When False Equivalency Distorts the News
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 08:23:18 PM EST
You wouldn't know it to read the mainstream media, (or to listen to those who wring their hands over the alleged efforts by as yet unnamed secularists to drive also unnamed people of faith from public life) that the rightist Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), the inside the beltway, neoconservative agency has waged a war of attrition against the historic mainline protestant churches in the U.S. You wouldn't know about the ways the agency and its satellite groups have spent millions of dollars to destablize and even dismember these churches like they were a third world country whose government was disliked by the United States. You wouldn't know that the group has been bankrolled by the leading strategic funders of the conservative movement and the religious right such as Richard Mellon Scaife and Howard Ahmanson, and cheer-led by The Washington Times newspaper, which is owned, controlled and bankrolled by the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

So when there is news about the IRD, the slant on the story can be most peculiar. Today was no exception.

The Washington Post has a story, which while not generally a bad story (one can only ask so much of one newspaper story) offers up one the most extraordinary example of false equivalence I have have ever seen in a newspaper.  Here is the lede:

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 two "organizations" in question were IRD and the National Council of Churches.

The National Council of Churches (NCC)is an ecumenical agency that is operated by elected representatives of the member national denominations whose membership comprises 45 million Americans in 100,000 churches. It serves many functions in organizing and in expressing the views of, historic, mainline protestantism. It is a representative body, whose direction is set by the member denominations to which it is accountable, and operates with transparency.  

This stands in stark contrast to the IRD, whose leadership is unelected and self perpetuating; which operates in secresy, and whose agenda and activities seek to utilize the democratic politics of the mainline denominations in order to foment dissention and division, and to undermine the National Council of Churches itself.  

The occasion for all of this was a press conference held by IRD to announce the release of a report showing that the NCC has received about half of its budget from major foundations and some other groups this past year.IRD's purpose was to allege that the NCC has a political agenda out of snych with its members, and to deflect attention from reports in the past year or so documenting how IRD's agenda is directly connected to the political motives of its funders. The Post mostly played it as a finger pointing tiff between groups with competing politial agendas, rather than the tip of the iceberg of one of the biggest missed stories in the history of American protestantism.

As Andrew Weaver has reported, at Media Transparency,

Six of the 17 current members of IRD's board of directors, a full 35 percent, are prominent conservative Catholics...  Few people realize that these Catholics direct a group of paid political operatives who work ceaselessly to discredit mainline Protestant leaders and their Christian communions... have built and sustained an organization that has consistently labored to generate suspicion and hostility about mainstream Protestant leaders, not a penny has been spent nor staff member assigned to attempt to change anything about the Catholic Church. This conduct constitutes the single greatest breach in ecumenical good will between Roman Catholics and Protestants since Vatican II.

Additionally, for all of the IRD's purported emphasis on mainline "renewal," when it came to hire a new president last year, they hired a minister with no experience in the mainline denominations, rather. Rev. James Tonkowich is a member of a schismatic Presbyterian denomination that split from mainline presbyterianism in 1973. Tonkowich's small splinter denomination, among other things, does not believe in the ordination of women.

So, an organization led by people who are not even members of mainline protestant churches, and is bankrolled by the financial architects of the conservative movement in the United States presents itself as a legitimate internal reform group -- and the mainstream media treats it like that is so.

Here is a more illuminating part of the Post's report:

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.
Tonkowich also acknowledged that his organization has made public less information about its funders than the NCC has.

In separate interviews, (IRD staffers, John] Lomperis and [Alan] Wisdom said they wrote the report largely in response to earlier criticism of the institute's funding from the council's general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who is also a Methodist minister. In his 2006 book, "Middle Church," Edgar wrote that the institute's fundraising list "reads like a Who's Who of contemporary conservatism."

Edgar's book was the latest of several articles and books by liberal Protestants accusing the institute of fomenting divisions in their churches. In an article posted last year on the Web site of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, the diocese's spokesman, Jim Naughton, said the IRD has received at least $4.6 million from conservative foundations since 1985, allowing the institute and a "small network" of fellow conservatives "to mount a global campaign that has destabilized the Episcopal Church."

