For Chick-fil-A boss, guilt by insinuation

Who is Dan Cathy?

What makes him tick?

For the hometown newspaper of Chick-fil-A, those seems like reasonable questions to ask about the chicken sandwich chain’s president and chief operating officer.

Unfortunately, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s quasi-profile of the man whose comments on marriage have made so many recent headlines falls short, particularly when it comes to providing an authentic portrait of Cathy’s critics.

On the positive side, the story published Sunday does a nice job of portraying why those close to the Chick-fil-A boss — and even some who have brushed paths with him only briefly — admire Cathy and regard him as a leader who stays true to his Christian values.

The top of the 1,400-word feature:

The business was doing OK, but at a price. Jack Hayes was tired of operating his massage-therapy clinic seven days a week, juggling employees’ and clients’ schedules, missing his wife.

In late 2008, Hayes asked for help. He composed an email to another businessman who’d managed to make ends meet with a six-day work week. Hayes’ request was simple: Should he close on Sunday, too?

Two days later, the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, business owner got a response. In an email, Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, cited Proverbs 3:5-6:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

Up high, the story boils down the recent controversy in an accurate, evenhanded way:

Those who know Cathy say he’s a businessman who believes the real business of life comes from following the Bible, even if it angers others.

Cathy’s beliefs have recently put him to the test. On a national radio show, he said advocates of same-sex marriage are “inviting God’s judgment.” In another interview, he affirmed his belief that marriage should be between a man and woman.

Cathy’s statements set off a debate that’s played out in talk shows, on opinion pages, in blogs and in Chick-fil-A restaurants everywhere. On Aug. 1, thousands of people crowded Chick-fil-As across the country in a show of support for Cathy. Two days later, supporters of same-sex marriage held “kiss-ins” at Chick-fil-A restaurants nationwide.

The Journal-Constitution quotes Christian leaders and ordinary people who provide enlightening anecdotes and insight into the character and approach of Cathy. The firsthand accounts make for great reading.

So, what’s the problem?

One is that the paper can’t resist — in the form of “background” material in the article — referencing vague charges by vague opponents of Chick-fil-A. To wit:

The controversy echoed another sparked a year ago when critics attacked donations from WinShape Foundation Inc., Chick-fil-A’s charity, to organizations that critics say promote hatred of gays.

Some business experts questioned Cathy’s judgment, saying it was pointless for a high-profile executive to embroil his entire business and well-developed brand in the middle of national dispute.

Who are these anonymous critics and business experts? What organizations are accused of promoting hatred of gays? Do the actual facts bear out these criticisms? Readers who see only this article have no way of judging these vague claims.

Another problem: Rather than quote a critic who actually has firsthand (negative) experience with Cathy, the paper turns to someone who has started a petition drive in light of the recent headlines:

Such personal accounts of Cathy don’t resonate with everyone.

Marci Alt would like to share her story with Cathy. She’s married to a woman, has two children and recently started an online petition inviting his family to dine with hers. “I’ll even make matzo ball soup for him, like a good Jewish girl.”

Alt said she supports Cathy’s right to speak his mind, but is opposed to the chain’s WinShape Foundation funding groups that she termed anti-gay. “It angers me that he’s so close-minded that he all he can see is himself,” the Decatur resident said. “Aren’t we all God’s children?”

Again, there is an anonymous reference to vague “anti-gay” groups. That’s followed by an accusation that Cathy is “so closed-minded that all he can see is himself.” Where are the details to back up that claim?

Near the end of the story, there’s a strange anecdote involving a critic who has dealt with Cathy personally:

Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, recalled Cathy spending the night at the shelter and pledging financial help. He cutoff his support after giving the task force more than $200,000, but officials expected as much as $500,000 more.

“We were disappointed,” said Beaty, who’s filed a lawsuit contending business leaders and others conspired to close the shelter by cutting public funding and private donations. “We were expecting him to make good on his pledge.”

She believes Cathy folded under pressure. In a 2010 deposition, Cathy said he did talk with business leaders about his support.

“Billionaires are people too,” said Beaty. “They want to be appreciated by people who are important.”

Huh? Did Cathy pledge to give $700,000, then only give $200,000? That seems to be the claim, but the paper stops short of saying that. The only thing that’s certain is that he gave $200,000 to a charity that’s upset it did not receive more.

Then there’s the vague reference to Cathy folding under pressure and billionaires wanting to be appreciated, too. Again, I must ask, “Huh?” If that scenario is important to the story, surely theJournal-Constitution can do a better job of explaining the complaints and Cathy’s response to them.

By all means, read the whole story and tell me if I’m being overly critical about an otherwise balanced report.

The above video is cited in the story critiqued.

Please respect our Commenting Policy