RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)

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By now, news of the editorial bloodbath at Religion News Service is into its fourth day. The bare facts: A respected editor was ousted with apparently no warning or announced cause; two more veteran staff members quit within three days, two others had recently been let go and many others are looking to leave.

There’s a been a wave of postings on the Religion News Association’s members Facebook page. The topics: a campaign by current and former RNS employees to tell their story and –- in an unrelated matter –- a pending $4 million deal by which RNS material would be distributed by the Associated Press.

The conflict appears to have begun with two people: Tom Gallagher, the publisher of the Religion News Service and CEO of the Religion News Foundation, and Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Before arriving at RNS in November 2016, Gallagher was a corporate lawyer and one-time volunteer with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. He had been a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter since 2009. His detractors note that he has zero full-time, mainstream news experience (it’s certainly missing from his bio here). Also, the foundation manages RNS, which has about 100 media subscribers, and the Religion News Association, the global network of religion reporters. Its business office is housed at the University of Missouri and employees are paid through the financial structures of the university.

“I think we all knew when he was hired he didn’t have a ton of daily journalism experience,” Kimberly Winston Ligocki, a (now former) RNS national reporter based in California, told me. “We figured he would learn on the job. The thinking was he was hired more for his expertise with money and fundraising, which we needed.”

When I got ahold of Gallagher Wednesday morning, he refused comment on the RNS hirings and firings. When I asked him about his background, he said, “I have to run,” before hanging up.

When Gallagher came on board, RNS was already under the leadership of editor Jerome Socolovsky, a former religion reporter for Voice of America and a multi-lingual correspondent for NPR, based in Spain. Socolovsky was hired in the fall of 2015.

This is a long, complicated story. But where did the conflict begin? As is common these days, Donald Trump is part of the mix.

Gallagher’s chief sin, according to several RNS staff members, was the muzzling of Mouw, 78, one of the most respected academics in global evangelicalism.

Last summer, Mouw was growing increasingly disenchanted with President Trump and wondered how he should confront his fellow evangelicals about the unqualified support many were still offering the chief executive. The most obvious editorial vehicle he could use was “Civil Evangelicalism,” Mouw's regular column for RNS. But how to do so?

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Mouw remembered a time back in 1980 when the senior Falwell had echoed the words of Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith, who said that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew." Falwell later said he agreed with Smith (Read this Washington Post story for details of who said exactly what) but seemed to modify his tune after a trip to New York, where he met with Jewish leaders.

However, it's important to note that Mouw's column said the following, concerning Falwell's actions (without mentioning Smith):

... Then there was the time when [Falwell] said in a speech that God does not hear the prayers of Jews. This comment provoked an outcry from Jewish leaders. Your father’s immediate response was to call the folks who had criticized him and ask for a meeting. He flew to New York and spent several hours in discussion with these religious leaders. A rabbi friend who was present told me that your father was sincerely humble in his apologies. And when the meeting was over, your dad issued a statement asking Jews for forgiveness for what he had said.

Recalling this incident nearly 40 years later, Mouw, decided to post an open letter to Jerry Falwell Jr.,  one of the most visible evangelical supporters of the president. 

“I said, ‘Look, isn’t it time to admit you were wrong about Trump?’ ” Mouw told me Wednesday. “I said, ‘Look, your dad was willing to admit he made a mistake.’ ”

RNS posted Mouw’s open letter on Aug. 9. You can read it on the website of The Colorado Springs Gazette, since this opinion piece has been deleted from the RNS home page.

It didn’t take long for Mouw to hear back from the younger Falwell.

“Within a day," Mouw said, "I get an email from the legal department of Liberty University saying I had defamed the character of Jerry Falwell, Sr.; that he’d never said that and I had to publish a retraction or they’d take legal proceedings against me.

"Jerome said not to worry; that, ‘We have confirmation to say it’s true.’ ”

(I have seen a copy of this Falwell letter, which came with the heading, “Retraction and Apology Demand for Defamation of Jerry Falwell, Sr.”)

Mouw continued, “Then Jerome told me, ‘The (RNS) board and the chair of the board were very concerned and felt your statements about Falwell were inaccurate and you either correct that or we take the column down.’

“ ‘I don't’ know what to correct,’ I said.

“Jerome said, ‘Neither do I.’ He told me the whole editorial staff was upset about the board order to pull my column. I also heard that several were thinking of resigning over it. I told Jerome tell them not to resign because then they (the board) would win.”

Eight months later, “I am still glad I wrote it,” said Mouw. “I get lots of emails from younger evangelical types who say ‘Thank you.’ … I got one letter from a member of the faculty at Liberty saying, ‘Thank you for saying what we’re not allowed to say.’ ”

The way the board saw it, the opinion column contained factual errors that Socolovsky and Mouw refused to fix.

“Falwell never apologized. He never did and you can’t have wrong facts in the story and the board said, ‘You should fix this,’ says longtime religion reporter Bob Smietana, a former RNA president and a member of the RNS board of managers at the time. "No one on the board was worried about a lawsuit, but we did worry about the facts."

But staff members at RNS were simmering over the affair. A month later, there was a closed-door meeting meeting of RNS staff and members of its managing board held in conjunction with the annual Religion News Association conference in Nashville.

“The whole staff was furious with Tom taking down the Richard Muow article,” said a person who was in the meeting. “Everyone went around the room and expressed frustration.”

