October 25, 2011

Just the Facts

Like many Episcopalians, I was very upset by a recent story in The Wall Street Journal by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway. The October 7, 2011, story was titled “Twenty-First Century Excommunication,” and it was all about how The Episcopal Church has mistreated its dissidents who wanted to leave the church. Much of the story is true, as far as it goes. The problem with the story is that the other side was not represented. The dissidents have been at least as nasty to The Episcopal Church as the church is accused of being to them in the Hemingway story. Moreover, the church has had its reasons for engaging in litigation for parish property. Even if one does not agree with those reasons, failure to acknowledge them suggests that the leadership of The Episcopal Church is just mean and vindictive. That is unfair.

Here is what I wrote as a comment on the WSJ Web site (I have taken the liberty of correcting a typographical error and adding italics):
I am not a regular reader of the WSJ. I can see that I haven’t been missing much. This is the most biased piece of journalism I have seen in a long time in what claims to be a mainstream publication. I cannot believe that Ms. Hemingway’s story would have gotten past the editorial desk of The New York Times or The Washington Post. Did it occur to your reporter that there might be another side to this story? Apparently not. Trust me, there is, and some of us are unimpressed with your reporter’s sources.
Apparently, the story has caused quite a stir, and not just here in Pittsburgh. George Conger wrote about the WSJ story on the GetReligion Web site. His story is titled—this is too cute for words—“Mollie and the Spin Doctors.” The Conger piece includes a video interview with Hemingway and is largely about the question of how factual the original story was.

When I read “Twenty-First Century Excommunication,” I thought the story was basically factual. I thought one could quibble with some of the details, but the writer was not simply making things up. My problem was that the story was not balanced; it made no real attempt to tell the story from the point of view of The Episcopal Church. Katharine Jefferts Schori was quoted in the story but, apparently, not interviewed for it.

The Conger analysis has not changed my mind about how one-sided the WSJ story was, but it did raise questions about how The Episcopal Church deals with negative publicity. The church issued talking points in an attempt to refute what Hemingway wrote. (The talking points appeared on the church’s Perspectives page on October 13, 2011, along with previous statements from the church. The talking points alone can be read here.) The church offered some facts that advanced its side of the story. For example:
It is inaccurate and misleading to suggest that those who have broken away from the Episcopal Church are the persecuted faithful, when in reality those who have remained have felt deeply hurt, and now in some cases are exiled from their own church buildings by the Anglican Church of North America.
As a Pittsburgh Episcopalian, I thought that that particularly needed to be said.

The Perspectives piece did less well in other areas. One of the statements in the WSJ story whose truth Conger explored in “Mollie and the Spin Doctors” was this: “Of the 38 provinces in the global Anglican Communion, 22 have declared themselves in ‘broken’ or ‘impaired’ fellowship with the more liberal American church.” The church’s response was the following:
The author of the article stated that, “Of the 38 provinces in the global Anglican Communion, 22 have declared themselves in “broken” or “impaired” fellowship with the more liberal American church.” As recently as Monday, October 10, Lambeth Palace confirmed that there is no basis for this claim by the author.
Apparently, neither the Church Center nor Lambeth Palace was helpful in clarifying the matter further.

I don’t know if 22 is the right number, but it is certainly true that many churches in the Anglican Communion (or their primates) have declared that they are in impaired or broken communion with The Episcopal Church, and there is no shame in admitting it. In fact, even before the election of Gene Robinson, some Communion churches were not on good terms with The Episcopal Church over the ordination of women. Moreover, there is little enough agreement on what being in communion means and certainly no generally accepted definitions of impaired or broken communion. So some churches are mad at ours. We should wear that as a badge of honor, not try to pretend the situation is not what it is.

