Taking a narrow view on Charles Colson (UPDATED)

As you may have heard, Charles Colson is in poor health and facing death. Here’s how Yahoo wrote it up:

Chuck Colson, Watergate figure and Christian ministry founder, reportedly near death

Chuck Colson, an aide to President Richard Nixon who was convicted in the Watergate scandal, is near death after having surgery more than two weeks ago, according to a statement from the Christian ministry he founded.

This seems like a good way to hit, early on, the two main points of interest: Watergate, Christian ministry founder.

Over at the Washington Post yesterday, this headline appeared:

Charles Colson, Watergate figure who proposed firebombing Brookings, said near death

Well then! The brief article seems to contradict the headline, but that’s not really why people flipped out when they saw it. It may not be true that Colson ever proposed firebombing the Brookings Institute, but he was a well-known Watergate figure. He had to spend seven months in prison for his crimes there. And he became a born-again Christian and devoted four decades of his life to prison ministry.

Maybe a dozen people sent me links to the headline in question, also complaining about the body of the piece. Complaints arrived below the article, including this one:

Mr. McDuffee, in a five paragraph article, devotes two sentences to the prison ministry work Colson has devoted himself to for the past 40 years. Even the most cynical of Colson’s critics acknowedges the value of his work, the sincerity of his conversion, and the decades of work Colson has given to the least in our society. Yet Mr. McDuffee focusses on the most extreme allegation of the 1970s Watergate era, and trumpets it in the headline. With a column of this subjectivity and bias, there can be little reason to question the objectivity of the media, particularly in a newspaper of the Post’s reknown and prestige.

The reporter, Allen McDuffee, responded:

You may realize that think tanks are the focus of this blog. Therefore, nobody should be surprised that the headline explains how Colson is relevant to the think tank world.

I would suspect that the same be true of a religious publication covering Colson’s condition–that the headline and article would focus on his religious commitment and not mention the Brookings element at all. And I don’t see a problem with them doing so.

It raises an important point. When reporters are given particular beats, it’s a job requirement to focus on said beat. A good reporter will do just that, teasing out a beat-relevant story out of every news hook out there. Some reporters are at trade publications and some reporters are a trade reporter at a mainstream publication. That seems to be McDuffee’s defense — he’s just focusing on his beat. And that is a totally legitimate claim to make.

In this case, I would urge him to consider a few other things. Just because a reporter is focused on one particular niche doesn’t mean that the rest of the internet or reading public is. I’m absolutely sure it made sense in his mind to tease out of the Colson news some 40-year-old disputed claim and put it in the headline. But if a reporter can’t see how offensive or hurtful this might be for a man extremely well known for a life’s work outside of political crime, that would be problematic. Now, was the 40-year-old disputed claim really worth doing this to a man’s fans, friends and loved ones? I’m willing to hear the case, but it strikes me that the reporter should have been more careful. What do you think?

But I’ll repeat that his defense is important for news consumers. Go ahead and check out the context for what you’re reading or watching. It may help make sense of the headline or story arc.

UPDATE: Some people think I’m going way too easy on the blogger in question and some people think I was unfair to him. Whatever you think, someone at the WashPost thinks that readers should also be aware of this religion and politics blog from a couple of weeks ago (that followed typical high standards despite it being a blog item), a guest essay from around the same time by Jim Daly at Focus on the Family regarding Colson, and a four paragraph Associated Press story that ran this week.

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  • LewisFan

    Now, was the 40-year-old disputed claim really worth doing this to a man’s fans, friends and loved ones? I’m willing to hear the case, but it strikes me that the reporter should have been more careful. What do you think?

    It was absolutely worth doing, if his fans, friends and loved ones claim to be Christian fans, friends and loved ones. Without sin, redemption cannot exist. Without acknowledgement of wrongdoing – and hopefully, restitution – grace is not present, nor forgiveness. Whitewashing Colson’s life wouldn’t do him or anyone who cared about his message any favors. I’m pretty sure that Christ’s family and friends were as devastated by the crucifixtion as anyone today would be. That doesn’t stop contemporary Christians from reliving it in copious detail on Good Friday, prior to celebrating the Resurrection on the following Sunday.