Little resulted, but a month later, Wendy Gustofson, RNS marketing manager and communications director, was laid off.

Gustofson has confirmed that she was bound by contract not to comment on her dismissal but Debra Mason, former RNA executive director, posted a memo on the private RNA members Facebook page saying Gustofson was dismissed “in a way that cut her off immediately from her email and required her to wait 7 weeks before she could access her HR records.”

Mason's memo has been published and discussed elsewhere in social media. In this post, references to the members-only RNA page are supported with information from interviews and/or correspondence with journalists who are discussing the issues being debated in that forum.

There was plenty of blowback from the Gustofson affair, which is why the next dismissal, that of grant writer Brian Pellot, was more gentle. Pellot, who is based in South Africa, but who had already bought a plane ticket to the United States to discuss with RNS possibly relocating there, was told in March that his position was being eliminated and his last day is May 5. Pellot’s exit is a mystery to some because he had pulled much-needed money into an organization that is now without a marketing director and a fundraiser.

The Mouw incident wasn’t the only issue. Staff members have described ongoing tensions between Gallagher and Socolovsky as to who should have the last word on RNS hires. According to the Mason memo, Gallagher has also allowed some Catholic clients to use RNS to distribute free press releases or advertisements that other clients have had to pay for.

“In all of this, they follow (University of Missouri) policy, but as an MU employee, I can tell you that the way RNS employees have been terminated is, around here, 'extreme,' " wrote Mason. “Jerome will not even get his owed vacation payout. The publisher has been calling people and asking for information he could use against Jerome for some time. I have first hand information on this.”

Then came last weekend’s bloodbath. Here’s the chain of events as I’ve been able to piece them together by on and off-the-record sources. Socolovsky was informed last Friday afternoon that he’d been let go. According to numerous RNS sources -- since he is not talking with media (see this previous tmatt post) -- Socolovsky was given no reason for his exit. He was informed of his termination via an email by Nicole Neroulias Gupte, one of the newest members of the RNS board of managers.

“There were concerns,” said Smietana. “It’s hard if your board and editor don’t see eye to eye. My understanding is there were attempts to have a phone conference with (Socolovsky)” before the firing.

“Jerome was well aware that he and the board did not see eye to eye. There’s no conspiracy and there was no unethical practices.”

Meanwhile, Gallagher was searching for a replacement. On Saturday evening, he emailed Cathy Grossman, a former USA Today reporter who was a senior national correspondent for RNS for several years, to see if she’d fill an interim-editor position for three months, starting Monday. She declined the offer and suggested he reconsider Jerome, “who I believe has been an excellent editor and manager,” she told me.

News spread among RNS staff. On Monday, Socolovsky announced on social media that he’d been let go and thanked various staff, adding that RNS had just hauled in seven awards, including “Best in Class,” at the Associated Church Press Awards.

As news continued to spread and more questions rolled in, Socolovsky didn’t elaborate except to say that he’d be home with his family “and play with power tools as I ponder my next move.”

Also on Monday morning, there was a video chat among RNS staff in which Gallagher announced that Socolovsky had been fired, but would not elaborate. People at the meeting said they demanded to know the reason but Gallagher froze them out, instead informing them that he’d given copies of their anguished and angry emails to RNS board members over the weekend.

Then Winston, who is also the go-to reporter on atheism, humanism and the “nones,” announced her departure Monday afternoon. More shocked replies followed on social media. In response to a question on whether she wrote: "No layoffs threatened. Just crossed a line I wasn’t willing to live with when they fired @jeromesoco w/o giving any of cause and w/o articulating a plan."

On Tuesday, she announced Managing Editor Lauren Markoe’s departure. By this time, tmatt had filed a GetReligion post covering what had been publicly stated so far. 

 

 

A few hours later, Pellot, whose official title was director of global strategy, announced he was leaving May 5:

 

Various Twitter feeds were filled with questions, recriminations, expressions of support and anger toward the powers-that-be controlling RNS/RNF/RNA. Gupte, speaking for the RNS board of managers, released a statement Wednesday saying the board couldn’t comment on personnel matters, but “much of what is being shared by some former colleagues simply doesn't match reality.”

That statement drew furious reactions from RNA'ers on the RNA members Facebook page and elsewhere.

“The very credibility of RNS is on the line here,” longtime RNA member Kim Sue Lia Perkes wrote on her Facebook page. “And the University of Missouri should be scared, very scared, because their credibility is on the line, too. And all of us former secular religion journalists who supported us buying RNS and turning into a real, hard news wire service have seen it turn and fire and run off some of the most respected journalists in the business.”

Somewhat later, Winston posted a notice about the hiring of the five-time Wilbur Award winner G. Jeffrey MacDonald as interim editor-in-chief, adding that RNS released that news before informing its staff.

  “Has there been a coup?” tweeted Elon University journalism professor Anthony Hatcher.

“I have used that word,” Winston replied.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Part 2, dealing with further reactions to the RNS meltdown, plus discussions of a major grant linked to RNS and the Associated Press, will run on Friday.

The top photo shows RNS staff in happier times: From left: Photo editor Kit Doyle, editor-in-chief Jerome Socolovsky, national correspondent Kimberly Winston Ligocki, managing editor Lauren Markoe, national reporter Emily Miller, social media editor Aysha Khan, web editor Natalie Feibish, national reporter Yonat Shimron, copy editor Mary Gladstone and production editor/national reporter Adelle Banks.

 

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