As Fortnight of Freedom begins, media responds

A week ago I wrote a post headlined "Savvy PR firms drive coverage of HHS mandate." I wrote it because it struck me that a Los Angeles Times story hewed pretty closely to the public relations campaign I'd been seeing -- since first alerted to it by CNN -- of a PR campaign orchestrated by Faith in Public Life, heavily funded by the Open Society Institute of prominent atheist billionaire George Soros. Since then, a reader sent along, via email, a copy of the information Faith in Public Life sent to reporters on June 7, complete with narrative framework (bishops are being unreasonable and partisan) questions to ask bishops (who is funding you?) and sources for interviews. It turns out that the information sent to reporters matched up pretty well with the Los Angeles Times story written by Mitchell Landsberg. He even used for supporting quotes the first source that Faith in Public Life identified as a good person to speak with on the issue. I've said it before: Give Faith in Public Life's PR campaign guy John Gehring a raise! I half want to call their funders myself and suggest they throw some additional funds in that direction. He's doing excellent work at getting reporters to adopt the messaging campaign he's suggesting.

Anyway, Faith in Public Life suggests in this June 7 email to reporters (typos original):

Reporters should consider asking about the Knights of Columbus, an organization with deep pockets lead by Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, who had a long career in Republican politics working with the late Rep. Jesse Helms and in the Reagan administration. According to reporting from Commonweal, an independent Catholic magazine, in 2010 the Knights of Columbus gave close to $2 million to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and $25,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has played a leading role in lawsuits opposing the contraception mandate. Anderson faced a challenge from some Knights during the 2008 election for “dragging it's 1.3 million members into tacit endorsement of the Republican candidate.”

I certainly would hope that reporters would ask who is behind both the fight for and against the HHS mandate, not just in terms of funding but in other associations as well. And I would hope that such reporting would put such funding in context. For instance, I know that Faith in Public Life was not just launched to support President Obama's HHS mandate but was launched in 2004 in response to "values voters" failing to vote for John Kerry in the 2004 election. And I know that the Knights of Columbus have been highly involved in pro-life efforts, including marches and educational campaigns, as long as I've been aware of the movement, which is at least 25 years now. These aren't exactly new dividing lines on issues such as abortion and progressive politics and what not.

Anyway, Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looked at a small portion of the funding issue when he wrote up a piece headlined "Who's funding the Catholic bishops' religious freedom campaign?." It quotes Gehring and others about the topic that Faith in Public Life wanted pushed -- Knights of Columbus funding of the bishops.

On Thursday, Catholics across the country will amplify what is an already loud outcry from the hierarchy over the federal government's so-called contraception mandate.

With rallies, marches, lectures and special publications, the U.S. Catholic Bishop's Fortnight for Freedom campaign will seek to galvanize Catholic opposition to President Barack Obama's proposed mandate to require employers -- including religious institutions -- to provide free contraception insurance coverage to employees.

But while Catholic leaders frame the events as a fight for religious liberty, critics see signs of political partisanship and electioneering. Questions over the financing of the bishops' campaign have caused those suspicions to multiply.

I wondered if reporters would keep pushing this "partisan" theme even after Sister Carol Keehan published her comments on behalf of the Catholic Health Association against the mandate. She was touted as a high-profile supporter of the mandate earlier this year so her change of position was pretty big news. Except, well, it wasn't big news. It's literally not mentioned in this story that's getting picked up across the country now.  (The Seattle Times headlined their's pretty nefariously: "Politics, funding raise suspicion over church's birth-control fight.")

Also curiously not mentioned in this story alleging partisan motivations for the bishops' concern about religious freedom? That just last week they praised Obama's presidential order regarding immigration.

And while the funding of those fighting the HHS mandate on religious liberty grounds is questioned in this story, we get no discussion of who is funding liberal advocacy groups supporting the mandate, which requires religious groups to purchase insurance that violates their religious teachings.

Considering that no less than the federal government is pushing this mandate, I'm almost more interested in who's behind the aggressive action of the mandate than the response to same. At least, if you're going to ask who is funding the bishops, shouldn't we be a tad more curious about who was behind this curious mandate to begin with, and who is funding the campaign to defend it and make sure that the, er, "religious liberty" side doesn't win?

I mean, no offense to the bishops or the Knights of Columbus or whatever, but they named their own public relations campaign the "Fortnight of Freedom," God bless 'em. This doesn't ring like a Madison Avenue ad level campaign to me.

But hey, maybe I'm wrong and maybe after several months of media scrutiny of those claiming they really care about the religious freedom side of the issue, we'll see a bit more scrutiny of those crafting the public relations campaigns against them that have done so well.

If you're interested in just a balanced piece on the bishops' campaign -- including the negative response it's received from some progressives -- this NPR piece is pretty good.

Do let us know -- as you always do! -- if you see any particularly good or bad stories on this topic, particularly the bishops Fortnight of Freedom campaign.

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