Conger dealt at some length with two errors of fact The Episcopal Church alleged in the Hemingway story. In addition to the matter of broken or impaired communion, the talking points contained this item:
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori did not make any of the statements that the author claims she made in the article.
The Hemingway article included the following paragraph:
“We can’t sell to an organization that wants to put us out of business,” said Bishop Jefferts Schori, who added that her job is to ensure that “no competing branch of the Anglican Communion impose on the mission strategy” of the Episcopal Church. Indeed she has no complaint with Muslims, Baptists or barkeepers buying Episcopal properties—only fellow Anglicans.
I was surprised to find myself quoted as a source for at least part of this paragraph. “We can’t sell to an organization that wants to put us out of business” is a quotation from my blog post of August 24, 2011. The presiding bishop did in fact say this at a public gathering in Pittsburgh’s Trinity Cathedral on the evening of April 19, 2011.The following quotation seems to have come from a different source, so that the phrase “who added” may be a bit misleading.

It seems to me that the talking point about Jefferts Schori’s not making any of the statements attributed to her is, in its essence, false. If there is an argument from the church that would make the assertion true, it would have to be a highly technical one, for example, that the juxtaposition of the two statements made the quotation false because the statements, thought legitimate quotations on their own, were not actually made sequentially.

I do not believe the presiding bishop’s views were misrepresented in the WSJ story, and the church has not helped its cause by quibbling about the quotations.

The Episcopal Church, in answering its critics, should admit its true positions and, above all, stick to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And yes, the Hemingway story was a hatchet job.

7 comments:

  1. Oops! The final line had referred to a “hatched job.” I have changed it to “hatchet job,” which, of course, was what was intended.

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  2. If this story had been written five years ago, I'm sure I would have seen it and also commented on it. After the paper was sold to Rupert Murdoch, I gave them a year, before cancelling my subscription of over 25 years.

    Objective reporting has declined, and the paper seems to be less committed to balanced reporting.

    For many years, I largely ignored the editorial pages as ideology devoid of content (although diligent reading of those pages improved my writing immeasurably). I did this because the reporting easily rivaled the more general circulation papers, and in some respects, surpassed them.

    But, that is clearly in the past. The editorial slant of the current WSJ is disappointing. And, this is certainly not the only instance of failing to report both sides of an ongoing conflict.

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  3. I have also abandoned the WSJ due to the failure to restrict ideology to the opinion pages, and the adoption of an editorial slant in ostensibly news stories. In simple terms, the WSJ, like Fox, is looking for conservative groups which are being "persecuted" by the "liberal bias" in America. Complaining to the WSJ about its slant is like asking Rick Perry to start issuing pardons in capital cases. I do fault the Episcopal Church for its failure to tell its story in a public and persuasive way. The result is that the Episcopal Church has ceded the public relations high ground to the only organization which is acting in the public relations arena. Both the local diocese and the national church have shown that they need public relations help. Does anyone really think that producers of TV news shows, or even reporters, are not handed prepared story concepts, well beyond "talking points"? A news event could then make the story topical. For example, New York's adoption of gay marriage was a perfect time for an update on the Episcopal Church and its gay bishops. The Episcopal Church can be correct in principle but lose the battle of public opinion. The WSJ article needs to teach the Church a much larger lesson.

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  4. When I was in business school, we routinely were told to read the WSJ. Now my friends on the faculty tell me, they do not consider it much of a source. What a major fall from grace!

    FWIW
    jimB

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  5. Without getting into the details, this shows a serious problem with a hierarchical or denominational structure. You sometimes have to choose between loyalty to the hierarchy (which owns the buildings) and conscience. If this worries you (it worried Luther), then work toward moving away from such a structure. If you can move your congregation away from a hierarchy toward independence, without abandoning your investment in the property, I think that's a good move.

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  6. I wish the WSJ or any other publication would write an article on faithful Episcopalians stuck in dioceses hostile to the Episcopal Church but which have not formally broken with the National Church. Pittsburgh, Ft. Worth, etc. have their own set of challenges but at least the new diocesan leadership now supports the Episcopal Church. Some of us in Dallas remain loyal Episcopalians but are virtually cut off from the National Church. We must endure diocesan conventions whose sole purpose seems to be to challenge the authority of the Episcopal Church and to usurp it for the diocese. The bottom line seems to be normal Episcopalians should just stand back and let radicals make up their own rules without consequence. If radicals are asked to follow the results of the democratic process in General Convention then they are "persecuted".

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