Reporting on South Carolina Episcopal wars

Don't compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.

Vice-President Joseph Biden

I have a soft spot for the vice-president. I speak not of politics, but of the man when I say I like him. I find him entertaining and always quotable. He was down here in Florida recently speaking to a gathering of the party-faithful, encouraging the troops before they enter what looks to be a hard fought political battle for Florida in 2012. One line in the Gannett newspapers account of his speech caught my eye:

Biden quoted former Boston Mayor Kevin White, who liked to tell critics, "Don't compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative." He said Obama will be re-elected when voters focus on policies voiced by the current crop of GOP presidential contenders, and compare them to Obama's.

The vice-president has used this line before and President Obama has added it to his repertoire. I've not seen much commentary on this quip -- MSNBC's "Last Word" with Larry O'Donnell showed an excerpt of the speech, including the Almighty quote, but none of the panel participants found it worthy of remark.

Speaking before Democrat party activists, the vice-president's words had a certain meaning. For the Democrat faithful the line meant voters should not compare the Obama Administration to an idealized government -- "We're not God, but we're better than the Republicans." Were Mr. Biden to say this before a different crowd -- say religious conservatives -- the audience would come away with a different meaning. "Don't compare the Obama Administration to God, compare it to Satan."

Now I would dearly love to write a story whose opening line read: "The Obama Administration is an agent of the Devil, Vice-President Joe Biden told Democrat leaders in Florida yesterday, resolving lingering questions about the president's religious views by coming out as a Satanist." Alas, integrity prevents interpreting the vice-president's quip along those lines. The Gannett report places the quote in context and identifies the audience and historical meaning of the trope. There was no need to find a contrary voice to address the Almighty line, as its meaning was made clear.

When crafting a news report, a journalist must address the question of balance -- giving both sides of an argument. This can be taken too far at times, but a good reporter knows when and when not to provide opposing views and provide the amount of background necessary to place the story in context. A report in Monday's Post and Courier, the Charleston, South Carolina daily provides an example of how not to do this.

Before I dive in to the story, let me offer a disclaimer. I have knowledge and an interest in these issues but am not personally involved.

The article entitled "S.C. Episcopal Diocese releases property claim" fails on several levels. It manages to be credulous and one-sided. It does not examine the veracity of claims put forward by one party in the dispute, and neglects to mention the opposing arguments. It lacks context while the narrative arc of the story is so slanted as to make it appear to be a press release. Let me be clear that I am not commenting on the issue being reported in this story. I am writing about the failure of the Post and Courier to do this story justice. The article opens with:

The distance between The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina widened last week when the diocese relinquished its legal oversight of all church property, sending what’s called a quitclaim deed to each parish.

The move merely formalizes an arrangement already in place, according to Bishop Mark Lawrence. “A quitclaim deed isn’t giving someone something they don’t have if they already own the deed,” he said.

Some observers say the move could heighten the risk of litigation or other challenges by national church authorities and provide additional evidence to a disciplinary committee now evaluating allegations that Lawrence has abandoned his responsibilities.

The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina sent quitclaim deeds to each of its congregations -- that is the fact being reported. The meaning of this action is contrasted by placing a statement made by the Bishop of South Carolina against that of a lawyer associated with a dissident faction in the diocese. And it is here we have the breakdown. What follows is the privileging of one view over another.

“This kind of action, along with participating in the conventions that severed legal ties to the national church, I think those are real problems,” said Melinda Lucka, an attorney critical of recent diocese actions. “On a diocesan level, this further opens the door to parishes that are considering leaving the Episcopal Church.”

But it is the duty of parish and diocese leaders to uphold the canons of the national church, she said. When those laws are cast aside or ignored, it can trigger a response from the church. “Though the church might not want to, it sort of has to,” Lucka said.

The quitclaim deed effectively ends any obligation of the diocese to hold property in trust for The Episcopal Church, as required by a controversial church law.

