How not to handle a call from a reporter

526600146gQNMkA phAs a rule, GetReligion limits itself to dissecting the work of mainstream journalists when they wrestle with news stories about religion. But, every now and then, you see a story in which your heart really goes out to the journalists who are trying to do this difficult job. Take, for example, reporter Jane Musgrave of The Palm Beach Post and her recent story on the troubled financial past of the Rev. Steven Flockhart, the charismatic new preacher at the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla. This church sits in the heart of a major metropolitan area, just across the bridge from the world-famous resort community of Palm Beach. This is a high-profile gig in a very complex city.

Musgrave had some of the most important building blocks a reporter can have on this kind of story -- like court documents, an anonymous tip that checked out and, then, on-the-record interviews with members of a church that Flockhart left in debt eight years ago. She also did a good job of telling the positive side of the story, stressing that those touched by the preacher's troubles retained a remarkable degree of affection for him as a person, as a leader and, most of all, as a spectacular orator.

However, there was a problem.

Musgrave -- in the name of accuracy and fairness -- also needed to hear Flockhart's side of the story. That meant doing an interview. This is where the train came off the rails a bit.

Want to see how not to handle a journalist's request to hear your side of an important story? Check this out.

The Rev. Kevin Mahoney, executive pastor of the imposing Baptist church along the Intracoastal Waterway just south of downtown West Palm Beach, said he and other church leaders learned of the lawsuit after they offered Flockhart the prestigious position of head pastor, which had been vacant for three years. Like The Palm Beach Post, the church received a copy of the lawsuit and other court documents from a person who signed a short note only as "A former Crosspointe (Baptist Church) Member."

Flockhart, 40, who lives in a 4,500-square-foot house in Royal Palm Beach with his wife and six children, declined requests for interviews. It is church policy for Mahoney alone to respond to press inquiries, the executive pastor said.

Say what? It is the congregation's policy that the man in the pulpit -- its superstar voice to the community -- cannot talk to the press? Does this include television news interviews about, oh, spectacular Christmas events? Radio work?

Thus, the church created a kind of information triangle in which the reporter is forced to bounce documents and questions through an indirect connection. Trust me, this does not help a reporter trust the results. It's like waving a red flag with one hand while shooting up warning flares with the other.

2005bestHere is what this looks like in print. You can read the story and make up your own mind about the complicated financial details. What we are interested in is the awkward contacts between the church and the newspaper and how this affected the story that was printed. We start with an IRS lien against the preacher for not paying some taxes.

When asked about it, Mahoney said, Flockhart denied ever having any problems with the IRS and said he had not had an American Express card for 12 or 15 years. After The Palm Beach Post faxed the Georgia court documents to Mahoney, he talked to Flockhart again.

Roughly a half-hour later, Mahoney called to say Flockhart did remember a dispute over payroll taxes with the IRS. Further, he remembered the dispute with American Express.

Mahoney said he was not troubled that Flockhart's story changed dramatically in less than two hours.

So what does the congregation get from this procedure? You just know that the newspaper now believes there are holes in this minister's background -- educational, personal, whatever -- and will dig with renewed vigor. The newspaper may find something. It may not. This is standard procedure in this situation and this kind of hide-the-source shell game only makes journalists more suspicious. I know all about that from my background covering the Rev. Jim Bakker, years ago.

Like I said, this is not how to handle a simple request for an interview, especially when the reporter is holding documents in her hand.

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