Strange Things Afoot in Christian Media – Part 2

Strange Things Afoot in Christian Media – Part 2 September 13, 2012

In the first part of this series, published earlier today, I recounted how Christianity Today published an investigative report concerning David Jang, a Korean pastor with great influence in Asian Christian circles and growing influence in American Christian circles as well.  The extensively researched and meticulously detailed article examined Jang’s past, the alleged prevalence of an eschatology that saw David Jang as a “Second Coming Christ” who would complete the work of redemption, and the growth of many organizations affiliated with Jang, including Olivet University and numerous media entities, such as The Christian Post.

David Jang

Unfortunately, as I explained, the response from The Christian Post was so over-the-top defensive of David Jang, and so massively pejorative toward anyone who questioned him, that The Christian Post (at least in that instance) essentially abandoned the pretense of journalism and became Jang’s defense attorney.  The author of that response was listed as Michelle Vu, the US Editor – and I want to add that Michelle has always been perfectly kind and professional in our few interactions.  But I want to illustrate how The Christian Post‘s response went even further beyond the pale in its attack on Ken Smith, one of the coauthors of the Christianity Today report.

The rebuttal penned by Vu sought to undermine Smith’s credibility by quoting from two statements.  One was a letter Smith had written to an attorney (which, he says, he had thought was legally confidential) and another was from a sermon Smith had given.  Both, Smith claimed, were taken wildly out of context — and, having read the context for both, I have to say that I agree with Smith.

In April, Ken Smith posted to Facebook something he had heard from two “insiders” regarding an official at Olivet University professing David Jang as the Second Coming Christ.  Threatened with a lawsuit, Smith opted to take down the post.  In his letter to the individual’s attorney, he said that he would retract the post because his claim had been based on second-hand accounts and he could not verify their authenticity.  The article says:

Notably, the co-author for the CT article in question, Ken Smith, admitted that his “Olivet insiders” or anonymous sources did not directly hear that an Olivet University official had confessed a belief that Jang is the Second Coming Christ. “Ken Smith made false claims on Facebook about Andrew Lin informed by two so-called ‘insiders,’ which he later had to retract because they were based on hearsay,” said Nathanael Tran, dean of administration of Olivet University. “My strong suspicion is that these are the same people being relied on for indirect information about the U.S. people’s ‘confessions’ in the article.”

So again, an Olivet official simply asserts that Smith’s claims were “false,” makes no mention of the legal threat, speculates that these sources are also the sources for the CT article, and does not mention that Olivet’s lawyer (after Smith agreed to take down the post) continued to demand that Smith post a reversal, saying that his earlier statement had been false.  Smith refused to do so, explaining that even though he could not substantiate the claim directly, he trusted his sources, believed it was true, and would not lie to avoid a lawsuit.  These are the kinds of things a responsible newspaper would note.

The second quotation was worse.  Smith had given a sermon in which he confessed that, as he began to investigate Olivet and find strange and morally questionable behavior, he had felt strongly the temptation to win the argument by minimizing the good things about Olivet and exaggerating the bad things.  This, I would think, is a pretty universal human experience.  We prefer to win arguments, and will sometimes lose our scruples if we get too caught up in the argument itself.  He was accusing Olivet of stretching the truth — but felt the temptation to stretch the truth himself in order to prove his case.  This culminated in a prayer: “God, help me to love the truth more than being right.”

The sermon was delivered on September 2011, then reposted on his blog, and had little to do with the article, which was carefully scrutinized and fact-checked by the Christianity Today team.  But it was featured very prominently as a pull-out quote without any context, and cited merely as a “blog” post without a full date, as proof that Smith was willing to stretch the truth because he was angry at Olivet.

If that strikes you as morally — not to mention journalistically — questionable, just wait…there’s much, much more.  This is where the story goes from extreme to gobsmacking.

Michelle Vu’s rebuttal was published at 11:40am on August 17th, the day after Christianity Today‘s article hit.  At 10:54pm on the 18th, a second article appeared, under the byline of Katherine T. Phan, entitled “Christianity Today Writer Ken Smith is Founder of a Company Fined for Deceptive Business Practices; With Child Porn Ties.”  Apparently Ted Olsen, the managing editor of Christianity Today, was duped into coauthoring an investigative report with a liar, an unscrupulous businessman, and a purveyer of child pornography!

The article gets straight to the point, in the very first sentence: “The co-author of a recent Christianity Today article is one of the founders of Zango, a company fined by the FTC for unfair and deceptive business practices, including lax distribution of software that furthered child pornography.”  But wait a second.  Pornographers use all sorts of mechanisms for distributing their sordid material.  They use email, discussion boards, Facebook, and the good old US Postal Service.  We don’t accuse our mailmen of having “furthered child pornography” or having “child porn ties.”

Phan’s article reiterates the misleading claim made in the previous day’s rebuttal, but extends it even further: “The Christianity Today story by Olsen and Smith in the September issue has produced a firestorm of criticism of the publication from global Christian leaders.”  This is less reporting than wish fulfillment.  No evidence of a firestorm of criticism is provided; presumably Phan is referring to the four “leaders” cited in the rebuttal (see Part 1), all of whom are employees or close associates of David Jang’s enterprises.

Note the quality of the sources cited here:

The Christian Post looked into Smith’s possible connection to pornography after readers alerted the newspaper that one of the authors of a recent Christianity Today article shared the same name as Zango founder Ken Smith. Commenters provided links about a Ken Smith that had founded 180solutions Inc. (earlier name ePIPO) around 2000, which later merged with Hotbar to form Zango Inc., a company which for a period of time had affiliates that distributed links to child porn.

