Cathy Lynn Grossman

RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)

RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)

By now, news of the editorial bloodbath at Religion News Service is into its fourth day. The bare facts: A respected editor was ousted with apparently no warning or announced cause; two more veteran staff members quit within three days, two others had recently been let go and many others are looking to leave.

There’s a been a wave of postings on the Religion News Association’s members Facebook page. The topics: a campaign by current and former RNS employees to tell their story and –- in an unrelated matter –- a pending $4 million deal by which RNS material would be distributed by the Associated Press.

The conflict appears to have begun with two people: Tom Gallagher, the publisher of the Religion News Service and CEO of the Religion News Foundation, and Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Before arriving at RNS in November 2016, Gallagher was a corporate lawyer and one-time volunteer with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. He had been a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter since 2009. His detractors note that he has zero full-time, mainstream news experience (it’s certainly missing from his bio here). Also, the foundation manages RNS, which has about 100 media subscribers, and the Religion News Association, the global network of religion reporters. Its business office is housed at the University of Missouri and employees are paid through the financial structures of the university.

“I think we all knew when he was hired he didn’t have a ton of daily journalism experience,” Kimberly Winston Ligocki, a (now former) RNS national reporter based in California, told me. “We figured he would learn on the job. The thinking was he was hired more for his expertise with money and fundraising, which we needed.”

When I got ahold of Gallagher Wednesday morning, he refused comment on the RNS hirings and firings. When I asked him about his background, he said, “I have to run,” before hanging up.

When Gallagher came on board, RNS was already under the leadership of editor Jerome Socolovsky, a religion reporter for Voice of America and a multi-lingual correspondent for NPR, based in Spain. Socolovsky was hired in the fall of 2015.

This is a long, complicated story. But where did the conflict begin?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

For those in Godbeat circles, many of the bylines splashed across today's front pages are extremely familiar.

I'm talking about names such as William Lobdell and Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Gayle White of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today.

All of those veteran religion writers — just to name a few — wrote their respective papers' major obituaries marking Wednesday's death of the Rev. Billy Graham at age 99.

But here's what might surprise many ordinary readers: None of them has worked for those papers in years. 

"I must have written and updated a whole suite of advance obit stories on Graham at least three times over 15 years," Grossman said. "I last polished up the package in 2013, in the week before I left the paper on a buyout. However, I stayed in touch with USAT editors (and) emailed them where fixes/changes might be needed over the years."

Welcome to the concept of the "prepared obit."

Here's what that means: News organizations put together obits in advance for certain prominent people, such as presidents, movie stars and — in the case of Graham — world-famous preachers. That way, they're prepared (at least somewhat) if the person dies 10 minutes before deadline.

A New York Times obituary writer explained it this way in a 2014 piece:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

On the day after Fourth of July, four Godbeat developments you'll want to know about

On the day after Fourth of July, four Godbeat developments you'll want to know about

Welp. It was quite a Fourth of July here in Oklahoma City.

Perhaps you heard the news about Thunder superstar Kevin Durant's Independence Day.

Yes, there's a religion angle. But we'll save that for a post later this week from our own tmatt, GetReligion's resident expert on faith and the NBA.

As I join my fellow Oklahomans in mourning Durant's departure, the day after the Fourth of July (that would make it July 5, right?) seems like an opportune time to update readers on four key developments on the Godbeat:

1. The Religion Newswriters Association is no more.

No, the professional organization for Godbeat pros has not disbanded. It's thriving, in fact. But it has a new name: Religion News Association.

Here's how a news release from RNA (yes, that acronym is still correct) explains the change:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Weekend think pieces: Concerning 'evangelicals' and the quest for better exit polls

Weekend think pieces: Concerning 'evangelicals' and the quest for better exit polls

If you have been on Planet Earth in recent months, and have the slightest interest in (a) religion, (b) politics or (c) both, then you know that the rise of Citizen Donald Trump has raised lots of questions about religion, politics and exit polls.

To be specific, the press has been obsessed with the idea that evangelical Protestants have fallen in love with Trump.

