Telling you what to think: Tampa Bay Times cranks up crusade on Christian clubs in schools

It's an increasingly common habit -- a bad one -- to mix news with commentary. But the Tampa Bay Times yesterday was especially blatant, starting with the headline: "What about the coaches?"

The article is the third in less than a week on Christian clubs like Young Life, First Priority and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and their activities in public schools. The Times pretty agrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaint to Hillsborough County Public Schools: Adults were evangelizing on campus through the clubs, thus breaching the constitutional separation of church and state; and school officials, including coaches, were letting them. Also, a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had two misdemeanor convictions on his record.

All of that is more than fair game for a newspaper to check out. And in fairness, it talked to David Gaskill of FCA, in a story on Thursday. That’s an improvement over January, when the Times talked to the accusers but none of the defenders.  

But it's hard to read yesterday's story as anything more than a j'accuse, when it starts with:

A complaint alleging illegal activities on the part of a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes did not just point the finger at self-styled campus minister David Gaskill.
It also named -- sometimes with photographic evidence -- coaches who either invited Gaskill to lead the students in prayer or participated with them. Those named in the complaint include Freedom High School football coaches Todd Donahoe and Cedric Smith; Tampa Bay Technical High School wrestling coach Edward Bayonet, Freedom girls basketball coach Laura Pacholke, Wharton High School wrestling coach David Mitchell and Middleton High School baseball coach Jim Macaluso.
Will the district investigate these coaches too?

The article gives the answer immediately: "They will not." Instead, they and other school employees who work with volunteers will get training on adherence to the First Amendment. A school board member adds that FFRF is "very happy with the district's response."  So why were the coaches the focus of the lede? Is this something like gospel shaming? (And why didn’t the Times ask FFRF if they really are satisfied?)

There's some follow-up with the cast from past articles: officials of the school district, a local rabbi and a representative of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Also as in past articles, the story brings up First Priority and Idlewild Baptist Church (which hosted training for school administrators). And same as last year, the paper quotes no one at either organization. Nor, for that matter, does it quote any of the six coaches it called out.

Then the story veers from news style into editorial style, speaking in the first person plural: "We will publish that essay when it is available," and "We also asked permission to attend Monday's training session." And when the paper is invited to sit in on a meeting, "We'd love to, we said."

Why, in the name of best practices, would a news story be allowed to shift voice into the royal "we"? The only shred of a warning I see, at least online, is the title "Gradebook" -- i.e., education news -- at the top of the page. Is that supposed to be a one-word signal for "At any moment, these stories may mutate into columns or editorials"?

At least the Thursday article fleshed out Gaskill's two convictions. One was possession of drug paraphernalia. The other was an unspecified "lesser charge" after being accused of stalking his ex-wife. Gaskill gets to say that the drug stuff belonged to a friend, but confessed he'd had a history of drug problems up to a decade ago. As for the stalking, he says he kept calling and texting his ex, trying to reconcile. At any rate, the newspaper says, he has been banned from Hillsborough campuses.

His defense is more fuzzy against those who accuse him of breaking the First Amendment. "I've spoken with thousands of kids," he says. "Nobody has ever once had a complaint" … and there are "certain people who are against God." I don't know if Gaskill actively dodged the questions, or the Times didn’t ask directly enough. Either way, he doesn't answer the constitutional issue that the article raises. Closer questioning might have helped.

Another question mark: The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation says it was "contacted by someone affiliated with one of the schools." Who was that? Why wasn't he/she interviewed? Why name six coaches but not the initial accuser?

Sandwiched between those two stories is a Saturday roundup, which tries to add balance and context. It acknowledges that besides off-campus evangelistic activities, the clubs plant trees, help children read and mentor kids with dysfunctional families. The article agrees also that the federal Equal Access Act allows students to hold religious club meetings in public schools.

But it adds: "Some of it -- namely, activity led by adults -- results from school officials who do not understand the law, or who appreciate the contributions Christian organizations make to schools and students, or both."

And it pastes comments by school superintendent Jeff Eakins from a letter he wrote to the ACLU: "I genuinely believe people are capable of providing supportive services to our schools without proselytization or forcing their ideology on those they are serving." But he defends his policy toward Christian clubs as an aid to "preparing students for life."

Then the story airs complaints. The rabbi objects to "missionary" activity, and a Lutheran minister decries the "aggressive religious engagement" by Young Life and First Priority.

Bad move by one of the groups: "Rob Tolley, Executive Director of Young Life Tampa, declined to comment." Stonewalling doesn't make anyone look good. But what of First Priority and FCA? There's no hint that the Times tried to reach them for the Saturday piece.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Many of the points in this series look spot on. Unscreened people with arrest records should be kept away from schoolkids of any age. And many Christians would object if, say, Muslims or Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses sought converts in schools. So guidelines need to be set and followed.

Having said that, the Tampa Bay Times has undeniably gotten caught up in its crusade -- closely following the script by the FFRF and the ACLU, turning a deaf ear to nearly all of the accused -- even saying "we," as if the entire newspaper is arrayed against the clubs. This may win friends from one side, but it will surely earn scowls on the other.

The newspaper may think that on some topics, it can get away with trying to manipulate your viewpoint. But professional ethics is what this series has been about. Shouldn't the Times be conscientious about its own?

Thumb photo: "Serf's UP," by Roger Sayles via (CC BY-ND).

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