On Wednesday, September 18, I flew to Las Vegas, Nevada to attend the annual conference of Religion News Association, an organization that has been around since 1949.
Some time back, ex-evangelical journalist Liam Adams invited me to be part of a panel on religion reporting and social media along with him, Aysha Khan, and Sophia Smith Galer. All of them are wonderful, and they’re just three of the reasons I’m glad I accepted Liam’s invitation and decided to invest in going to a conference for which I had to pay my own way.
I flew back to Portland on Sunday, September 22, the day after the conference ended, and I’ve been ruminating on my experience at #RNA2019 over the last week. I got to see old friends and colleagues like Liz Kineke (who produced the award-winning CBS Religion documentary “Deconstructing My Religion“), and to make new connections with people like Uroosa Jawed of the Tri-Faith Initiative, who turns out to be from Indiana like me (I’m sorry, Uroosa!), and Josefin Dolsten, who does some fantastic reporting on religion and gender.
I also enjoyed connecting with people I’d only previously interacted with online, including my co-panelists and the delightful Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, whose in-person charm certainly makes up for any annoyance I might have ever felt during our occasionally somewhat heated Twitter exchanges, from which I think he’d agree we’ve both learned about how non-believers like me and progressive Christians like him can better support each other. Shout-outs to Brad Onishi, Simran Singh, and Andrew Henry too!
While at RNA, I had some great conversations with journalists and advocates who are doing important work. Making in-person connections still matters in 2019, and so, for my own career as a commentator, advocate, and sometime journalist, it was productive for me to make an appearance. I got to talk to some religion reporters and editors, including RNS’s editor-in-chief Bob Smietana, who may really begin to take ex-evangelical perspectives into consideration in their reporting and editorial work, so that was a good reason to be there as well.
And hey, being in Vegas, I went out and had fun on the Strip. Despite being nervous this early in my gender transition, I even felt confident enough to go out in a dress and carrying a purse, since I was surrounded by supportive friends. And, as nothing bad happened, my confidence grew further. Also, check out my cleavage.
So, yes. I’m glad I went to RNA. BUT.
Now, now, come on. With me being a consummate pessimist, you knew there had to be a “but” coming, right?
So, let’s get to the big “but.” RNA has a very problematic relationship with the religious groups that are supposed to be the subject for the objective reporting of the kind of people who join RNA. It is not only somewhat surreal to be at a conference involving Trinity Broadcasting Network and Opus Dei on the one hand, and American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation–with which I’m proud to have a particularly friendly working relationship–on the other. (Check out my guest spots on FFRF’s “Ask an Atheist” and Freethought Radio here and here, respectively.)
I have no objection to the latter organizations being at a conference like RNA. In fact I’m quite glad they were there, as I’d probably have felt somewhat isolated without a solid non-believing presence. It was nice connecting with Tom Van Denburgh, Sarah Henry, Katherine Stewart, Andrew Seidel, and other solidly secular folks. Along with Katherine and Andrew, Amit Pal and Jack Jenkins were part of an important panel on Christian nationalism. Unfortunately, I got the general impression that Christian nationalism is not something that most conference attendees were prepared to recognize as a serious problem. And that in itself is a serious problem.
You see, the difference between accepting sponsorship from FFRF vs. TBN–and both organizations were not just present, but were sponsors of this year’s conference–is that While both may be 501(c)(3) nonprofits on paper, FFRF is a non-partisan advocacy organization that supports and defends democracy, whereas TBN is a right-wing Christian media empire that promotes the very Christian nationalism that is currently destroying American democracy, such as it was. In general, I also see an ethical distinction between an ostensibly non-sectarian organization accepting sponsorship from other non-sectarian organizations, as opposed to organizations with a clear and explicit sectarian mission. When you represent writers who are theoretically supposed to be covering sectarian organizations as objectively as possible, how is it ethical to be taking money from organizations with religious missions?
Religion News, or Pro-Religion Propaganda? RNS, RNA, and RNF
I have more to say regarding my criticisms of RNA and in particular the RNA 2019 conference, but first, let’s look at a little context. If you’ve followed me for a while, you are likely aware that I am–hm, let’s go with “ambivalent”–about Religion News Service. I’ve tweeted some provocative but in my view entirely deserved criticism of the news organization, and I don’t intend to take down the tweets in question.
RNS’s treatment of the #ExposeChristianSchools hashtag campaign I started in early 2019 was particularly egregious. The author of the op-ed RNS published failed to do due diligence and essentially parroted the right-wing narrative that had formed around the hashtag, which represented it as pushed by “liberal elites” rather than as the organic surge of criticism from survivors of Christian schools that it was. The Associated Press, by contrast, delivered a much more unbiased piece.
RNS has been an LLC since 2014, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Religion News Foundation, which acquired it in 2011. There are conservative Christians on RNS’s governing board. RNF was created as a charitable and educational arm of RNA in 1999. These tight-knit organizations are housed at the University of Missouri’s Missouri School of Journalism.
RNS, RNF, and RNA are officially non-sectarian structures, but I have long considered them overly cozy with, and friendly toward, even quite toxic fundamentalist religion. They currently operate under the heavy-handed leadership of the very Catholic Thomas L. Gallagher, who is CEO and president of RNF and CEO and publisher of RNS. The tenure of Gallagher, who has a background in finance, and who lists among his achievements the promotion of the canonization of Mother Theresa, has been marked by purges. (Graves-Fitzsimmons, mentioned above, was one of Gallagher’s early targets.)