    What’s really interesting is why anyone would question that. What motives are truly at play when seeking to sanitize felony convictions from the legacy of one who is believed to be truly reformed?

    St. Augustine might find this discussion very interesting.

  • LewisFan

    Also, it’s worth noting that Colson raised a “I wuz only kidding!” defense to his actual suggestion to firebomb Brookings, so “disputed” might not be the best term to use.

    When Bernstein’s colleague Bob Woodward calls Colson for a comment on the story, Colson jokes: “There’s no question about that. There is one mistake. It was not the Brookings, but the Washington Post. I told them to hire a wrecking crane and go over and knock down the building and Newsweek also.… I wanted the Washington Post destroyed.” When Woodward tells him the newspaper is printing the story, Colson retorts: “Explicitly, it is bullsh_t. I absolutely made no such statement or suggestion. It is ludicrous.… [T]his one has gone too far.” Colson calls back and says he may have made such a suggestion, but he was not serious. The Post prints the story. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 324-325]

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    If my memory serves me correctly Chuck Colson deserves tremendous credit for getting Catholics and Evangelicals working together on many issues of Christian concern in the “public square.” As a Catholic this is the Chuck Colson I remember and admire. I hope that when the day comes and he goes home to his Lord, the media will do more than harangue us with memories of the Watergate era which was a long, long time ago.
    Sadly, I think the liberal mainstream media is more likely to act out Shakespeare’s words: “The good was interred with his bones.”

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    LewisFan – Why wouldn’t “disputed” a good word? The allegation is that he proposed firebombing the Brooking Institute, and he denies both the firebombing and Brookings parts of the quote, as well as that it was an actual proposal. But “Colson once said he’d like to hire a wrecking crane to known down the Washington Post” doesn’t have nearly the same punch. Written that way, it becomes pretty clear that it was rhetorical bluster.

    Colson did plenty of other awful things during his political career, things which he has admitted or which have been proven in a court of law. If a reporter wants to focus on that part of Colson’s life, he has plenty of undisputed material.

  • LewisFan

    To Mike @ 4: I suppose “disputed” is not the best word because an equivocal denial in the face of several eyewitness statements can’t really rise to the level of a dispute. But you’re also right – there was a fertile field of other awfulness to plow, prior to Colson’s stated repentance and redemption. And after it as well.

  • Greg Chenoweth

    The funny thing is that Charles Colson DID devote himself to the think tank community by establishing the Charles Colson Worldview Center to help people understand the Christian worldview and how to defend it against the secular/atheistic worldview that permeates society. He raised the issue in his book from 1999 “How Now Shall We Live?” and continued to advocate for a Christian worldview think tank for the rest of his life. You can view their resources at their website at breakpoint.org. If the reporter wanted to make his article relevant to the think tank community, why didn’t he focus on that aspect of it instead? Colson’s worldview philosophy has lasted longer in society a lot longer than his Watergate trespasses.

  • Jeff

    Actually plotting — no joke — to set off a nail-bomb at a crowded dance at Fort Dix is the last thing most MSM reporters would mention about the President’s friend Bill Ayers.

    And fantasizing about being a Manson girl and sticking it to “pig” Sharon Tate and her unborn baby “piglet” is the last thing they would mention about the First Lady’s friend Bernadine Dohrn.

    So, why the double-standard where Chuck Colson is concerned?

    Oh, wait, let me guess …

  • Roberto

    If you think that this was bad, wait until the whole same-sex marriage farrago gets going.

    Full disclosure: I have worked alongside Chuck for more than 20 years.

  • LewisFan

    Jeff @ 7 – A) Michelle Obama and Bernadine Dohrn are friends? Really? You must be reading here: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2101325/posts

    Working at the same law firm doesn’t mean you’re friends. Just ask anyone who works at a law firm.

    B) Relevancy to the media coverage of Colson’s death? Straw men usually wind up on a spike around here. Ayers and Dohrn aren’t moribund or being covered by any media other than Free Republic (if you call that media, and I do not), so I’m not sure what your point is. Mollie, feel free to delete this when you delete Jeff’s comment in order to keep the thread coherent.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I’m not spiking yet but just ask everyone to stay focused on mainstream coverage of *religion* news.

    Let’s leave the politics to the other places on the internet. It’s just better to keep our “narrow” focus here.

