Covering a bunch of local stories that evolve into a national trend is difficult for a reporter, but Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times did it quite handily Monday in an article on how the Internal Revenue Service is keeping its eye on religious groups come political season. The article is appropriately timed. In keeping with the Times' profile as a national paper, focused little on anything related to New York City. Instead, Goodstein painted in broad strokes and explored trends. Goodstein breaks little news in this article, but her thorough reporting allowed her to set the national scene that is sure to dribble out into various localities. Also look for the major TV networks to follow this one.
My only issue is that covering this topic from a local perspective is a lot more interesting, but more on that a few paragraphs down.
In a way, Goodstein's attempt to be bipartisan stretches the article's premise: both conservative and liberal religious groups are nervous about an IRS crackdown on the political involvement of charities and churches. But the article is quick to rehash the efforts of conservative religious groups in supposedly bringing out the vote for Bush in 2004 and does little to touch on liberal religious groups:
"The stakes for these churches are higher than ever before because of the I.R.S.'s new enforcement efforts," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The I.R.S. is taking this very seriously, and I think it's because the situation was spinning out of control."
Mr. Lynn said that conservative churches in 2004 had constructed a political machine he likened to "a church-based Tammany Hall." He said he expected their voters' guides to be skewed to favor Republican candidates. "It's absolutely illegal, it's wrong and it divides churches," he said.
Clever quotes about Tammany Hall are great, but could we go back to the basics and do a bit of showing and not telling? Otherwise all you have to do to create balance is run one side's clever quotes against the other's. That's style, not substance.
Shifting to the local scene, the Los Angeles Times' Scott Glover and Louis Sahagun did a great job reporting on a local church facing an IRS investigation into its political activities. Oh, and the church happens to be liberal. And it gets better. The church is crying freedom of speech and religion. Check this out:
A liberal Pasadena church facing an IRS investigation over alleged politicking sounded a defiant note Sunday, with its leaders and many congregants saying the probe amounted to an assault on their constitutional rights and that they were inclined to defy the agency's request for documents.
"These people are offended," said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, after delivering an impassioned sermon about the investigation to a standing-room-only crowd of about 900. "Freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been assaulted by this act of the IRS, and I think my people want to be heard in court."
Bacon said he would consult with attorneys and church officials before deciding a course of action but that the vast majority of parishioners with whom he spoke Sunday thought the church should resist a summons demanding copies of newsletters, e-mails and other records.
In this wonderful age of the Internet, readers have choices. While the NYT did a nice job summarizing the issue for its national audience, the LAT nailed the issue to the mat and used its particular local situation to explore the matter in a real-life situation, rather than rehash recent American political history.
Here's a challenge to you readers: send us articles in your local newspaper that deal with IRS regulations regarding politics. Are the pastors in your area aware? Do they discuss the matter in the pulpit?