What happened at RNS

Back at the beginning of the week…


Kimberly covered the non-religious beat at RNS and we talked several times. There was a lot of shock-horror at this (including from me); now it is explained: Columbia Journalism Review reports:

EARLY IN THE MORNING on Monday, April 23, members and followers of the “God beat” awoke to upsetting news. “I am no longer at @RNS, and that’s about all I can say,” tweeted Jerome Socolovsky, until then the editor in chief of Religion News Service. “It was an honor to lead such a dazzling news team.”

His departure—later revealed to be a firing—seemed to come out of nowhere. But current and former staff members say it has, in fact, been a long time coming: the culmination of months of tension between Socolovsky and RNS Publisher Tom Gallagher, whom many believe has taken control over the newsroom.

“Jerome has seen the slow erosion of his duties as editor in chief at RNS since Mr. Gallagher was hired,” says Kimberly Winston, a contract reporter who covered atheism, secularism, and humanism for RNS. She resigned on Monday in protest. “I feel like journalism is a calling, and they crossed a line,” Winston tells CJR. “If you cross a line, it’s more than personal. It’s my calling. I just felt that I had to go.”

RNS was founded in 1934.

In 2011, it was bought by the Religion News Foundation, a non-profit educational and charitable arm of Religion News Association, a 501(c)6 trade association. All of the organizations—the service, the foundation, and the association—are based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism…

“The country’s awash in religious media but there’s nothing else like RNS,” says Laurie Goodstein, a national religion correspondent for The New York Times. “It’s the AP of religion news, it’s a daily report covering news about all religious faiths without promoting any religion in particular.”

Notice that covering news is a very different thing from promoting anything.

Publisher Tom Gallagher, who is also president and CEO of the Religion News Foundation, was hired in 2016. Gallagher, an attorney and former Goldman Sachs vice president, was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter from 2007 to 2016. Before that, he worked as an administrator for Mother Teresa’s religious order, Missionaries of Charity, where he helped create a New York State not-for-profit organization, the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center. He also assisted the cause of her canonization by “investigating a potential miracle attributable to Mother Teresa,” according to his LinkedIn profile.

Well. Just off the top of my head, that seems like a worrying background for the publisher at a news organization. It’s very much in the promotional field as opposed to the reporting one.

Staffers were worried about his lack of experience, but Winston says they hoped his business experience would be useful to the org.

Socolovsky says he wasn’t given a reason for his firing until nearly a week later, when he met with board members and they said the decision was based on his disagreements with Gallagher. “Tom and I had serious differences over the editorial vision for RNS,” Socolovsky tells CJR. “He challenged the accuracy of a fact in a recent story we published and I stood by the reporter who wrote it.”

Possibly this fact:

In April, Gallagher sent a note to all staff members about an RNS story covering a protest at a talk given by Reverend James Martin. In it, he said he had been contacted by the Archdiocese of Chicago, which disputed the number of protesters reported in the piece. Staff members said they felt uncomfortable with what they viewed as the publisher interjecting in the editorial process on behalf of a religious organization.

Gallagher tells CJR that when he emailed Socolovsky and Markoe about the story, Socolovsky responded that the reporter was on vacation, that he trusted her, and that “she did a good job.”

“It’s terribly alarming that any editor would have such a cavalier response to a disputed fact in his staff’s reporting, without any effort to review,” Gallagher says. “Accuracy is our most cherished value. This is Journalism 101. If the top editor is dismissive of requests for corrections or clarifications, then RNS might as well shut down.”

Hmm. Another way of looking at it would be that if the publisher lets the Archdiocese tell the editor and reporters what to say, then RNS might as well shut down. It’s not as if the Catholic church has no history of trying to shape news coverage in its favor, or indeed of stonewalling and lying. The Catholic church is not a disinterested party.

On several occasions, staff members expressed concern over the possible perception that Gallagher favors Catholic-leaning coverage, something they worry could impact the publication’s reputation as nonsectarian.

What I said. He did PR work for “Mother Teresa.”

The publication’s history as a secular, independent, and nonsectarian source of religion news is exactly what staff members worry about losing. Religion reporters outside of RNS hold the same fears.

“That’s why RNS is so vital and so delicate,” says Goodstein, the New York Times religion reporter. “Because to do what they do requires immense journalistic experience and judgment. To cover religion news without fear or favor, impartially. My fear now is that that could be at risk.”

“For this to happen to RNS is a big deal to a number of people beyond our official subscribers, because we’re kind of the last ones standing that serve medium and small publications,” says Winston. “If our editorial independence goes down, that’s a big loss.”

Yes it is.

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