The Dennis Canon was introduced in 1979 to codify the authority of the national church body over property and has mostly been upheld as valid by civil courts in California, Texas, Virginia, Connecticut and other states in recent years. In 1987, the diocese amended its governing documents to include the Dennis Canon, then removed the law in 2010.

Who is Melinda Lucka? A little context here would be helpful as would the information that Ms. Lucka has been working with officials from the national church office in New York in their fight with the diocese. (It would be nice to have had some background to explain why there is a fight also.) By treating her as an observer and not as an antagonist, the Post and Courier distorts the picture. It may well be true, as Ms. Lucka suggests, that this move by the diocese may provoke a response from the national church offices in New York. But not to mention that Ms. Lucka and her associates might be the ones bringing the response is unfortunate.

The story then moves to a summary of the Episcopal Church canon, or rule, that is in dispute. I do not find the Post and Courier's characterization of the Dennis Canon to be accurate nor its review of the litigation complete. If these words had been left in Ms. Lucka's mouth then what the Post and Courier wrote would pass muster as it would be presented as her opinion -- but the article presents it as a fact. The history of the disputes in South Carolina follows as does an analysis of the law, but they too are offered from a particular perspective -- that of Ms. Lucka's camp.

Bishop Mark Lawrence speaks, but his words are interspersed with the reporter's opinion as to the meaning of the facts and law so as to leave the impression the bishop is a bit of a crank and that he and the diocese are the aggressors. This may be the view of one party, but it is far from being settled as fact.

Take a look at this:

This summer, the national church nullified the resolutions that obligated the diocese to follow church laws only when they are consistent with local rules (though, by virtue of those same resolutions, the diocese does not recognize the church’s nullification). Since the diocese is a sovereign body, “the executive council has no canonical or constitution authority to speak on behalf of the church about that,” Lawrence said.

Again we have the diocese painted as the aggressor and opinions offered as facts. This is followed by:

Though a majority of the diocese’s 75 parishes and missions appear to support the bishop, at least five parishes and hundreds of individuals have declared their intention to remain part of The Episcopal Church.

The quitclaim deeds could heighten scrutiny of Lawrence by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, whose president is the Rt. Rev. Dorsey Henderson, retired bishop of Upper South Carolina. The board currently is considering allegations of abandonment filed by local parishioners.

Barbara Mann, chairwoman of the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, a group loyal to the national church, said this latest move could influence the board’s evaluation.

“I think this is going to be perhaps the deciding point,” Mann said. “If (Lawrence) says The Episcopal Church doesn’t belong in South Carolina at all, then he is abandoning The Episcopal Church.”

Has Bishop Lawrence said he wants to leave the Episcopal Church? No, he has adamantly denied that he wants to leave. That is not being reported by the Post and Courier. Nor has the newspaper appeared to have been able to find the diocese's lawyers to ask their opinion of the assertions made by Lucka and Mann. Nor have we heard from any of the recognized canon law experts in this field. It is the belief of some members of the Diocese of South Carolina that the national church wants to kick Bishop Lawrence and 70 of the 75 congregations and 28,000 of the 29,000 Episcopalians in the diocese out of the Episcopal Church. Am I saying this is a fact? No, it is a view and has been the experience of some (and rather more than the Lucka/Mann camp) in the diocese.

So what has this to do with Joe Biden? The Post and Courier article under review has the same degree of professionalism and journalistic integrity as would an article about Joe Biden being a Satanist in light of his Almighty line. One could make the argument that the alternative to the Almighty is the Devil, and that is the standard to which the vice-president aspires. But to do that would be a partisan rant -- not journalism. One could construe the words of Bishop Lawrence and the actions of the Diocese of South Carolina to make them out to be cantankerous schismatics who have brought this upon themselves. But such a construction would not be journalism either.

One test of balance is whether both sides can see their point of view described. Can they recognize the reality the article paints as being true to their experiences? A conflict entails differing truths, but a good story provides space for the issues to be heard. This story fails that test.

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