Looking beyond the press conference

church money 2The other day in the National Press Club I happened to stroll by a press conference held by the Institute on Religion and Democracy while I was on my way to another press conference. I was able to catch a few minutes of the press conference before mine started and I resolved to look at how the mainstream media treated the story.

The press conference announced the release of a booklet summarizing two years of research into the funding behind the National Council of Churches. The NCC bills itself as an ecumenical partnership of Christian denominations in the United States. The Institute on Religion and Democracy, which is a think tank that advocates for major change within some of the denominations represented by the NCC, claims that the NCC’s funding comes at least as much from liberal foundations as it does from its member denominations. It argued that the NCC had strayed from its original mission of uniting Christian churches and had devolved into leftist political advocacy.

The first story I read was from The Washington Times. Religion reporter Julia Duin is on leave so another reporter filled in:

The National Council of Churches is becoming financially beholden to secular groups with liberal political leanings, according to a report by a religious watchdog organization.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy, a group formed by members of the NCC, says the group accepted the majority of its charitable donations last year from nonreligious organizations and has been pursuing an agenda that does not mesh with the majority of its church members, including support for abortion and homosexual “marriage.”

It’s fairly straightforward, but it does include an error. IRD was not formed by members of the NCC.

Now let’s look at Alan Cooperman’s piece in The Washington Post. What’s most interesting to me is the way that the story is about the press conference rather than the underlying reason for the press conference. It’s not unheard of to write up what happens at a press conference (although my editor gets mad at me when I do it), but it is rare — and rare especially for Cooperman, who’s written excellent stories based on Americans United for Separation of Church and State press releases without revealing the source. I’m all for transparency, but it’s interesting when it happens and when it doesn’t happen at the Post:

Two influential Christian nonprofit organizations questioned each other’s finances yesterday, each suggesting that the other is beholden to big donors with partisan political motives.

The clash between the National Council of Churches and the Institute on Religion and Democracy was a rarity in Washington, where liberal and conservative advocacy groups fight fiercely over issues but seldom dig deeply into each other’s funding.

Both groups call themselves nonpartisan and are incorporated as tax-exempt charitable organizations. But the council, a New York-based alliance of 35 Christian denominations, is deeply involved in liberal social causes, such as reducing poverty and making peace; it achieved a long-standing legislative goal yesterday when the House voted to increase the minimum wage.

The institute, a Washington-based think tank, is allied with conservative groups on issues such as same-sex marriage. From its founding in 1981, its primary effort has been to challenge what it calls the “leftist” political positions of mainline Protestant denominations, such as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It has worked closely with conservatives in those denominations, including Episcopalians who have broken away from their church since it consecrated a gay bishop in 2003.

As far as I know, there is nothing factually inaccurate with what Cooperman wrote. My problem with this approach, however, is that one of these groups is an actual lobbying organization and one of these groups is not. NCC describes itself as an ecumenical association of Christian denominations but it proudly lobbies for the passage or blockage of Congressional legislation. IRD does not. And yet you don’t get that feeling from the way Cooperman wrote this up. You would think it was just two equivalent political groups fighting each other.

IRD has a very different mission and agenda — it tries to help theologically conservative members of mainline congregations fight against “leftist secular social and political agendas” within their churches and particularly among church leadership.

Let’s look at another passage:

The first question at the institute’s news conference on the report came from the Rev. Leslie Tune, a staff member of the council, who asked where the institute gets its own funds.

James Tonkowich, the institute’s president, said that about 60 percent of its roughly $1 million in annual revenue comes from individual donors and about 40 percent from conservative foundations, such as the Scaife, Bradley, Coors and Smith Richardson family charities.

One must commend Tune for how well she managed to get Cooperman to follow her lead. NCC folks at the press conference asked questions about IRD’s finances and now that’s as much news as the two-year study looking into the non-church finances of a group that claims to be an association of Christian denominations.

churchpoliticsBut considering that the Institute on Religion and Democracy has programs designed to help conservative laypeople in Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches who oppose their liberal leadership and liberal political agenda, where exactly would one expect their funds to come from? Church headquarters? The Episcopal Diocese of Washington is so upset by efforts to fight liberal theology and political activism in The Episcopal Church that it drafted a huge document to expose the funding of the efforts.

