Religion News Service fallout III -- A press release sheds neither heat nor light

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More fallout continueth from the Religion News Service explosions of two weeks ago with the release of a press release that sounds like a directive out of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.

A quick review: tmatt’s April 24 post was the first reporting by anyone on this on RNS’s problems. Then I offered this mega-piece on the 26th,  which beat two magazine stories on the topic by almost a day. Then I followed up with this piece on the 27th, which looked at those pieces in The New Republic and the Columbia Journalism Review and then included the first official word of the Religion News Foundation's upcoming $4.9 million Lilly Endowment grant.

Make sure to bone up on the history of this conflict before going further. All that, plus Richard “Religion Guy” Ostling’s memo a few days later has resulted in some pretty decent coverage and commentary from the team here at GetReligion.

So this past Monday, RNS, through its crisis PR firm Athene Strategies, released the following:

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Recent announcements at Religion News Service, including new staff and a pending $4.9 million grant, demonstrate the strategic adjustments RNS is making to honor its 84-year legacy and ensure its bright future.
With these changes, RNS aims to do more than simply survive in a 21st century media landscape. Our vision requires bringing renewed energy and an innovation mindset to the field of religion journalism. By educating and informing a growing audience, we can help cultivate mutual understanding among people of different cultures, faiths and traditions. The result? More peaceful, pluralistic communities around the world.

So RNS holds a key to world peace? That's quite a journalistic mission.

We can do better. This reminds me of the “community journalism” craze of a few decades back mixed with UNESCO agitprop. Am also curious why the story is datelined out of Missouri. Yes, I know there are administrative ties to the University of Missouri, but why not dateline it in Washington, DC where RNS is based? 

Because RNS also has a fundamental duty to produce and uphold accurate, ethical journalism, its Board of Managers is taking this opportunity to correct and clarify key elements of our organization that have been inaccurately reported by multiple outlets. 

Really? I’m not aware of any mistakes that appeared in either my reporting nor that of the Columbia Journalism Review nor the New Republic stories. No one has posted retractions that I'm aware of. I also don’t think the higher-ups here should be complaining when they refused comment to those of us covering this.

For the record:
* The RNS Board of Managers is a subset of the Religion News Foundation Board of Directors, appointed by the RNF board, with separate meetings and duties in accordance with the RNS operating agreement. Collectively, the RNS managing board’s members have more than 80 years of religion news expertise across the journalism, academic and nonprofit sectors. It does not include reporters currently employed by RNS or competing media outlets, in order to avoid conflict of interest with our fiduciary and legal oversight of this daily  agency.
* Through our affiliation with the University of Missouri School of Journalism, RNF/RNS full-time employees are also MU employees, with respect to human resources policies and procedures, benefits and payroll. We reimburse MU for the cost of benefits and payroll on a quarterly basis, and comply with the university’s staff hiring and termination requirements.

I have some real questions about the latter. Does MU really cut off folks, like RNS did with Jerome Socolovsky, while waiting an entire week to inform them of the reason for their firing?

* The RNS CEO and publisher does not have the power to dismiss the editor-in-chief. In accordance with Section 4.4 of the RNS operating agreement, only the RNS Board of Managers may appoint and remove the editor-in-chief. We take this responsibility seriously, in close coordination with MU’s human resource services and a shared commitment to confidentiality and employee privacy.
* The role of RNF/RNS CEO and publisher requires significant entrepreneurial, fundraising, operational, strategy, risk management, governance and marketing skills; it does not require newsroom experience. The RNS Board of Managers is confident in Thomas Gallagher’s qualifications for success in this role, solidified by his impressive performance over the last 18 months. We are also thrilled to have G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a highly accomplished religion reporter, working with him as interim editor-in-chief of RNS during this period of transition and growth.

If nothing else, the board is definitely defending Gallagher to the hilt.

Did they find nothing wrong with how he’s been managing or mismanaging RNS for the past 18 months? I’m amazed there’s so few facts here that explain the upheaval at RNS; where the organization is heading post-Socolovsky and what about this new $4.9 million grant from Lilly?

* The RNS publisher and Board of Managers may relay story ideas and responses, or offer to help connect journalists with sources in our networks, but do not attend editorial meetings or otherwise involve themselves in editorial matters unless an issue arises that relates to our fiduciary or legal responsibilities.
* In addition to producing and distributing original news stories, commentary and photos, RNS operates a press release distribution service. The RNS CEO and publisher has the authority to set or waive fees for press releases submitted for distribution, as well as reprint requests, event sponsorships and other inquiries related to our marketing plan and budget.

My understanding is not so much that various staff weren’t objecting to Gallagher giving out free press releases to the Catholic groups of his choice, but that he documented no reasons for doing so.

Simply giving some groups a (literal) free pass connotes favoritism.

* The RNS Board of Managers recognizes that change and growth can be difficult for some, while others thrive in this dynamic environment. It is an exciting time to be a part of RNS and the field of religion journalism as we develop a more ambitious and sustainable business model.
Inaccuracies concerning these details have appeared in several news and opinion pieces in recent weeks. Both types of journalism are critical components of intelligent discourse — but neither is entitled to create its own facts. We appreciate this opportunity to set the record straight.

What “inaccuracies?” Pray tell. We’re also still waiting to hear more about why Socolovsky was sacked, in that the real truth hasn’t come out yet.

RNS remains dedicated to our mission as an independent, nonprofit and award-winning source of professional journalism covering religion, spirituality, culture and ethics. By reaffirming our commitment to accuracy and integrity, we can face the future with optimism and look forward to sharing more exciting news in the weeks to come.

Well, there you have it.

It tells nothing, really, but business as always. Why the heads of RNS chose to do this through a PR agency rather than write their own press release is a mystery. I’ve lost all hope that we’ll ever get straight answers from this crowd, so the major unanswered questions are: What will RNS look like after this shake-up and where’s the $4.9 million going to go?

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