One piece of news that slipped beneath some peoples' notice last week was the quiet exit of Tony Spence, longtime editor of Catholic News Service. CNS is not known as a bastion of liberal thought, so I was surprised to learn the problem here was some tweets that Spence had posted on his personal feed.
Posting sentiments that cut across the grain of your full-time employer is pretty risky but maybe Spence, 63, felt he had the seniority and stature to speak his mind. But the blogosphere got him, as it tends to do, to the point where his employer could not defend him.
It's a sign of our edgy cyber-times. Read more about it from NPR:
The director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, a news agency affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has reportedly been pushed out of his position after an outcry over tweets endorsing LGBT rights.
Two prominent Catholic news outlets have reported that Tony Spence resigned this week at the request of an official in the bishops conference.
Spence, who has headed the CNS since 2004, was active on Twitter -- tweeting mostly about news within the Catholic Church, but occasionally sharing stories on the journalism industry, world news and pop culture. He tweeted about sainthood dates, the pope and refugees, Flannery O'Connor's faith and the infuriating failures of the D.C. metro.
But it was tweets about the gender identity legislation in North Carolina and what supporters call the "religious liberties" measure in Mississippi, and related issues of LGBT rights, that reportedly led to his dismissal.
Must say, it gets a bit wearying to see scare quotes around phrases like “what supporters call the ‘religious liberties’ measure” but none around the similarly loaded “LGBT rights” phrase. In terms of displaying its journalism doctrines, NPR isn't being very subtle.
The article then runs through a series of Spence’s tweets. As I look at them, trying to envision myself as an official with the USCCB, they definitely take a side -- and not one in keeping with Catholic doctrine.
I looked at them all. What the Lepanto folks mainly did was run Spence’s tweets.
Yes, they provided some editorial commentary, but those tweets were pretty controversial all by themselves.
Again, put yourself in the shoes of a USCCB official and read them.
What was Spence thinking? Journalists at secular publications have been fired for less. Ask Dave Weigel (a conservative, btw) about that. In 2010, something similar happened to me. Maybe it's the right thing to speak out and maybe it's not, but don't be surprised if there are consequences.
This NPR piece looked like it was quickly thrown together with quotes from what other publications had already reported plus the obligatory phone call to the USCCB for comment. NPR could have worked a bit harder to do some original reporting, like getting a hold of Spence himself. I looked up Spence on Facebook and found this cheery post by someone apparently reposting a message from the president of the Lepanto Institute. It says in part:
WE DID IT! CNS Releases Tony Spence After Lepanto Institute Investigation
After three days of relentless pressure and hundreds if not thousands of phone calls, the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) acted on the evidence presented by the Lepanto Institute ...
... and did the right thing.
Hundreds if not thousands of phone calls? Sounds like the USCCB switchboard had quite the meltdown. Was there no one in that large USCCB edifice nor in the CNS office itself who could talk on or off the record about what happened? How's this affecting the rest of the staff there? Who is on the board of CNS and did any of those people have a part in pushing Spence out the door?
That's the sort of reporting this story demands. Simply repeating the bromides of opposing sides is lazy journalism, especially for an outlet like NPR that prides itself in getting the story beyond the story.
The bottom line: This latest effort was a cut-and-paste job. I noticed the story was not done by NPR's main religion reporter. I'd like to think we could have heard a much better report had the pro on the beat been called in.