The two groups have completely different claims and completely different approaches. NCC claims to be an association of denominations. IRD does not. Whether or not the NCC gets more than half of its funding from churches or liberal foundations is an interesting question. The IRD does not claim to be an association of churches. And again, only one of these groups actually lobbies Congress. The other lobbies churches, more or less. So whether or not the IRD gets funding by right-wing foundations to affect change in mainline denominations is interesting. What conservative foundations hope to achieve through their funding of IRD is also an interesting story — but it’s a different story than whether a group is claiming to be a middle-of-the-road association of churches while lobbying for liberal legislation.

Note: Neither I nor my church body is involved with either IRD or NCC. But I imagine a fair number of you or your churches are. As difficult as it is, please focus on how the media should treat this story and not on the political or theological stances of either group.

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  • Martha

    Again, this demonstrates how bias is in the eye of the beholder: I give Mr. Cooperman the benefit of the doubt that he’s trying to write a plain, unvarnished, ‘just the facts, ma’am’ account, but there’s one or two bits that would make me bridle, viz. “deeply involved in liberal social causes, such as reducing poverty and making peace” and “The institute, a Washington-based think tank, is allied with conservative groups on issues such as same-sex marriage” – as a reactionary tool of the oppressors, I’d certainly be inclined to say “Hold on a minute, here! Are you saying social justice is *not* a concern of us running dogs of capitalism in the non-liberal wings of our respective churches?”.

    It comes across as liberals = all about peace ‘n’ justice; conservatives = SEX!!!! And that’s even before we get into who’s getting money from where (and who are the paymasters pulling the strings).

    Just out of pure curiosity, I Googled the National Council of Churches to see if it was anything like the World Council of Churches in its makeup, seeing as how the Roman Catholic church was never part of the WCC and the Orthodox Churches have famously cut their ties with the WCC just recently: yep, the Roman Catholic church is not one of the “member communions and denominations” (though it is associated with the ecumenical “program commissions” http://www.ncccusa.org/members/index.html).

    Doing the same for the Institute on Religion and Democracy brings up two Roman Catholic and one Orthodox names that I recognise; there could be more among the names that I don’t know http://www.ird-renew.org/site/pp.asp?c=fvKVLfMVIsG&b=356301

    Dunno whether this tells you much one way or the other, apart from the bit we already get that one organisation represents the ‘liberals’ and the other the ‘conservatives’ (for whatever values you think those labels may concern). But it is interesting that the focus in the press was not on the ostensible reason for the conference, i.e. bias in orientation and lobbying, but concentrated on ‘show me the money!’. Wouldn’t be an indicator of unconscious agreement amongst the journalists that the NCC simply represents what all right-thinking persons aim for, rather than those knuckle-dragging Neanderthals in the IRD, would it?

  • Chris Bolinger

    When you begin a piece with “Two influential Christian nonprofit organizations questioned each other’s finances yesterday” and then call the two organizations “liberal and conservative advocacy groups”, you are engaged in what we in the Marketing realm call “positioning”. Positioning is rarely, if ever, accidental. Cooperman is not writing about a press conference or trying to write a balanced, “just the facts” account. He is deliberately obfuscating the nature of one of the organizations in order to buttress the position of that organization. Guess which one?

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Terry

    Did the IRD release the actual report or just the executive summary? The summary alone is online. And is there any indication the Washington papers confirmed any of the details of the report if it was available. Or is this a “he spins-she spins”?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Bob,

    I wrote the post, actually. The whole report was released and it wasn’t contested — in fact, Rev. Bob Edgar (a Methodist minister and former Democrat Congressman) was there and thanked the report’s authors for showing what a good fundraiser he was.

    I’m not claiming that IRD doesn’t have an agenda. It does — and it’s pretty straightforward about it on its web site. I just think it’s interesting the way Cooperman played the story. He didn’t really look at the reason for the press conference. And I think that whether or not NCC is mostly funded by member churches or liberal foundations (something that as a former fundraiser doesn’t shock me at all) is an interesting question that deserved some better treatment.

  • Michael

    One of the challenges of covering interest groups is ferreting out the context. When tensions are so high that one group shows up at another group’s press conference to denounce the report, the context is probably a lot more interesting than the actual report.

    NCC and IRD have been caught in a fairly lengthy (and ugly) battle and this report is more about the tension between the two groups than the actual context of the report. Cooperman’s story is actually much better reporting than just regurgitating the findings of the report.

    The Times story, arguably, could be questioned for its bias since Duin took so long to get to the context of the dispute. Given the WT’s conservative bias when it comes to reporting (especially on social/political issues), it’s easy to look at that piece as containing some bias in the way it was reported.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Michael,

    I spoke with my husband last night about this very issue. I think the context *was* helpful in the story. I thought it was interesting how the context hasn’t been there in some of Cooperman’s previous stories.