Sure enough, some evangelicals are quite fond of Trump, especially those who -- in the words of historian Paul Matzko of Pennsylvania State University -- are "cultural" evangelicals, as opposed to folks who frequent church pews once or more a week. You may want to check out this academic paper by Matzko: "What Evangelical Support for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump Suggests About the Future of American Evangelicalism."

But forget Trump for a moment. The most interesting concepts in Matzko's paper concern the fault line between evangelicals who backed Rubio and those who support Cruz. Here is a chunk of my "On Religion" column from this week:

"... White collar" evangelical elites have appeared to favor Rubio while "evangelical workers" may appreciate Cruz's hard-line stance on illegal immigration. 

However, Matzko believes a deeper, more complex split is emerging, one rooted in history. 

On one side, he wrote, are "18th Century evangelicals -- a "persecuted religious minority" in American culture that yearned for the "liberty to practice their faith free from State interference. To that end, they allied with freethinkers like Thomas Jefferson. … They had little interest in fomenting sweeping social change, in using State power to make America more pious, holy or Christian. They asked only for the freedom to be left alone."  
On the other side, Matzko argued, are "19th Century evangelicals" who, by the end of that century, had begun to gain cultural influence and political power. This would eventually lead to talk of a "Moral Majority." 

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Interested in a March event with James Davis and lots of other religion-beat talent?

Interested in a March event with James Davis and lots of other religion-beat talent?

This may sound like a strange question, but, trust me, there is a good reason to ask it: Are there any GetReligion readers out there who would be interested in visiting the University of Wisconsin at Madison in mid-March?

Why is that? Well, because of a March 14th conference with this title: "Reporting on Religion: Media, Belief, and Public Life." Click here, pronto, for all of the details. Here is the overture on the home page for the event:

America’s religious landscape is shifting, and, as a result, news coverage of religion has never been more important. “Reporting on Religion: Media, Belief, and Public Life” will give journalists and the general public an opportunity to explore one of the most important, sensitive, and controversial topics in contemporary America.
The one-day conference will feature journalists and scholars who will help participants gain a deeper understanding of the role religion plays in public life and how religion is -- and isn’t -- represented in the news media today.
The conference will culminate in a keynote address, free and open to the public, by television journalist David Gregory, former moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press and the author of How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey.

Yes, that would be David Gregory talking, I am sure, about some of the territory covered in these GetReligion posts by our own Bobby Ross, Jr. -- click here and then here for details.

Glance over the packed program for that day (click here) and you will see many other names familiar to GetReligion readers, beginning with our own James Davis, in the panel called, "How the Press Covers Religion and Spirituality." Other familiar names on the docket include Cathy Lynn Grossman, Jaweed Kaleem, Bob Smietana, Dilshad Ali and Tony Carnes.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Same-sex wedding cake wars draw more headlines — and more RNS snark

Same-sex wedding cake wars draw more headlines — and more RNS snark

If you're a regular GetReligion reader, you're probably familiar with the Sweet Cakes case in Oregon.

We've posted on it more than once.

That case is back in the news this week.

The Oregonian newspaper in Portland has solid, balanced coverage of the latest news.

The lede:

The Oregon couple who made national headlines when they refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding are now refusing to pay state-ordered damages to the lesbian couple they turned away.
In response, state officials have gone to court to establish their right to place a property lien or attach other assets belonging to Aaron and Melissa Klein, proprietors of the Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakery.
The Kleins filed an appeal of the state ruling in July but also have defied a Bureau of Labor and Industries order to pay $135,000 to Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer, claiming financial hardship despite crowdfunding efforts that have raised more than $500,000 on their behalf.
Most recently, one of their lawyers wrote to the labor bureau to say: "Our clients do not have a bond or irrevocable letter of credit in place and have no further plans to obtain either one."
The Kleins' refusal to pay marks another chapter in the long-running controversy pitting their claims of religious freedom against enforcement of anti-discrimination laws requiring Oregon businesses to serve the public equally.

There does seem to be some dispute concerning the $500,000 figure reported by The Oregonian.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

That Indiana 'religious freedom' bill just got even more controversial, and don't forget the scare quotes

That Indiana 'religious freedom' bill just got even more controversial, and don't forget the scare quotes

CNN did not get the memo.

