 as a community outreach ministry of Concord-St. Andrew's United Methodist Church. It is a non-denominational preschool and includes teachers and children of all faiths carefully respecting each other. [Emphasis added]

A "community outreach ministry," even in the postmodern world of mainline Protestantism, suggests a church seeking to influence its neighbors. That's fine. It's what churches do. Indeed, the Post gives a grudging acknowledgment of this:

None of the parents questions whether the church has the authority to change the school’s mission. But they still wonder why it is happening now, when they had been given no indication the church was unhappy with how the school operated.

Again -- at the risk of harping on this -- access to the media with either Brown or Forman might have helped clarify things. And, I certainly understand where some non-Christian parents (one of those pulling their children out is Jewish) might take umbrage at having religious instruction inserted into the process.

Without any voices supporting the church pastor's decision, however -- absent any indication that there is zero support for the proposed changes -- the story suggests nothing as much as the ire of a few suburbanites because a Christian church woke up and decided to carry out its mission.

That's not the journalism one might expect from a newspaper whose owners are now championing its role in illuminating complex times. Democracy, to borrow from the paper's current motto, may not be the only thing that "dies in darkness." Without a deeper dive in reporting stories such as this, balanced journalism might succumb, too.

UPDATE: After I reached out to him via Twitter, Washington Post reporter Joe Heim, who wrote the story, replied, "Story should have included that efforts to find happy parents were unsuccessful. Despite  non response to multiple efforts to reach and get comment from the pastor (3 phone calls/2 emails) I did represent the church's position in statements they provided to parents."

IMAGE ABOVE: U.S. Navy preschool in Hawaii. (Dept. of Defense photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Please respect our Commenting Policy