    And I feel that I’m usually encouraging more context. But this story was kind of all saddle and no horse. The underlying claim of the IRD (that the NCC has deviated from its original constitution and is now funded mostly by non-church groups) deserved a better airing, I think. The two groups are different but in more ways than Cooperman presented them.

    And NCC was very nice at the conference. Edgar was there and he praised the report’s authors, as I mentioned. There was no denouncing, as far as I know. It was more like what happens at a lot of press confererences where opponents try to sidetrack the speakers from what their agenda is.

    I agree that the relationship between the two groups — and the tension between the two groups — absolutely must be mentioned in a story like this. I 100 percent agree.

    But he made them seem like two sides of the same coin when in fact they have different ways of identifying themselves and different missions. Their differences were not explained well enough. It’s much broader than one being liberal and one being conservative.

    It’s about what they claim to be and what their goals are. One claims to be an association of churches (which it is, but so much more) that works for political change OUTSIDE of churches. The other claims to be a private think tank that works for change INSIDE churches. That was not fleshed out well enough.

    Also, Julia Duin did NOT write that Times piece, which is a shame since I would have liked to see what she would have done with it. But I do think it was a more standard approach to the news of the day. I also decided to hold off on discussing the homosexual marriage in quotes thing that the Times does since I didn’t want to get too far afield. I just thought it was important to point out the error in the second graph.

  • Michael

    I apologize to Julia for using her name. I read the story, saw your mention of Julia, and made an assertion. Sorry about that.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Mollie,

    My bad–apologies.

    The Post story seems OK—this seems basically a sparring match between two groups with differing political view. On the other hand, couldn’t the Post or the Times spend a little more time exploring what this means, instead of giving a blow by blow on the press conference. It’s not exactly breaking news that the NCC leans liberal and the IRD leans conservative.

    I suspect from looking at the IRD website that the report is primarily a fundraising/recruiting tool. It would be interested in much this report “exposed” and how much of the funding of the NCC is part of their public reporting anyway. It took them two years to find this out?

    The IRD has a significant political agenda as well–hence their name, Institute on Religion and Democracy I don’t know if they lobby, but they certainly try to influence public opinion on issues like global warming-which is probably what their conservative foundation supporters want. It’d be interesting to know how much the IRD focuses on religion, and how much on democracy/politics. Their enviromental focus seems primarily, “global warming is a myth.”

    One thing the IRD report points out, but doesn’t explore much, is the spin off of Church World Service from NCC. Church World Service’s $91 million budget dwarfs that of the NCC. Maybe that’s where all the member denomination money goes.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana
  • tmatt

    This whole divide of “peace and justice” vs. sex is really interesting, in that the agendas of the conservative Third World churches are truly a mixture of the two. A black Anglican in Nigeria is tied up peace and justice issues just as much or more than sex issues, although, famously, issues linked to homosexuality have become very politicized there due to tensions between Islam and traditional Christians.

    So to say that the IRD does not care about peace and justice issues is rather strange. People can care about peace and justice issues and not automatically agree with the NCC stances on those issues.

    I agree with MZ that the really interesting issue here is how the Post equated the missions of these two groups. Hey, if the NCC wants to openly say that it is now a political and social-issues lobby on the left, more power to them and the candor will help reporters.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Michael writes: “One of the challenges of covering interest groups is ferreting out the context. When tensions are so high that one group shows up at another group’s press conference to denounce the report, the context is probably a lot more interesting than the actual report.”

    Absolutely. But doing so presents challenges, as Mollie points out. Still, let me push the point further: What the IRD and NCC say they do and what they actually do are two different things. NCC may “proudly” lobby, but even an only-infrequent political reporter like me knows that the IRD does, too, even if they say they don’t. Much of religion reporting is about describing the vast territory between doctrine and practice. So my question is: What would be a better way to convey the idea that IRD and NCC are dueling political-religious lobbies, even as they see themselves in a different fashion?

    This isn’t an original dilemma to religion reporting — what do the best political reporters do, for instance, with the varieties of self-proclaimed conservative experience in American politics? — but I’d argue that it’s more interesting for religion writers, since a big part of our beat consists of the nuances of belief.

    Much more interesting, as it happens, than the IRD’s utterly unsurprising charges or the NCC’s utterly unsurprising countercharges.