Gallagher has reportedly squashed the free expression and valid journalistic and editorial decisions of former RNS staffers. There is evidence that he has done so in response to complaints from Catholic and Protestant organizations, including the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, the National Cathedral (which is Episcopalian), and the notorious Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s Liberty University (note link is to a Playboy article for those of you surfing at work), a right-wing evangelical school.
It is basic journalistic ethics that institutions being covered should not have a hand in the editorial oversight of the relevant coverage. But according to Sarah Jones’ reporting in The New Republic, Gallagher has exhibited a pattern of intervening on the behalf of religious institutions being covered by RNS reporters, and also of removing content from the organization’s online archive. One can only begin to imagine how many stories may be self-censored by reporters worried about their job security and hoping to avoid similar outcomes. As Jones reports:
Still, to current and former staffers, the scrubbing of the Mouw and Graves-Fitzsimmons columns became an example of censorious overreach by an inexperienced publisher and an overzealous board. In several conversations on background, they also raised another, serious concern: that Gallagher may have exhibited religious bias on the job.
I recommend reading Jones’ entire exposé; it is remarkably damning.
Blurring the Lines Between Religion and Journalism at RNA 2019
While at RNA 2019, I got the general sense that most people present understood the organization’s mission to be in some sense about the promotion of religion. Many had an evident chip on their shoulder with respect to a perceived need to defend religion from a largely imaginary bugbear of unfair bad press–a straw-man if ever there was one. These folks seem to believe that they ought to respond to this imagined threat by highlighting mostly positive things about religion. This troubles me greatly, because if you are doing straight journalism about a thing, as it is my impression that most RNA folks also claim to be doing, then it is your job to report any and all truths about that thing that it is in the public interest to know.
I myself do advocacy journalism (for example here and here), and I see advocacy journalism as an undertaking that can be ethical. BUT–and this is another big “but”–when I do advocacy journalism, I don’t represent it as straight journalism. I am honest about my positionality, whereas many religion journalists are not. They claim to be doing straight journalism, while they are in fact doing advocacy journalism.
Again, this is Journalism 101 stuff, but it seems to be lost on a lot of religion journalists. And this is probably not least because, as Bruce Wilson has gone to great lengths to show, they are often in bed with the religious people they’re covering, who are only too happy to sell the narrative that they are “persecuted” and need good coverage in the press to “correct the record.” RNS, and the movers and shakers behind RNA, are clearly not exceptions to this rule, even though there are good reporters at RNS and good freelancers who write for RNS. And I should acknowledge that these writers aren’t becoming millionaires through their religion journalism.
Perhaps it is in part the difficulty of funding religion journalism that leads its purveyors to depend all too often on conservative religious individuals and groups seeking to push their agendas. Much of American civil society unfortunately does not understand why we need religion to be covered thoroughly (and without editorial interference from biased believers), as evidenced, for example, in CBS’s short-sighted decision to cancel CBS Religion (a story that RNS’s own Jack Jenkins deserves credit for breaking).
In this climate, perhaps RNA’s leadership feels like it cannot reject the sponsorship of an outfit like TBN. Even if that is the case, I still think that with the acceptance of that sponsorship they crossed a very bright ethical line that should not be crossed. They should set some standards in this regard and let the chips fall, even if that means the organization has to make cuts or put a great deal of effort into finding other sources of funding.
I tweeted my objections to certain aspects of the RNA conference’s programming during the conference itself, my own ethical convictions demanding of me that, even though I could reconcile paying to be present, I could not refrain from criticizing the organization where I saw a need to. My primary objections were to the conference being sponsored by TBN and the anti-LGBTQ evangelical relief organization World Vision, and to the platforming of extremists Eric Metaxas, a prominent evangelical, and Frank Pavone, the radically anti-choice Catholic priest who is infamous for putting a dead and purportedly aborted fetus on an altar.
Metaxas spoke at a TBN sponsored lunch that I skipped in protest; I gathered from other conference attendees that his refusal to take questions at the end of his talk caused much consternation. While I object to platforming rabidly anti-democratic Christian nationalists like him in the first place, it seems that many attendees had no objections to him speaking. They did, however, object to him skipping out on answering their questions.
With respect to World Vision, whose sponsored diner and presentation I did attend (perhaps I shouldn’t have), I was appalled at the brazen white saviorism and sunny propaganda spouted by CEO of World Vision USA, Edgar Sandoval, Sr. (my tweet below incorrectly says “Jr.”), who literally described the relationship between child and sponsor as one of “equality.”
I want to note that I was not the only person attempting to speak some truth to power while at RNA 2019, and in particular I want to recognize Megan Goodwin for doing so consistently during Q&As.
At the end of the day, I think I made a good decision in joining RNA and attending this year’s conference. I don’t know that I’ll have sufficient funds to renew my membership and attend next year’s event in Washington, D.C., but if I can afford it–and if this post does not get me blacklisted–I would like to go. The synergy and the connections you can make while learning about others’ work is very valuable to someone like me. And I also have the sense that perhaps, just perhaps, I might be able to do some good as a gadfly calling out RNA where it clearly crosses bright lines with respect to journalistic ethics. We shall see.