Neil Lewis had a front-page story in The New York Times Thursday where he alleged that the political appointees at the Justice Department hate black people and only care about conservative Christians. What's more, they're hiring Christians from law schools that good secular people don't go to. And the worst thing is that the political and policy folks appointed by the president to direct the agency are in fact doing so in a manner different than the Times would like. Here's how the story begins:
In recent years, the Bush administration has recast the federal government's role in civil rights by aggressively pursuing religion-oriented cases while significantly diminishing its involvement in the traditional area of race.
... Intervening in federal court cases on behalf of religion-based groups like the Salvation Army that assert they have the right to discriminate in hiring in favor of people who share their beliefs even though they are running charitable programs with federal money.
Supporting groups that want to send home religious literature with schoolchildren; in one case, the government helped win the right of a group in Massachusetts to distribute candy canes as part of a religious message that the red stripes represented the blood of Christ.
Vigorously enforcing a law enacted by Congress in 2000 that allows churches and other places of worship to be free of some local zoning restrictions. The division has brought more than two dozen lawsuits on behalf of churches, synagogues and mosques.
Taking on far fewer hate crimes and cases in which local law enforcement officers may have violated someone's civil rights. The resources for these traditional cases have instead been used to investigate trafficking cases, typically involving foreign women used in the sex trade, a favored issue of the religious right.
The anecdotes may or may not be cherry-picked for dramatic effect. But either way they are clearly written in a leading way. I think I've made my feelings about government funding of any religious institution known (I despise it, without exception) but phrasing that first example that way is just crude. Lewis could have, for instance, written that Justice doesn't trample on religious groups' First Amendment freedoms just because they help the government with welfare programs. Later on in the story (well past the part most people have stopped reading) he fleshes out a few of the other examples and it's clear he exaggerated them.
In general this is the problem that plagues the entire article. For all I know, Lewis might have had an interesting thesis that could have been substantiated . . . if he didn't completely overreach in trying to paint a portrait of an evil theocracy running amok. Here he tries to scare readers about the hiring of Christians:
Along with its changed civil rights mission, the department has also tried to overhaul the roster of government lawyers who deal with civil rights. The agency has transferred or demoted some experienced civil rights litigators while bringing in lawyers, including graduates of religious-affiliated law schools and some people vocal about their faith, who favor the new priorities. That has created some unease, with some career lawyers disdainfully referring to the newcomers as "holy hires."
. . . In addition, Mr. Ashcroft arranged for the agency's senior political appointees to take over the decades-old system used to hire recent law school graduates for entry-level career jobs that are supposed to be nonpartisan.
Under the system, known as the honors program, nonpolitical career lawyers had screened applicants. Those selected were almost exclusively graduates of top-ranked law schools and often had had prestigious judicial clerkships or other relevant experience.
Monica M. Goodling, a former senior aide to Mr. Gonzales, testified to a House committee last month that she had improperly used politics to hire some people as assistant federal prosecutors and for other civil service jobs, a possible violation of federal employment laws.
But the pattern of hiring on an ideological basis was more widespread than what Ms. Goodling described, according to interviews and department statistics.
Figures provided by the department show that from 2003 through 2006, there was a notable increase of hirings from religious-affiliated institutions like Regent University and Ave Maria University.
Wow, that sounds really bad! I mean, hiring Christians is one thing but clearly Ashcroft and Gonzalez are hiring too many Christians into the Justice Department. And yet . . . and yet . . . after hammering this theme throughout the entire article, Lewis concedes that the number of hires from religious institutions is quite small compared to the number from Harvard. And a graph accompanying the article completely undercuts Lewis' point. Look at the number of hires from Regent and big bad Ave Maria. Fewer than one per year, on average, during both Bush administrations:
And about that line "some career lawyers disdainfully referring to the newcomers as 'holy hires'": How many thousands of career lawyers are there at Justice? How many made this charge that religious hires are unworthy? Did they all use that same phrase? All one of them? All two of them? And if they're not willing to be named, are we sure their slur is worth including?
I know that reporters are supposed to spice up copy and make things sound dramatic so as to engage the reader, but this clearly is going too far. Any point Lewis might have had doesn't hold up when the facts are brought to light.
The more substantive charge is that the Justice Department is investigating and prosecuting fewer voting discrimination cases against blacks and at the same it's prosecuting more cases involving religious discrimination. Some might say that this could be a reflection of a more pluralistic society in the last decade. Some might suggest that there are fewer instances of voting discrimination against blacks in 2007 than 1967. Or the Times could say that this is a reflection of Bush catering to far-right religious groups.
But again, the article manages to undercut itself again. The cases must not be too crazy since "the Justice Department has successfully argued" them, "prevailed in many, if not most of the cases in which it has become involved," "has, in effect, duplicated in the religious arena its past success in cases involving race and national origin" and the "department's emphasis has been embraced by some groups representing Muslims, Jews and especially Christian conservatives, who have long complained that the federal government ignored their grievances about discrimination."
Lewis uses the descriptive term "some" a dozen or more times, once to say that an unquantified group of people think Justice is going beyond its mandate in looking into religious discrimination. But then he notes the Supreme Court and Congress have both made decisions since 2000 that support the role for investigation of religious discrimination. And, well, the 1964 Civil Rights Act does include religion, he concedes.
The biased approach worked, though. Lewis' story was placed above the fold on the front page of the paper. I doubt a more balanced treatment would have received the same prominent placement.
There is nothing new about differences of opinion about how to interpret law and what enforcement priorities are best. Demographics change over time, Congress passes new laws and political administrations change. Clearly such changes anger people and should be covered by mainstream newspapers. But when covering stories about this occurrence, it's important to be balanced and fair. I can't help but think that Lewis would have benefited from one of the Times' excellent religion reporters lending a hand for this story.