  • Martha

    Good point, Jeff. I suppose the only thing you can do is lay it out as you get it. I think, though, that what Mollie is trying to get across is that even though the IRD and the NCC both have political/cultural agendas, the IRD is a group of like-minded lay people in various fields that got together outside the aegis of official church representation – whether or not their denominations give them any support either tacitly or openly – whereas the NCC is a church group: committees from within denominations gathered together with the support of their denomination for an avowedly political end.

    The IRD has just that much more degree of hands-offness. But the story makes it sound like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or that it’s the Rainbow Fish Tea Dance Fundraising Committee versus the Altar Guild Jumble Sale Ladies, when they are not, in their origins, the same beast at all.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Looking at the numbers, neither of these groups seem to matter as much to the people in the pew as they do to denominational bureaucrats or deep pocketed movers and shakers. The part of the NCC that spun off has a $91 million budget,– $64.2 millionof which comes from member denominations/churches or CROP walk. It’s a little shameful–if the NCC has 45 million members and the give less than a buck per member to Church World Service.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I’m seeing pretty much the same thing that Martha is: that the shift of NCC funding from the member churches to secular advocacy groups is being buried, in Cooperman’s article, in a raft of mostly irrelevant “shoot the messenger” counter-accusations against IRD. The whole question of the impact or propriety of such funding isn’t brought up; indeed, it’s almost as though IRD’s funding justifies NCC’s funding.

  • Maureen

    Proper use of sex is pretty intrinsic to peace and justice. I thought one of the big liberal quotes was that peace begins in the family?

  • Gary Aknos

    Just read this piece of commentary on UCCtruths.com:

    Regardless of your opinion of the IRD or the NCC, the report raises serious questions about the National Council of Churches and it’s sources of funding. Bob Edgar, like the UCC’s John Thomas, doesn’t like to have his motives questioned and will undoubtedly respond by claiming a right-wing conspiracy instead of actually explaining why the National Council of Churches hasn’t been more transparent about it’s sources of funding. In September, 2005, the United Methodist Church (Edgar’s own church and the largest member of the National Council of Churches) sent a “letter of concern” to the NCC over the departure of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and called for “immediate steps to understand” why the Orthodox church left the NCC. In the same letter, the United Methodist Church also expressed it’s “disdain” over a politically loaded fund raising letter that Edgar sent out in June of 2005.

    Edgar’s initial reaction to the criticism he received from the letter was to suggest a conspiracy by “those who try to dilute our witness and mislead our friends by suggesting that the National Council of Churches is a partisan, left-leaning organization.” However, his tune changed after the UMC letter. Thomas Hoyt, then President of the National Council of Churches, said that Edgar now “has acknowledged that the letter was sent from the development office without proper review.”

    The IRD, on the other hand, has a clear political agenda. Unlike the National Council of Churches, their agenda is transparent and their sources of funding are very public. But the biggest difference between the NCC and the IRD is their constituency. Whether you love them or hate them, the IRD’s members voluntarily and directly subscribe to their values and principles. The 45 million members that the NCC claims to represent are so buried under multiple levels of bureaucracy between their local churches, associations, conferences and denomination offices that there is literally no connection between the NCC and it’s members. Further, since the NCC claims to speak with a prophetic voice on a range of issues, it has a moral obligation to publicly disclose it’s sources of funding and political alliances – but it does not. At a minimum, the IRD report provides a level of transparency that the NCC won’t disclose on it’s own.

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    Sounds like Tweedledum and Tweedledee to me.

    I’m surprised there’s been no mention about how the Dallas Morning News has eliminated its religion section because it hasn’t brought in enough advertising.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Jinzang:

    I have raised the question about the News and I think we have a partial answer in a day or so via Jeffrey ….

  • http://www.philocrites.com/ Philocrites

    Mollie, you are wrong to write, several times, that the NCC “claims” to be an organization of denominations. That’s not a claim; it’s true. The NCC is, in fact, an organization of denominations. Whether one thinks it’s a properly representative organization is a separate issue.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Philocrites,

    You can claim something that is also true. For instance, I claim to be named Mollie. And it’s true. My name is Mollie.

    I never said that NCC wasn’t an organization of denominations. Far from it. I specifically said that NCC is an association of denominations — I just also pointed out that it is much more. And that much more part was pertinent to the claim of IRD, which has a different self-description (or claim about itself) and agenda.

