Lord Acton nailed it when he said that power corrupts. James Madison knew that if men were angels they would not need to be governed the way they actually have to be governed. C.S. Lewis made a similar point when he said that he was a democrat, not because each man is a repository of wisdom, but rather because no one man can be entrusted with all the power.
But Acton’s dictim does not just mean that men with a certain kind of power need accountability. His point was that, given the nature of man, any kind of untrammeled authority and power will tend to go straight to the head. This is true of believers and unbelievers both. One of the indications that a person is functioning with a biblical worldview on this is that he will seek out accountability for himself to the extent that he has any responsibility at all. And so it follows that the dictum is true of every entity or person mentioned in the headline of this post.
Why do I bring this up? World has been covering the developing situation with Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, and James Dobson. According to what is alleged, some of it apparently confirmed, gamblers in one state decided to use some of their money to fund anti-gambling advocates in a neighboring state in order to keep any competition from developing. The evangelicals wanted to prevent legalized gambling in their own state; gamblers wanted to prevent legalized and competitive gambling in the state next door. A pragmatic deal was apparently made, and a bunch of it is now unraveling and coming out, and World is covering it. In the latest edition of World, there is an article on the subject by Marvin Olasky, two defenses of what World is doing by Olasky, an objecting letter to the editor from Ralph Reed, and an objecting letter to the editor from Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family.
In one of his defenses of their coverage, Marvin Olasky says that World seeks to be salt, not sugar. He cited an eighteenth century journalist who “exposed corruption among those powerful enough to put him in jail.” And this is admirable and good. But while I agree with Olasky’s points, I want to point out that it does not just apply to entities covered by journalists. It also applies to journalists themselves.
But the newsroom can be a very insular place, and it is possible to come to believe that you are always (almost by definition) David battling Goliath. Shoot, Dan Rather still thinks that. But when someone objects to the factual accuracy of the reporting, the insularity can come back to bite you. Olasky said that World would not publish “an inaccurate attack on Jamie Dean when she had done nothing wrong. Page 45 includes the portion of the Minnery letter that we gladly publish.” Now Proverbs 18:17 requires us to get both sides of the story before coming to a conclusion. Where do I go to get Minnery’s full account? World reserves the right to publish an expose (good), but the problem is that they want to be the sole judge of what kind of response is appropriate from those they cover. World says what they want, and then we get to say what World wants. My local secular newspaper has a more fair-minded policy than that.
So right now, I don’t know if Reed, Dobson, Olasky, or Dean did anything wrong. It might all be true. Might not be. Might be a mixed bag. I don’t know because my only source on this aspect of the affair is World magazine, and the only responses I have read are run through World magazine’s editorial filter. I agree that Christian magazines need to watch Christian leaders like Dobson, and political operatives like Reed. Olasky’s point was well-taken. But who is watching the Christian journalists? What happens when someone gets “the treatment” from an entity that buys ink by the barrel?
Some months ago, when I got the treatment from World, my point was then (and remains) that their coverage of what we were dealing with here in Moscow was atrocious. One of the things they fault Ralph Reed for is refusing to grant an interview. So what do we call it when I pleaded with World to do far more research than they were willing to do, and offered to answer far more questions than they were willing to ask before they ran with their story?
In a godly system of checks and balances, we keep an eye on one another. This is necessary, prudent, and ought not to be resented. Focus on the Family ought not to resent it when World does a story on them, even if it is less than flattering. The same goes for us here in Moscow. But this accountability needs to be — remember Lord Acton — a two-way street. We could feel good about this kind of thing (even if we disagreed with a story, say) if we knew that the same kind of openness that was being required of us applied in equal measure to World magazine. But so far it obviously doesn’t. Marvin Olasky says that Minnery’s letter about his reporter was an “inaccurate attack.” But grant for a moment the possibility that Minnery’s letter was not an inaccurate attack. Is that even possible? Now what do we do? When someone falls into an ink bath down at World, what recourse do they have if the facts published really were inaccurate? I’ll tell you, from personal experience. Virtually none.
I really don’t know if World’s reporting on this matter is outstanding journalism or drive-by journalism. Why don’t I know? How could I know? Is there any change of policy at World that might help? The temptation to sand-bag your own position is not limited to preachers, lobbyists, family values advocates, and so on. It also applies to journalists. All the pathological developments in the secular mainstream media are possibilities in Christian journalism as well. There need to be systemic protections against this developing. The early returns are not encouraging. Maybe Ralph Reed needs to be more open about what he has been up to. Maybe that is true of World as well.