Richard Mouw

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

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

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 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?

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Editor and publisher news at Religion News Service: Note strategic silences on Twitter, right now

Editor and publisher news at Religion News Service: Note strategic silences on Twitter, right now

If you care about religion news in America and around the world, then your business-day dose of email probably includes a copy of The Slingshot, the digital newsletter produced by the Religion News Service that summarizes the newsroom's latest offerings.

The typical edition includes a few hard-news pieces by the wire service's small, but in most cases highly experienced staff, as well as lots of links to RNS opinion columns and blog posts. The Slingshot also includes short, helpful notes pointing readers to religion features produced elsewhere.

In many ways, The Slingshot shows where American journalism is at the moment -- since opinion is cheap and hard-news information is expensive. The professionals at RNS are not alone in wrestling with that brutal equation.

Today's edition of The Slingshot leads with aggregation blurbs pointing to articles at The Orange Country Register, Religion Dispatches, NBC News and an RNS news piece from yesterday.

What the newsletter does not include is any information about the primary question that is currently being asked on Twitter. That would be: What is going on at Religion News Service?

At this point, it's best to back up and follow the shards of information that have been put on the record in social media.

Let's start with this announcement from the wire service's now-former editor, Jerome Socolovsky. Concerned readers will want to read the whole thread and keep checking back for updates.

However, journalists will certainly note this phrase -- "and that's about all I can say."

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Not surprisingly, Franklin Graham's political views are an issue with the New York Times

Not surprisingly, Franklin Graham's political views are an issue with the New York Times

With the Rev. Billy Graham dead and –- as I write this –- on his way to lying in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, lots of eyes have turned toward his eldest son, the Rev. Franklin Graham. The New York Times on Monday came out with a piece that lauded Billy for his non-involvement with politics (at least later in life), then trashed Franklin for embracing President Donald Trump.

I get peeved when certain media purport to have great concern for the future of evangelical Christianity when at the same time criticizing the movement when some of its members embrace conservative politics. The same folks who find Franklin Graham to be an unworthy son wouldn’t think of going after the (more liberal) daughters of George W. Bush for not carrying on his legacy.

Graham is a major annoyance to many in the media for his unabashed Trumpism. I don’t claim to be a big fan of Franklin’s, but I have to laugh at his elephant skin. Haven't reporters figured out that Graham the younger doesn't give a rip about their opinions?

After the piece begins with a quote from the late evangelist about the dangers of political involvement, it then pillories the younger Graham.

Among Mr. Trump’s most vocal evangelical supporters, few are as high-profile as Billy Graham’s eldest son and the heir to his ministry, the Rev. Franklin Graham, who is 65. Though admired among evangelicals for his aid work in hardship zones with the charity he leads, Samaritan’s Purse, he has drawn criticism for his unstinting support of the president.
Franklin Graham has defended the president on television and social media through the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the crackdowns on immigrants and refugees, the Stormy Daniels scandal, and the slur against Haiti and Africa.
“People say that the president says mean things. I can’t think of anything mean he’s said. I think he speaks what he feels,” Mr. Graham said in a wide-ranging telephone interview last week. “I think he’s trying to speak the truth.”

Well, Trump has actually said plenty of mean things and on that, Franklin Graham and I would disagree. But why has his conservative politics become this major harbinger of where evangelicalism -- as a whole -- stands right now?

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Some news skills never die: An obituary writer describes life on the death beat

Some news skills never die: An obituary writer describes life on the death beat

Obituary writing is an all-important corner of the news game. We are talking “first draft of history” and all that.

A key practitioner, Bruce Weber of The New York Times, is leaving the beat following eight years and 1,000 salutes to the dear departed. With considerable charm, he recently described his odd life in news and ink.

His subjects were “famous, infamous, or as obscure as the rest of us except for one instance of memorable distinction,” the latter including a stupid airline hijacker,  some guy who shot a ballplayer, a pederast, a con artist, or an embezzler, all thrown next to honored humanitarians, statesmen, and scientists seeking to cure AIDS or cancer.  (Unfortunately, these days such “mainstream media” routinely ignore the deaths of many worthy religious leaders.)

With unanticipated deaths, pieces must be knocked out in an hour or two. But at the Times and elsewhere, important obits are planned in advance. “You can’t write the comprehensive life story of a president or a pope or a movie star in an hour or even a day,” he explains. Indeed. Five months out of college, the Religion Guy compiled a two-page obit for Delaware’s Wilmington Morning News hours after JFK died, thanks mostly to canned AP and UPI copy and our "morgue" files.  

Most periodicals will (or should) have well-prepared sendoffs for religion’s big three -- The Rev. Billy Graham, now 97 and the prime U.S. clergyman of his era; the Dalai Lama, 81, and Pope Francis, 79. With such overarching personalities the temptation is to bigfoot the task, handing it to a veteran generalist instead of the staff religion specialist.

The bottom line: The result can emphasize the politics and downplay the religion.

But the religion-news professional is a better bet due to perspective and sources.

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