Beyond rumors

Here are three alarms that are worth checking out

Issue: "Gunpoint evangelist," Oct. 9, 1999

Reputable news journals don't publish rumors. We deal with rumors, to be sure-but we don't publish them until we're sure they are fact. The hard work of reporting is all about chasing down the truckloads of tidbits that go winging by, asking probing questions of enough people so that in the mouths of multiple witnesses every word can be established, and then helping readers decide what is true and what isn't. But what if the rumor doesn't go away? What if you've heard it from 10 sources, and they all seem to agree? Well, especially then, remember the rule: You don't publish rumors. Then especially, you do the hard work of reporting, pounding the pavement and the telephone keypad until everything you print has been confirmed. Yet I've also learned through the years that distinguishing between a not-yet-proven rumor and an established fact isn't always as easy as it may seem. The problem has to do with telling the difference between smoke and fire. You know the old adage: Where there's smoke, there's fire! But does that mean a faithful reporter is obligated, at first whiff, to pass on the news of a little smoke? Or will he be charged with rumor-mongering? That has to do, I think, with the nature of the smoke-and sometimes it takes a veteran to sort out whether somebody's just blowing a little malicious smoke or if there's a serious blaze out there somewhere. Still, there are at least three instances when smoke itself should be reported. All three, by the very nature of the case, are meant to serve as alarms that caring people should look a little more deeply at what's going on.

  • The setting aside of financial safeguards is a reportable event. When an audit is skipped, or a normally scheduled report is delayed, the affected public deserves to know about it. When, for example, an organization that looks to the Christian public for its funding withdraws from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, that is legitimate news.
  • The breaching of normal channels of accountability is a reportable event. When board members and important colleagues step aside, especially in significant numbers, it is time to ask questions. But even before all the questions have been answered, it is appropriate to state publicly that such separations have taken place.
  • Reluctance to deal with the appearance of evil is a reportable event. Admittedly, this is the trickiest of the three alarms. But it is also very real. To whom much is given, much is required. And that is especially true of Christian leaders. When word comes, and is verified, that someone has shrugged off the advice of his friends and advisers and colleagues, and continues against their counsel in any pattern of behavior-financial, moral, or managerial-then that indifference is reportable. The behavior itself is beside the point; moral slow-footedness in responding to criticism is also a legitimate issue. So we think it is not only right, but also essential, to report to you this week the existence of such smoke signals. They have to do, of course, with Gary Bauer, a Republican candidate for President of the United States who is now on leave from the Family Research Council, which he ably led for a decade before taking up his quest for the White House. Let us be clear that there is not even a whisper of financial impropriety. But as reported two weeks ago in WORLD, Mr. Bauer's own campaign manager stepped aside from that position-accompanied in short order by seven other staffers, including Mr. Bauer's personal secretary for the last 17 years. At least some of those staffers say they were frustrated then, and continue in that frustration even now, over Mr. Bauer's reluctance to hear their counsel about the kind of time he was spending with a female aide. Not a single one of those people, to our knowledge, has accused Mr. Bauer of immoral behavior. They have simply pled with him to act in such a manner that no questions could legitimately arise. These friends of Mr. Bauer have insisted that such safeguards are there for a reason-and that they should be observed. Such reports put a newsmagazine like WORLD in a precarious position. On the one hand, we refuse to report things we do not know about Christian leaders. On the other hand, important alarms have gone off, and we think you should know it. If previously trustworthy people have betrayed the Christian public, you shouldn't always have to learn of it from the secular media. We report on page 9 of this issue part of what happened when the alarms went off-and WORLD will continue to ask aggressively and specifically why such alarms went off in the first place.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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