WASHINGTON — The editor of Religion News Service has denied that a grant from a wealthy LGBT advocacy funder has biased its coverage of traditional religion, which includes a recent controversial story on Cardinal Raymond Burke.
The Arcus Foundation dispenses millions of dollars in grants every year to support LGBT activism. Its 2014 grants included $120,000 to the Religion Newswriters Foundation, the owner of the widely syndicated Religion News Service.
The Arcus Foundation’s grant listing said the one year of support was intended “to recruit and equip LGBT supportive leaders and advocates to counter rejection and antagonism within traditionally conservative Christian churches.”
The foundation’s Sept. 23, 2014, announcement said the grant aimed at “fostering a culture of LGBT understanding through the media” by funding the production of feature stories and blog posts “about religion and LGBT peoples of color.”
Kevin Eckstrom, RNS editor in chief, told CNA that receiving money from the advocacy group did not influence editorial choices.
“All editorial decisions about coverage of the LGBT community, or any other issue, are made independent of any foundation support, including Arcus,” he said, adding that RNS welcomes support “from any individual or foundation that supports our aim of informing and challenging our readers.”
David Gibson Article
RNS coverage of some Catholic figures has drawn criticism.
On March 27, RNS distributed a story by David Gibson entitled: “Cardinal Raymond Burke: Gays, Remarried Catholics, Murderers Are All the Same.”
The RNS story drew on an almost 5,000-word interview from LifeSite News, which asked the cardinal about debates on whether Catholic leaders should emphasize positive qualities among people in committed unmarried or homosexual relationships and among those who have divorced and civilly remarried.
Cardinal Burke said that God wants salvation for everyone, but “that can only come about by conversion of life.”
“And so we have to call people who are living in these gravely sinful situations to conversion. And to give the impression that somehow there’s something good about living in a state of grave sin is simply contrary to what the Church has always and everywhere taught.”
The cardinal agreed with the interviewer that it is “not enough” to recognize that people living in public sin are kind, dedicated and generous.
“Of course it's not. It’s like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people.”
Gibson said the cardinal’s comments were “out of touch with the pastoral tone” of Pope Francis.
However, Mark Tooley, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, argued that Gibson had mischaracterized the cardinal’s comments.
Writing on the institute’s blog, Juicy Ecumenism, Tooley said the headline’s characterization was “distorting and snarky of a sort that is common towards religious traditionalists.”
“As a theologian, if asked, doubtless Burke would articulately explain that murder as a sin is of a different order than sexual immorality, although both are grave,” Tooley said. “He obviously cited murder as an example only for the sake of stark clarity. Should the Church be permissive towards a murderer because he is nice?”
Jim Davis, a writer at the GetReligion news analysis blog, similarly defended the cardinal.
“What Burke told LifeSite, of course — again, after he was asked — was that the Catholic Church still considers some deeds to be grave sins,” Davis said in a March 30 post.
Davis questioned whether the RNS story should have been presented as news instead of analysis or commentary, “which would have freed the writer to stack cards and give his viewpoint.”
The GetReligion writer also noted that Pope Francis has pursued a pastoral strategy while also being “not so yielding” on issues like marriage.
Davis cited the Pope’s January remarks in the Philippines, in which the Pope said, “The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.”
News outlets that syndicate RNS include The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Crux, the National Catholic Reporter and America.
Eckstrom: ‘Fair and Even-Handed’
Speaking to CNA, Eckstrom defended the Gibson piece as “a fair and even-handed treatment of a controversial (and influential) figure within the Roman Catholic Church,” saying Tooley and GetReligion frequently criticize RNS because it does not “meet either’s standard of theological orthodoxy.”
He also said that all LGBT coverage underwritten by Arcus is “clearly labeled as such” and is “specifically focused on coverage of LGBT communities of color.” He said that the RNS general budget supports the “lionshare” of coverage of Pope Francis and LGBT issues within churches.
He noted that the grant language is “Arcus’ description of their funding, not ours.”
For its part, the Arcus Foundation’s self-described social-justice program aims to cultivate “positive religious leaders and advocates” and to develop “effective faith messages and messengers” that have an impact in target communities. The foundation’s grants also oppose “the abuse of religious freedoms” through religious exemptions and aim to develop “religious and legal strategies to hold exemptions in check,” while challenging “religious opponents of LGBT people in the U.S. and internationally.”
The foundation’s grant application page said it considers grant applications from organizations whose work “aligns with our values, strategic priorities and EEO requirement.”
Eckstrom said that the RNS grant proposal to the Arcus Foundation stressed the need to “increase and improve domestic and international coverage of how religion affects a diverse range of LGBT communities.”
“Our job is to offer readers a window into the personalities, theology and institutions that are shaping a momentous social and civic debate,” Eckstrom told CNA.
The $120,000 grant appears significant compared to the Religion Newswriters Foundation’s past revenue. Its tax forms show a total revenue of $216,000 in 2012 and $166,000 in 2011. Religion News LLC, the nonprofit corporation that operates RNS, had $1.8 million in revenue for Fiscal Year 2012-2013.
RNS Reporter Worked for Arcus
One Arcus-sponsored RNS feature story was by Jay Michaelson, a former vice president for social-justice programs at the Arcus Foundation. On March 31, RNS ran a different story by Michaelson about the controversy over Indiana’s religious-freedom bill.
The stories did not acknowledge Michaelson’s past with Arcus, which, together with the Ford Foundation, has spent at least $3 million since 2013 supporting legal groups, law-school projects, pro-abortion-rights groups and media-strategy development to counter religious-freedom exemptions.
On April 1, Eckstrom told CNA he was “completely unaware” of Michaelson’s past affiliation with Arcus when RNS began working with him.
“All I knew was that he was a talented and skilled reporter with a particular expertise on the LGBT beat. He’s a professional full-time writer now, and that's what matters to me, not necessarily where he worked in the past.”
The Arcus Foundation’s founder, heir Jon Stryker, is a major backer of “gay marriage.” The foundation’s executive director, Kevin Jennings, is the founder of the high-school LGBT activist network GLSEN and served as assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration.
The foundation’s other media-related spending has included support for Religion Dispatches, Media Matters for America and Faith in Public Life.