Edgar, 63, who is stepping down as head of the NCC at the end of the year, did not speak at the institute's news conference. But he stayed afterward to shake hands with the report's authors and to thank them for recognizing that he has turned around the finances of the council, which was running a $5.9 million deficit when he took over in 2000 and has now balanced its budget for five years in a row.

"I was brought in to do three things: raise money, raise money and raise money," he said. "Thank you for highlighting that secular as well as religious organizations now recognize the importance of the National Council of Churches."

The Post portrayed the battle as a tit for tat spat between religious groups. But the false equivalence of the lede and the general thrust of the story trivializes the struggle that has been going on in the churches -- the outgrowths of which are given splashy and prominent coverage as the right uses isues of marriage equality, among other matters as wedge issues to accomplish their divisive, externally financed and directed agendas.

Whatever one may think of the National Council of Churches, an organization that is representative of, and accountable to its membership --  it is in no way like the agency that is bent on its destruction.

fell for the framing served up by IRD. They get funds from outside agencies, and so does the NCC.

The false equivalence frame worked almost perfectly.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 08:28:37 PM EST

My head almost exploded when I read your first quote although the rest of the article wasn't quite as bad as I expected. In fact, reading intelligently between the lines, the IRD doesn't look wonderful. But how many people read intelligently or know anything about background?

I checked the comments in hopes of finding something informative - not too unusual on the Post. But - surprise! - anything about religion calls forth the loonies. There was some evidence of sanity and one directly relevant comment.

Why does it seem the conservatives what to impose their views on others? The liberal want to fight poverty, war, and other problems, conservatives want to impose their anti-gay, warmongering, and narrow views upon the rest of us. One group wants to serve god the other wants you to serve them. I thought nonpartisan meant they took money from both sides.
By bitchy | Jan 11, 2007 7:26:11 AM | Request Removal

I read these IRD publications when they arrive at the church. They are deliberately misleading to make it sound as though they are a Methodist organization, sponsored and funded by the United Methodist Church. Then they make some of the most outrageous claims I have ever heard, and they are the only source making those claims. Quit trying to stir up trouble! There are better things to spend $$ on.
By abgailm | Jan 11, 2007 7:31:02 AM | Request Removal

Suspect the most helpful thing to do in such cases is to post and post quickly to get an intelligent comment onto the thread early. It would not only educate readers but alert reporters that knowledgeable people are present and holding them accountable. (But be careful - the Post doesn't do apostrophes - makes almost anyone look illiterate.)

by Psyche on Fri Jan 12, 2007 at 12:56:29 AM EST

but the Post utterly bought the IRD framing, as most of the media does, most of the time.

In this case, the Post made it even worse via their lede -- and in their way, exposed just how bizarre the situation has become.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Jan 12, 2007 at 05:28:57 PM EST

I want to use it in my op ed piece for the Albany Times Union.  How about a model paragraph so we have something to work with.  That would be incredibly helpful.  Edgar is speaking here in February. I would like to subvert any possiblities of having his key note speech redirected to the funding questions.  The op ed piece is my chance to pull it off.

by tikkun on Fri Jan 12, 2007 at 12:20:11 PM EST

While this equivalency may elevate the IRD to a higher status than it deserves, calling out this inequity also slightly exaggerates the NCC's role in representing Christendom, esp. evangelicals.

The NCC is politically moderat to liberal, and I'd say that the IRD does NOT represent conservative evangelicals, who in large part do NOT participate in the NCC.

A more equivalent organization might be the National Association of Evangelicals - though not as large as the NCC (not sure how many people are represented there), this might be a more equivalent comparison.  Maybe.

by devilsadvocate on Fri Jan 19, 2007 at 08:12:14 PM EST
What matters is that it does, in fact represent the member communions that are its board of directors. It is a representative body more in the sense that Congress is a representative body. We do not govern by opinion poll or plebecite. Members of Congress may or may not be in synch with their constituents on every matter. In fact, they rarely are. If the member denominations or their members wish to change the direction of the NCC, all they have to do is elect different people. No one has the option with IRD.

It is true that the NCC is not THE voice of the mainline protestants, but it is certain A voice, a signficant voice of mainline protestantism. No more no less.  

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