  • Jeff


    Cool your jets.

    The only reason I mentioned anything political here is that Colson was a political figure who misbehaved in the 60′s and 70′s, and the MSM has a clear double-standard about how it treats political figures who misbehaved in the 60′s and 70′s, a double-standard that likely has something to do with how Colson is treated and will be treated by the mainstream press.

    That is all.

  • LewisFan

    My jets are fine, Jeff, but thank you for caring. What you did was raise an irrelevant comparison that contained at least one provable falsehood and a straw man; i.e., an example of a double standard that has not taken place. Please follow Mollie’s instructions in future. Thanks.

  • Julia

    it becomes pretty clear that it was rhetorical bluster.

    Speaking of long ago unfortunate remarks – how about this cry of exasperation that some toadies took seriously:

    “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

  • Jerry

    You may realize that think tanks are the focus of this blog.

    Emphasis mine. The problem that you and some others here have is that a blog needs to be judged differently than a news article. To flip it around, if GR was carried by a newspaper, someone could complain about your focusing on what is a narrow issue, religion, in a news story about a political figure.

    A blog is the personal view of one person who might or might not be a reporter, but who is not acting as a reporter when writing a post.

    At least that’s how a blog should be viewed in my judgement. The problem I see is that the media has decided to replace fact checking and editing with blog posts in too many cases.

    Mollie, maybe your intent was to respond to the post in the light of the media replacing news stories with blog posts, but I think in that case you should have given a nod to differing standards for blog posts.

    And as a side commentary, it’s sad that some people have to drag in irrelevant topics for purely political purposes such as mentioning Ayres and especially Dohrn which apparently comes from a very extremist right wing site, freerepublic.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I see what you’re saying. I do distinguish, however, from blogs that are supposed to have an ideological viewpoint (such as, say Jennifer Rubin’s blog on Republican politics written from the perspective of a Republican) with those that are newsy but focused on a particular niche — think tanks or federal government or what not.

    In my view, the ideological blogs are sort of subsets of the editorial page while the others are subsets of the news pages.

    This would be a news page blog, right?

    I do concede that the blogs will (and should) be written in a less formal manner but I think that certain journalistic standards should remain. Certainly the Post has held its ideological bloggers to some of these standards in the past, it should all the more be the case with the news bloggers.

    So I doubt the reporter himself would argue that he’s just opining in a personal manner. I would assume he views this as an online, slightly less formal mechanism for pushing out news related to his beat.

    But maybe I’m wrong.

  • Jeff


    Please spare us all your politicized ad hominem attacks against me and stick to the matter at hand.

    For the record, I have never voted Republican, I am not a “rightwing extremist,” and I have never visited the “freerepublic” site.

    Disagree with me if you want to; that’s fine by me.

    But please do so in a rational way, a substantive way, an honest way, and a civil way.


  • David Hays

    While Colson’s political and criminal past is historically significant, to give it undue focus is akin to emphasizing that St Paul was a murderer while ignoring his greater impact on history and culture.

  • carl

    Are you kidding me? His beat made him do it? Chuck Colson is near death and what is the one event from the whole of his life that the journalist selected to define him? You might have thought a weblog about Think Tanks would have engaged the body of intellectual work he produced over the last 40 years. How about (say) his work with Evangelicals and Catholics Together. But no.

    Like all intelligent well-educated morally responsible football fans who are not lackeys of University Athletic Directions and BCS Conference Presidents, I HATE the BCS. As a matter of fact, I have said many times that the BCS should be destroyed. Is there any person possessing so many as two connected brain cells who would interpret that statement as “Let’s hunt down and kill all the employees of the BCS.” There is this little thing in the English language called hyperbole. You might expect a journalist to recognize its usage. Or at least said journalist should give Colson the benefit of the doubt since Colson denies the charge and the charge lacks … well … you know … any substantiating evidence!

    If I was a cynic (and why I should have any reason to be cynical about journalists I cannot imagine) I might wonder if this was a way for the Journalist to subtly suggest that Colson never really changed; that he was a mad bomber who simply jumped from one extremist cause to another – political criminal to Christian. This isn’t about what happened 40 years ago. This is about providing a framework for understanding his life post-Watergate. It’s a marker and a guidepost that might be used to interpret what came afterwords.