I voiced concerns Wednesday about the prevalence of the term "controversial" in news coverage of that Indiana religious freedom bill passed this week.

Specifically, I questioned whether that overused modifier — which the Associated Press Stylebook says to avoid — favors the opposition in a debate pitting religious freedom vs. gay rights.

But Wednesday night, a GetReligion reader alerted me that CNN had ignored my advice.

"Note the tweet and lede of this story," the reader said. "Incredible."

The tweet.

The lede:

Washington (CNN) Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is set to sign into law a measure that allows businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers in the name of "religious freedom."
The move comes as Pence considers a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — and just a year after Pence and socially conservative lawmakers lost their first policy battle against gay Hoosiers. In 2014 they had sought to amend Indiana's constitution to ban same-sex marriages — but were beaten back by a highly-organized coalition of Democrats, traditionally right-leaning business organizations and fiscally focused supporters of Pence's predecessor, former GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels.
This year, though, the Republican-dominated state House and Senate both approved the "religious freedom" bill, and Pence plans to sign it into law in a private ceremony Thursday, his spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday afternoon.
If Pence decides to mount a dark horse presidential bid -- which looks increasingly unlikely as candidates like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker court the same supporters he would need -- the "religious freedom" bill could give him a boost among GOP primary voters, especially in socially conservative states like Iowa.

Did you count the number of times the CNN political reporter used scare quotes on "religious freedom" in those first four paragraphs? (Three times, in case you didn't.)

Of course, the journalistic problem with the lede is the blatant editorialization favoring one side.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Jeopardy does religion: Name a small, but historically prominent Protestant denomination in American life

Jeopardy does religion: Name a small, but historically prominent Protestant denomination in American life

The accident in which a car driven by Episcopal Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of the Diocese of Maryland hit and fatally injured a cyclist has continued to receive coverage in the back pages of some major newspapers. As I mentioned the other day, much of the discussion has focused on her previous DUI arrest. The big question now: Was she using a smartphone at the time of the accident, perhaps one owned by the diocese?

Meanwhile, the following passage in a Washington Post follow-up story raised eyebrows among religion-beat professionals for reasons that transcended the facts surrounding Cook's election, the importance of the fatal (some insist hit-and-run) accident and the ongoing investigative work being done by police:

Several people who were part of the bigger convention that voted for Cook this spring said they were not told about the arrest.
Cook was initially charged with driving under the influence, reckless driving and possession of marijuana, among other charges, but received “probation before judgment” and completed her probation.
The diocese’s statement Tuesday said Cook disclosed the 2010 case to those considering electing her a bishop in the Episcopal Church, a small but historically prominent American Protestant denomination.

Say what? Have we really reached the point where journalists need to offer readers explanatory material about the existence of the Episcopal Church?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

End-of-2014 odds and ends: Including John L. Allen, Jr., on Pope Francis and the press

End-of-2014 odds and ends: Including John L. Allen, Jr., on Pope Francis and the press

Fire and brimstone? Wait for it.

I have a few odds and ends for you, on this strange Friday in between New Year's and the weekend that comes before, for many people, the Monday (Boo!) that marks the start of the new working year. Is there anyone out there near a computer?

As always, there have been many end of the religion-news year pieces to read. I thought two deserved a bit of attention here because they offered some interesting comments -- implied or direct -- on mainstream press coverage of this topic.

For example, the omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr., turned his usual "Vatican stories that were overlooked" theme on its head this year, for the simple reason that very few things get overlooked in the age of Pope Francis (other than his statements against, oh, abortion and in favor of religious freedom). More on that Crux list in a moment.

The simple fact of the matter, Allen noted, is that this pope's relationship to the press has become a force field that changes almost everything, including the public perception of this statements. Consider, for example, that "fake sugar coating" speech about Christmas and materialism, his annual address to the Curia and his Urbi et Orbi message on Christmas Day. Allen summarizes what happened in this manner:

Please respect our Commenting Policy