I've spent a great deal of time researching media coverage of the Air Force Academy scandal that erupted last April. The press accounts, woefully one-sided, indicate that evangelical Christians are running roughshod over the rights of everyone else at the Academy. Allegations range from the horrible -- a Jewish cadet being called a slur by an unidentified classmate -- to the perfectly legal in a country that protects religious freedom -- Christian chaplains preaching Christian doctrine at voluntary Protestant worship services.
When the story broke nationwide last April -- there had been a smattering of mostly-local coverage prior -- it broke because two of the three major players in the story leaked it to the media. I know this because one of them admitted it after the fact -- not because I read it any of the breathless Associated Press or Los Angeles Times coverage. The coverage also preceded the release of a report from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State -- but included the same information as was contained therein. Communication between Americans United and the press were not revealed.
Yesterday, a separate player -- one on the other side of the imbroglio -- leaked some inconsequential information related to the case. Do media reports mention how the information was obtained? Let's take a look at the Rocky Mountain News:
First, there was the joke, e-mailed Wednesday night. Then, the cordial reply: "looooong time no chat, bro . . ."
By Thursday, the e-mail exchange had escalated into a war of words between evangelical Christian leader Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, who sent the joke, and activist Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, who is fighting what he calls religious proselytizing in the military.
The exchange took on added dimensions when Haggard's office called the media Thursday to publicize it.
"An ambush -- a cowardly ambush," Weinstein said of the release of the e-mail exchange.
As a reporter who covers the federal bureaucracy, I would be dead in the water without leaks. When people leak to me, I assume they are doing so for a reason. That's because they are. Revealing information due to personal conviction or to make your side in a dispute look better is, for better or worse, universal. But reporters only mention it some of the time.
Media folks need to develop some consistency in treating how they obtain information -- especially considering that in this story, everyone involved was sharing the information far and wide:
Weinstein also distributed the e-mails -- but only to supporters on his e-mail list. "I did not send them to the media," he said.
Another thing that has intrigued me about the coverage is the failure to give a full picture of Weinstein, the man suing the Air Force. He is always referred to as a former Reagan official, an Albuquerque attorney and father of two Air Force Academy cadets. And those things are true. He is also a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, often refers to the movie The Passion of the Christ as the Jesus Chainsaw Murders or Freddy vs. Jesus, thinks that Academy leaders take their direction on evangelism directly from the White House and believes Christian cadets should be prevented from telling others they are going to hell if they don't believe in Christ. Each of those views is perfectly legitimate for Weinstein to offer, but when they are concealed, it's difficult for readers to understand Weinstein's interesting religious motivation in the dispute.