The Christian Post, you see, was not out to hamstring a critic of David Jang.  No, they were practically forced to write this article exposing Smith’s nefarious activities.  But hold on.  It’s possible Ken Smith is lying, but here (emphases mine) is what Smith wrote after Phan’s article hit the web:

…when I became aware several weeks ago that the Christian Post, a newspaper closely connected to David Jang, was preparing an article on me, I wasn’t exactly surprised. I did raise my eyebrows a little when one of their emails to Christianity Today said that the “story is going to be about Ken’s involvement with an international network of pro-North Korean ,anti-Christian and leftist groups that are attacking Christian organizations.” But I had a pretty good idea that any story would focus less on my (non-existent) ties to North Korea, and more on my (actual) connections with Zango, an adware company where I was the CTO and co-founder.

And Phan’s article later clarifies that The Christian Post was trying to warn Christianity Today about Smith’s questionable background long before the publication of the report.  So which is it?  Was The Christian Post, knowing of Christianity Today‘s intention to publish the investigative report on Jang and associates, preparing a hit-piece on Smith (perhaps trying to intimidate) that was focused on alleged North Korean connections, but only settled on the child-porn charge after alert readers pointed out the connection?  It’s possible.  Or are the “commenters” sock puppets, acting on the interests of The Christian Post?  That’s possible too.  (See the comments on Smith’s wistful response to the child-porn attack.  These are either sock puppets or just devoted members of the Olivet community.)  Inquiring minds want to know.

In any case, the arguments against Smith are weak.  Smith developed companies like 180Solutions and Zango, where he was chief technology officer.  Like many web companies, they were trying to figure out the online ad market.  As many articles have noted recently, Google is a fantastic place for ads because you go to Google looking for something.  If you perform a search on lawnmowers, there’s a great chance that an ad on lawnmowers will interest you.  Contrast that with Facebook, where people go to interact with friends and find interesting stories — not to find products.  Ads on Facebook are much less valuable.  Zango’s technology allowed ad servers to identify what people wanted and serve them the appropriate ads when their behavior indicated they were in a mood to make a purchase.

This was a large company with revenues approaching 9 figures, and I have no interest in defending their every move.  Smith himself has lengthy posts on what they got right and what they got wrong.  They “screwed up,” says Smith, when they partnered with distributors who sometimes exploited browser security holes to install Zango without the user’s permission or without adequately informed consent.  Zango received a fine from the FTC, even though Smith says they had already been working to solve the problem.  As for the child pornography allegation, Smith writes:

I suppose I need to say a few obvious things: that Zango never sponsored or allowed child pornography on its network, that it dealt resolutely and immediately with any violations of its terms of service, and that had this not been true, there’s no way I would have allowed myself to be associated with it. Any allegation or implication otherwise is simply and entirely false.

Yes, on two occasions, Zango did have to deal with folks using its software in connection with child pornography. It was exactly the same problem that any large network of user-generated content faces, whether that be Google, Facebook, or Twitter. Zango’s response on both occasions was immediate, direct and resolute, and I have absolutely no reason to wish their response was anything other than what it was.

Now, I’m not assuming that everything Smith says is the gospel truth.  But this is a reasonable response, and it makes The Christian Post‘s piece look awful bad.  It was not an article; it was opposition research, unloaded on a writer who had coauthored a piece critical of David Jang.

Phan’s article touts “documents obtained by the Christian Post,” but the only “document” shown is a letter from a chief compliance officer at 180solutions to a technical writer, Alex Eckelberry (and by “documents obtained,” you should read: a letter found on Eckelberry’s blog), thanking the writer for bringing to their attention an unauthorized use of their technology to distribute porn, with a complete condemnation of the practice and a commitment to get rid of it.  So what does this prove?  And what does this have to do with David Jang and Olivet?  Again, this is a transparent effort to kneecap a critic.

When Christianity Today published its report on David Jang and the Olivet movement, the controversy that ensued did not have to be about The Christian Post.  But with their response — defending David Jang at the top of their voice, taking a flamethrower to anyone who criticized Jang and Olivet, and rushing out a piece on the flimsiest of evidence accusing one of the coauthors of facilitating child pornography — The Christian Post made it about them.

Since this has been the pattern, I suspect that I will be accused of trying to harm a “competitor,” even though I’ve never thought ofThe Christian Post that way.  I have respect for Napp Nazworth, one of their reporters, and Michelle Vu has always been kind.  They do some good work.

So is this just an aberration?  Perhaps The Christian Post felt attacked, fell into a bunker mentality, and lashed out against Christianity Today and Ken Smith.  Was this just a one-time occurrence?  If so, then perhaps they should be shown grace, given a mulligan.  Or is this part of a pattern?

That’s the question I’ll consider in the third and final part of this series, coming next.

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  • Bene D

    Meaty and succinct. Thank you.

  • Alan

    You are not off base. I had dealings with CP reporters and managers during the earliest days of the publication. They were college kids with computer tech backgrounds who had neither journalism training nor experience. I admired how game they were to pursue the audacious vision set before them. They were persistent — beyond persistent — in going after whatever goal was in their sights. I found myself explaining on more than one occasion, “This is not how it’s done in professional journalism circles.” There always seemed to be something a little off; I attributed it to an East/West culture gap. That this would unfold all these years later doesn’t surprise me now. Your explanation makes sense.

  • Gerry

    *Gasp* the Christian Post acting rabidly defensive, publishing biased pieces purported as journalism and which rely on rumors and unabashedly leave out facts and truths! Nooooo!, you must be kidding. They would never do things like that.

    Then again, turn out they always do so.

  • Stephen

    This has been an interesting (yet saddening) read so far. When’s part 3 expected?