Politico started today with a story on "The religious activists on the rise inside Trump's health department."
At least one reader immediately pointed out a factual error way up high.
Hint: The mistake involved an oft-discussed, hard-to-define group. You got it, it's the evangelicals again.
"This article manages to get the facts wrong in its very first sentence," James Hasson said on Twitter. "Roger Severino is a Melkite Greek Catholic, not an evangelical. That's kinda important if your whole premise is that evangelicals in HHS are "support[ing] evangelicals at the expense of other voices..."
Hat tip to "D Minor" -- another Twitter user -- who alerted your friendly GetReligionistas to Hasson's tweet.
Here's the original wording of Politico's lede:
A small cadre of politically prominent evangelicals inside the Department of Health and Human Services have spent months quietly planning how to weaken federal protections for abortion and transgender care -- a strategy that's taking shape in a series of policy moves that took even their own staff by surprise.
Those officials include Roger Severino, an anti-abortion lawyer who now runs the Office of Civil Rights and last week laid out new protections allowing health care workers with religious or moral objections to abortion and other procedures to opt out. Shannon Royce, the agency's key liaison with religious and grass-roots organizations, has also emerged as a pivotal player.
If Severino isn't actually an evangelical, you can understand Hasson's concern, right?
I did some quick Googling and didn't immediately find any online mention of Severino being a Melkite Greek Catholic. So I asked Hasson for the source of his information. It turns out he had a pretty good one: Severino himself.
Meanwhile, I was reminded of this piece that Emma Green -- The Atlantic's extraordinary and increasingly omnipresent religion writer -- wrote last summer:
A relevant chunk of Green's story, in which she refers to his Catholic 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.” He and his wife, Carrie, have spent years in conservative advocacy. She runs the Judicial Crisis Network, which pushes for conservative judicial appointments. Earlier in her career, she clerked for Justice Thomas -- “one of my heroes,” her husband told me.
Before Severino came to OCR, he led a center on religion -- named for and funded in part by the family of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos -- at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Washington think tank. He also worked at the Becket Fund, the religious-liberty law firm best known for its victories in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell -- cases litigated after Severino’s tenure that challenged Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate on religious grounds.
Severino described conscience protection as a priority for his office -- a term used for legal safeguards around religious liberty, often specifically referring to abortion or birth control. He cited a handful of provisions that protect health-care providers who object to abortion and sterilization, including the Weldon amendment and the Church amendments. OCR might intervene if a Catholic hospital is sued for refusing to perform abortions, for example, or if a nurse is fired for declining to assist with a vasectomy.
Now, back to the journalistic state of affairs at Politico: That news organization has edited its opening to refer to "politically prominent religious activists" as opposed to "politically prominent evangelicals." Also added was a reference to "Catholic" in regard to Severino in the second sentence.
A note characterized as a "clarification" has been added to the bottom of the story:
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this report characterized the religious affiliation of an HHS official in overly broad terms. Richard Severino is Catholic.
Hmmmmm. That sounds more like a correction than a clarification, unless Politico is suggesting that Severino is indeed an evangelical.
To be sure, all journalists -- all news organizations -- make honest mistakes. The question is: Did Politico make an honest mistake in describing Severino as an evangelical?
Hasson still has questions:
He's referring to the reference to "evangelicals" that remains high up in the Politico piece, even after the "clarification":
"To have leaders like Roger, like Shannon, it’s so important," said Deanna Wallace of Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group that was frequently at odds with the Obama administration. "It’s extremely encouraging to have HHS on our side this time."
But inside HHS, staff say that those leaders are steering their offices to support evangelicals at the expense of other voices, such as a recent decision to selectively post public comments that were overwhelmingly anti-abortion. "It’s supposed to be the faith-based partnership center, not the Christian-based partnership center," said a longtime HHS staffer, referencing the HHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships led by Royce.
Methinks Hasson makes an excellent point -- not for the first time today.
Politico seems to be using the term "evangelicals" interchangeably to describe all traditional or conservative religious believers. There's a lot of that going around today, and it seems to be getting worse.
That's a problem -- one that hurts the overall credibility of Politico and today's story specifically.