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  • Charlie

    Is this site funded by Ahmanson? If so, it seems it would be helpful to point that out before so aggressively dissecting the confluence of funding and mission. Huh, Mollie? Seems like your credibiliy rests on it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Charlie,

    As Terry previously noted in his What We’re Doing Here post:

    We see all kinds of things and so do our many friends in academia, think tanks and the blogosphere. In this project, we are working with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life and a philanthropist who — with the byline Roberta Green — is herself a journalist with solid, national-level experience on the religion beat in mainstream newspapers. Click here to read a speech in which she discusses her own motivations for continuing to work on issues of education, mass media, journalism and culture.

    I can’t speak to funding of other groups but there’s our information. I will say that those of us who contribute here put our other conflict-of-interest information in our bios — where we work, what our religious affiliations are, etc. And those are there for you to look at no matter what post we write on. The world is rather interconnected so there’s probably a six-degrees-of-separation (or fewer) with almost everything we write about here. We don’t necessarily repeat our personal bios or other affiliations with each post.

    I would also like to point out two of the things I wrote in this post.

    I specifically linked to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s critique of the funding of groups that work against the liberalism within The Episcopal Church — this is basically Jim Naughton’s research into the operating budgets of the American Anglican Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

    I also wrote the following:

    So whether or not the IRD gets funding by right-wing foundations to affect change in mainline denominations is interesting. What conservative foundations hope to achieve through their funding of IRD is also an interesting story — but it’s a different story . . .

    I specifically linked to critiques of IRD funding and said it would be interesting to look into the confluence of funding and mission for IRD. I think my credibility is fine.

    I don’t really personally care about IRD or NCC. Neither group represents me or my church body (the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod). I’m carrying water for neither. I didn’t even know what IRD’s mission was until I walked by their press conference the other day. Fact is, I have theological problems with both The Episcopal Church and the Virginia churches that broke away from it (I don’t really know enough about the other churches or dioceses that are breaking away). Different problems, but problems nonetheless.

    One other note. I have never once been told what to write or what not to write about here at GetReligion. I have never been criticized for the content of what I’ve written. I’m given completely free rein to discuss what I have issues with.

    It’s also worth pointing out that we don’t even always agree among ourselves here. I enjoy reading Terry and Daniel in part because they look at things very different from me.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Grr. I just wrote a really long response and it just disappeared when I hit submit.

    Anyway, if Charlie or anyone else is interested in these questions, take a stroll over to the What We’re Doing Here site. Terry wrote:

    We see all kinds of things and so do our many friends in academia, think tanks and the blogosphere. In this project, we are working with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life and a philanthropist who — with the byline Roberta Green — is herself a journalist with solid, national-level experience on the religion beat in mainstream newspapers. Click here to read a speech in which she discusses her own motivations for continuing to work on issues of education, mass media, journalism and culture.

    I encourage you to explore the links in the original excerpt although I’m not going to recreate them here since I did that last time and think I may have lost my comment because of it.

    I would point out that in the post above, I specifically linked to Jim Naughton’s critique of IRD funding at the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s web site. I also specifically said that the confluence of funding and mission for IRD is an interesting question to look into.

    Thanks for your interest and let me know if you had any substantive problems with what I wrote about the Washington Post and Washington Times stories of the IRD/NCC story.

  • Charlie

    The fact that you appended a “Note” to the end of your post saying that “neither I nor my church body is affiliated with IRD” but neglected to mention that GetReligion is funded by IRD’s sugar daddy is itself a “substantive problem.” The fact that you don’t think it’s a problem further indicates a critical lack of insight and honesty. If you chose to lick the hands that feed you, do so in the light of day.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    I found Mollie’s longer response to Charlie, which had been flagged falsely by Akismet, our usually reliable anti-spam comment filter.

    I will cut it loose momentarily so it will appear in this space.

  • http://blidiot.blogspot.com/ Raider51

    Hey Mollie,

    Don’t sweat it — it’s much easier to claim that the GetReligion crew is just part of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy than it is to address the substantive points mentioned in the blog postings.

    wm.

    p.s. — it’s nice to see Doug the White put in an appearance — we’ve missed you.

  • charlie

    Hey WM, I’m not saying Molly and GetReligion are part of right wing conspiracy.

    I am saying that holding the media to GetReligion’s high standards — standards that require full disclosure of conflicts of interest — while practicing something else is the height of hypocrisy.

    And Molly knows it. That’s why she won’t address it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Charlie,

    If you would actually read my comments and respond to them instead of just repeating your same charges you might note that I *did* address them. In multiple ways, no less!

    Best,

    Mollie

  • Scott Allen

    Mollie, thank you for an excellent post and taking the time to respond to comments from readers.

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