Stonewalling, Inc.

Drop the playbook and work for improvement, please

Issue: "Not-so-smart bombs," April 24, 1999

Moral Man and Immoral Society, a book by Reinhold Niebuhr published in 1932, still makes for thoughtful reading. Maybe, at the end of the millennium, we need a new book: Confessing Christian and Stonewalling Organization. I worked at the DuPont Company for five years before becoming a professor in 1983. I liked the products DuPont created a lot more than the press releases it produced with equal intensity. Some personally trustworthy people amazed me with their readiness to obfuscate when given the corporate public-relations playbook. And so I come, with sadness, to WORLD's current dance with World Vision, an organization that has helped many people over the years. Mindy Belz, our international editor, reported on March 6 that, in essence, the organization had been a little loose in its policies. Even its own internal survey found many World Vision offices involved with "all forms of family planning" and some also collaborating with groups that do abortions. Organizational laxness is not the unforgivable sin. World Vision already is tightening its policy regarding an unequal yoking with abortionists. Concerning contraceptives, Christian opinion is divided. Many people were surprised to find out that an organization known for fighting hunger and disease was at times implicitly agreeing with the Clinton administration view that third-world children are a disease, but I don't doubt World Vision's ability to offer a good defense. So it was disappointing to hear that World Vision's response to our article was following a playbook similar to the one used at DuPont. World Vision could have done what many of its officials would undoubtedly do as individuals in their own churches: Confess past problems and resolve (with much prayer) to do better. World Vision could have followed the "tell the truth" advice that good Christian public-relations folk offer. It could have notified WORLD of any specific errors in our story. (As our readers know, we print corrections.) Instead, World Vision followed the playbook maxim: Deny, deny, deny, and slam the messenger. As we learned from a source within the organization, the organization's PR specialists prepared and disseminated attack-dog talking points for all its spokespeople as soon as our story came off the press. But no one from World Vision contacted WORLD to challenge the facts of the story we reported. Forty days after the story's publication, we still had no communication from World Vision. Instead, through statements to Christian media and even through its telephone operators, World Vision struck out blindly. WORLD reporters heard one operator, Nina, stating that Mindy Belz "gave World Vision 24 hours to respond and said she would not change the story after that." (That's not accurate. WORLD first contacted World Vision on this story last September and spent months requesting information.) Another operator, Ruth, said World Vision's president was working with WORLD to put together a retraction of our story. That was the first we'd heard of it. I've just gone back and reread our article. Its prose is understated, its tone probing but not condemning. The story as a whole could have been helpful to World Vision's policy reexamination; after all, World Vision vice president Bryant Myers said the organization's internal survey was "sufficiently disturbing that it landed us into a policy reexamination process. It showed a policy not imbedded in performance." That's what we were saying. Instead of accepting our article as a friendly critique, the World Vision PR folks sent to at least one radio network (but not to WORLD) a screaming attack charging us with "blatant editorial bias ... irresponsible statements." I suppose it's difficult for an organization to accept any criticism at all when it has long received only positive coverage, but we'd welcome discussion, not diatribe. InterAction, the Washington, D.C.- based peer organization for many overseas relief organizations, including World Vision, says its members "shall be committed to full, honest, and accurate disclosure of relevant information concerning its goals, programs, finances, and governance rules-providing information to the public, etc." That's all we are asking. World Vision's reaction points out one problem we've noticed over the past few years. Many evangelical leaders are familiar with two types of reporters: reporters from secular publications with little if any sympathy for Christian spiritual goals, and reporters from Christian newspapers and magazines who may see their jobs as providing favorable publicity for organizations that are basically doing good work. The leaders sometimes don't understand WORLD's peculiarity: We're sympathetic, but we investigate. And, sometimes, we get things wrong. If we have done so in this instance, we want World Vision to show us; we want World Vision's top executives to answer probing questions, and not hide behind their PR folks. If we're wrong, we will publish corrections. But if the World Vision execs cannot show where we erred, we have one request: Drop the playbook and work for improvement, please.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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