Taking a narrow view on Charles Colson (UPDATED)

As you may have heard, Charles Colson is in poor health and facing death. Here's how Yahoo wrote it up:

Chuck Colson, Watergate figure and Christian ministry founder, reportedly near death

Chuck Colson, an aide to President Richard Nixon who was convicted in the Watergate scandal, is near death after having surgery more than two weeks ago, according to a statement from the Christian ministry he founded.

This seems like a good way to hit, early on, the two main points of interest: Watergate, Christian ministry founder.

Over at the Washington Post yesterday, this headline appeared:

Charles Colson, Watergate figure who proposed firebombing Brookings, said near death

Well then! The brief article seems to contradict the headline, but that's not really why people flipped out when they saw it. It may not be true that Colson ever proposed firebombing the Brookings Institute, but he was a well-known Watergate figure. He had to spend seven months in prison for his crimes there. And he became a born-again Christian and devoted four decades of his life to prison ministry.

Maybe a dozen people sent me links to the headline in question, also complaining about the body of the piece. Complaints arrived below the article, including this one:

Mr. McDuffee, in a five paragraph article, devotes two sentences to the prison ministry work Colson has devoted himself to for the past 40 years. Even the most cynical of Colson's critics acknowedges the value of his work, the sincerity of his conversion, and the decades of work Colson has given to the least in our society. Yet Mr. McDuffee focusses on the most extreme allegation of the 1970s Watergate era, and trumpets it in the headline. With a column of this subjectivity and bias, there can be little reason to question the objectivity of the media, particularly in a newspaper of the Post's reknown and prestige.

The reporter, Allen McDuffee, responded:

You may realize that think tanks are the focus of this blog. Therefore, nobody should be surprised that the headline explains how Colson is relevant to the think tank world.

I would suspect that the same be true of a religious publication covering Colson's condition--that the headline and article would focus on his religious commitment and not mention the Brookings element at all. And I don't see a problem with them doing so.

It raises an important point. When reporters are given particular beats, it's a job requirement to focus on said beat. A good reporter will do just that, teasing out a beat-relevant story out of every news hook out there. Some reporters are at trade publications and some reporters are a trade reporter at a mainstream publication. That seems to be McDuffee's defense -- he's just focusing on his beat. And that is a totally legitimate claim to make.

In this case, I would urge him to consider a few other things. Just because a reporter is focused on one particular niche doesn't mean that the rest of the internet or reading public is. I'm absolutely sure it made sense in his mind to tease out of the Colson news some 40-year-old disputed claim and put it in the headline. But if a reporter can't see how offensive or hurtful this might be for a man extremely well known for a life's work outside of political crime, that would be problematic. Now, was the 40-year-old disputed claim really worth doing this to a man's fans, friends and loved ones? I'm willing to hear the case, but it strikes me that the reporter should have been more careful. What do you think?

But I'll repeat that his defense is important for news consumers. Go ahead and check out the context for what you're reading or watching. It may help make sense of the headline or story arc.

UPDATE: Some people think I'm going way too easy on the blogger in question and some people think I was unfair to him. Whatever you think, someone at the WashPost thinks that readers should also be aware of this religion and politics blog from a couple of weeks ago (that followed typical high standards despite it being a blog item), a guest essay from around the same time by Jim Daly at Focus on the Family regarding Colson, and a four paragraph Associated Press story that ran this week.

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