    And it’s pretty despicable. Makes me want to gather a mob, and some torches and some picthforks, and burn the Columbia Scghool of Journalism to the ground. Oh, wait. I shouldn’t have said that. Some journalist out there might take it literally.


  • Jerry

    In my view, the ideological blogs are sort of subsets of the editorial page while the others are subsets of the news pages.

    This would be a news page blog, right?

    Mollie, that’s a fair way of putting it. But that differentiation is not automatically obvious to the casual reader. Especially different standards for ideological versus news blogs are not apparent if they exist.

    So I have a couple of points. Rather than write Over at the Washington Post yesterday, this headline appeared: it would be clearer to write something like Over at the Washington Post yesterday, this news blog headline appeared: to make it clear to the GR reader that this is a news blog post and not a news story.

    Second I would wish that media outlets tell the reader what the standards are, if any, for news blog posts versus commentary posts. And if anyone has a pointer to how the media decides whether something is a real news story compared to a blog news story I’d love to read it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I was trying to save that “blog” part for the reporter’s defense of himself and my agreement (in part) with that defense. It was a bit of a lure, I admit.

    Also, it was your last point that I hoped more people would want to discuss: what are the standards for blog items. They are clearly becoming a prime way that people get their news and I think that while the standards won’t be as stagnant as we’ve seen for newsprint over the years, it would be just awesome if news orgs could clarify what they are, however generally.

    When you’re just reading a newspaper or watching a broadcast, it’s always made abundantly clear whether what you’re reading or watching is news or editorial.

    Now that you can land on any old page with a simple click of the link, it’s hard to know the difference between an ideological blog or a news feed or whatever else might be happening.

    In my view, this requires due diligence on both the reader and the news org — readers need to pay attention to where they are reading something and news orgs need to make that as clear as possible to the reader.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, I’ll give you one standard I want to see for blog items. Any fact in a blog posting, especially a news blog post, should be verified to the same standard as is a regular news story.

  • sari

    One thing we should remember: Watergate and its aftermath made Colson a very public figure. To ignore it would be to ignore what precipitated his rise to prominence and his conversion. He may have turned his life around to do something good, but would that have happened had his role in Watergate gone unrevealed?

    I found the Post’s headline to be inappropriate for a news article but pretty typical of many blogs.

  • Jeff


    Absolutely no one here — not one single person — has suggested that Colson’s role in Watergate should be ignored.

    People are simply asking that his life be covered in an honest, unbiased, and journalistically ethical and competent way — that is, in its entirety.

    And they’re asking the Colson not be subjected to a double-standard that other public figures with similarly sorted pasts — or even more sorted pasts — are not subjected to, owing to their politics or (ir)religiosity.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com Randy McDonald

    “While Colson’s political and criminal past is historically significant, to give it undue focus is akin to emphasizing that St Paul was a murderer while ignoring his greater impact on history and culture.”

    Would Colson ever have become a political figure without his participation in criminal acts?

  • northcoast

    Reading different accounts of the Watergate scandal reminds me of Rashamon. If I remember correctly, Mr. Colson underwent his religious repentance prior to his trial and admitted his guilt.

  • Dave

    Saturday — I just read of Colson’s passing via an on-line Washington Post breaking-news service. The brief blurb did not mention Watergate, though it made reference to Colson saying he’d walk over his grandmother to get Nixon re-elected, and did mention his worldwide prison ministry.

  • http://www.equalityloudoun.org Jonathan

    I just read of Chuck Colson’s passing and would like to give my condolences to his friends and family. Colson’s ministry is headquartered in Loudoun County, VA, and as co-founder of that county’s LGBT advocacy group, equalityloudoun.org, I’ve had the privilege of responding to his frequent anti-LGBT writings on http://www.breakpoint.org. I can understand the Yahoo headline’s reference to Watergate. What I can’t understand is the unchallenged reference to a “Christian ministry”. Over the past year, Colson’s ministry became very political as the Manhattan Declaration advocated militant civil disobedience and his “Champion the Vote” and “Breaking the Cycle of Silence” projects were more political than religious. I hope the press analyzes the political nature of his ministry objectively. We wouldn’t want a post-modern treatment of terms and neither would Mr. Colson.