When profiling a Trump HHS appointee, The Atlantic misses key journalism cues

This should be an obvious fact, but to some, it may be shocking: When a given political candidate wins election as president of the United States, they and their team gain the right to appoint bureaucrats of their choosing at federal agencies.

Obviously, many must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate and some may be denied confirmation or withdraw their nominations. Generally, however, the new sheriff gets to name their principal deputies. It's one of the job's perks, alongside a private helicopter, a great home switchboard team and jumbo jet.

Granted, my explanation is on a par with that now oft-mocked Schoolhouse Rock cartoon about how a bill becomes a law. But it appears to have been forgotten in the four-plus months since a real estate mogul born and raised in the New York City borough of Queens was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

There's been plenty of ink -- and misapprehensions -- about some of President Donald J. Trump's appointees, but there are also attempts at more insightful coverage, as GetReligion alumna Mollie Hemingway tweeted on Wednesday:

Herewith The Atlantic's take on the new head of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services:

The offices inside the Department of Health and Human Services are aggressively tan. Roger Severino, the newly appointed head of its Office for Civil Rights, hasn’t done much by way of decoration. Aside from a few plaques and leftover exhibits from old cases, his Clarence Thomas bobblehead doll and crucifix are the only personal touches in his work space. ...
Severino leads the office that could shape the future of two of the most high-stakes aspects of the health-care debate: abortion and contraception access and LGBT rights. OCR, as it’s known, is responsible for investigating civil-rights violations in health-care settings, including discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, and national origin. Under Barack Obama, HHS faced religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that most employers cover birth control in their insurance plans, and OCR has dealt with the fall-out of those fights. It developed strict requirements for the language services hospitals have to provide to non-English speakers. Most controversially, it was responsible for interpreting Section 1557, the part of the health-care law that prohibits discrimination.

Apart from a grammatical tic -- at first glance, one might think Severino's "Clarence Thomas bobblehead doll and crucifix" are a single item -- there are some substantive journalistic issues here that pop up when reading the entire piece.

Overall, this is good reporting. But there are missing elements, I believe.

For one, it is only Severino's critics who are quoted by name in this story -- either as an organization or as individuals. Severeino's background with the Heritage Foundation, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the U.S. Department of Justice are mentioned, but no one from these organizations appears to have been interviewed for the profile, or at least were mentioned in the article.

Were leaders at these groups, or at the Family Research Council, or any present or former U.S. Senator of a conservative bent totally unavailable for an on-the-record comment?

Severino's pre-HHS views were hardly secret, as the video interview above with journalist Graham Ledger illustrates. He is a traditional, faith-friendly conservative, something The Atlantic profile certainly points out. So, why isn't there anyone whose views align with Severino quoted by name?

Despite Severino's landmark work at the U.S. Justice Department -- winning discrimination cases involving a Muslim landlord in Louisana and followers of Falun Gong in New York City -- the only people The Atlantic could find to quote by name are those apparently aghast at the prospect of a Trump administration having appointed people in line with conservative cultural and moral views:

In recent years, LGBT rights have been a priority for civil-rights lawyers working in high-profile posts. For example: Catherine Lhamon -- the current chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan watchdog agency that tracks civil-rights enforcement across the federal government—was one of the Department of Education officials who crafted a 2016 letter to school districts informing them of their responsibility to accommodate students’ gender identity. ...
She described Severino’s appointment as putting “a fox in the hen house” and said she’s heard similar fears from her colleagues: “The civil-rights legal community was and is aghast about the notion of someone with so little expertise and such expressed hostility to the mission of the office actually heading that office.”

These hair-on-fire words of opposition come just a few paragraphs after Severino himself pledged some distance from his earlier expressed views on several subjects:

“My views before coming into this role cannot dictate what I do in this role now,” Severino said. “I have to give everything, to the extent humanly possible, a fresh look.”

Were I writing the story, I'd ask Lhamon to give me specifics on why she can't give a onetime civil rights lawyer who won some impressive victories for members of minority religions at least a shot at proving themselves. If that question was asked or answered, the article provides no clue.

Despite the "tease" of the bobblehead-and-crucifix reference at the top of the piece, we're given no real details of the HHS official's faith:

But in other ways, Severino diverges from the typical D.C. civil-rights-lawyer type. He’s deeply conservative and religious: He really came into his Catholicism in law school, he told me, and describes himself as “a big believer in [religious] conscience.”

Where does he attend church? Is he active in his local parish? What happened in law school to precipitate Severino's "really [coming] into his Catholicism"? Inquiring minds might wish to know, but we're not told here.

If it seems I often harp on context, context, context in my GetReligion posts, there's a reason: Without context, without explanation, we're left wondering and guessing about what fills in the gaps. At least, I was left wondering. There are, of course, space and time limitations in journalism, but given the nature of a profile piece, this reader is left in a position similar to that of Oliver Twist at meal time: "Please, Atlantic, I want some more."

FIRST IMAGE: The WOW Report signals its readers that LGBTQ issues are crucial to arguments about Severino. Link here.

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