WORLD is receiving a bonanza of publicity today, although not entirely the kind we look for. James Dobson and Focus on the Family vice president Tom Minnery discussed at the start of Dr. Dobson's radio show the Jack Abramoff-Ralph Reed scandal and WORLD's coverage of it.
Mr. Minnery said about WORLD, "we know the people, they're good people, we enjoy the magazine, but they have a reporter who wanted me to dump on Ralph Reed for his involvement with Jack Abramoff." He said he refused to criticize Mr. Reed and then wrote a complaint letter to WORLD but "they refused to print it. So I've got to tell you, that is frustrating."
Dr. Dobson then summarized what his VP was saying: "You wrote a letter to WORLD magazine…. Marvin Olasky, who's a very good man, does very good work, I like him a lot, he refused to do it." Mr. Minnery then read his letter, acknowledged once again his frustration, and Dr. Dobson with a chuckle in his voice said, "Maybe it's just catharsis… maybe Tom needs to come in here and do what I did yesterday, which is just blow off steam."
I thank Dr. Dobson for the compliment, and see his overall reaction as right. We at WORLD say about the Focus leaders what they said about us: We know the people, and they're good people who do good work. So why are we having this dispute? Here we need to focus neither on our magazine nor on Focus but on one person who has shamed the evangelical community: Ralph Reed.
I read through last night the emails, other correspondence, and records of cancelled checks made public during recent Senate hearings about the Abramoff scandal; you can do the same yourself by reading the complete documentation from Senate hearings of Nov. 2 and Nov. 17. (Because of the bulk of documents, we've condensed some of the key correspondence from 2001 and 2002 into smaller PDF files.)
Let me offer a few lowlights to explain why our reporter threw some tough questions at Mr. Minnery, and why I chose not to print an unjust attack on her:
- March 20, 2001 - Jack Abramoff (JA) and Ralph Reed (RR) are manipulating evangelicals for the benefit of their casino clients, and Mr. Reed wants his pay: JA writes to an associate that RR "is out of money. He has asked us to get another $250K asap." Here come the checks: "Pay to the order of Century Strategies [RR's company] Two Hundred Thousand Dollars…. Pay to the order of Century Strategies One Hundred Ninety-Eight Thousand Dollars."
- April 6, 2001 - RR brags to JA how he is pulling strings on a gambling bill in Texas "One of our operatives attends the same church" as a key legislator, so the operative convinced his pastor to visit the legislator "and urge him to vote against the casino bill. This happened just hours before the [committee] met to consider the casino bill!" Here come the checks: April 17, "Pay to the order of Century Strategies One Hundred Thousand Dollars." April 30, "Pay to the order of Century Strategies Three Hundred Ninety-Eight Thousand Dollars." May 2, "Pay to the order of Century Strategies One Hundred Thousand Dollars." May 8, "Pay to the order of Century Strategies Seven Hundred Fifty Thousand Dollars."
- At some point JA decides he's not getting his money's worth for all those checks. On Oct. 8, 2001, he writes to associate Michael Scanlon (MS), "Call Ralph and get him moving." Two days later RR writes to JA that he's working hard, and "can we please get the invoice paid?" On Nov. 8, RR tells JA, "We are in overdrive and all pistons are firing." On Nov. 12 he writes, "We have over 50 pastors mobilized, with a total membership in those churches of over 40,000"
- JA is still not satisfied that he's getting what he paid for. On Dec. 4 JA writes to MS, "Ralph is toast from now on, or we'll only give him a scrap. Pathetic." RR has to show that he's worth millions of dollars, so he apparently makes the case to JA that he can manipulate James Dobson, and one result is this excited "Ralph and Dobson" email from JA to MS on Feb. 6, 2002: "He got to Dobson who is going to mail Louisiana and get on the radio!" RR follows that claim with a request on Feb. 11 for more money: "can we now get an 'attaboy' budget…?
- RR wants more, and on Feb. 14 JA blows off some steam in a note to MS: "I know you (we!) hate him [Reed], but it does give us good cover and patter… give him some chump change." RR, again having to prove that he's worth all that money, receives a direct question from JA on Feb. 19: "Can we get Dobson on the air?" RR responds that same day in one email, "yes. We're negotiating that now," and in another, "called Dobson this a.m." On Feb. 20 JA writes to MS that maybe they haven't wasted money on RR: "He may finally have scored for us! Dobson goes up on the radio on this next week."
There's lots more, but you can see (and do check out the huge Senate hearing file yourself) why WORLD's reporter, Jamie Dean, asked Focus on the Family tough questions. Dr. Dobson did not agree to an interview, but when Focus vice president Tom Minnery sent a letter to WORLD complaining about Jamie's questioning, I wrote back on Feb. 8 that "I have found Jamie Dean to be an outstanding reporter. She is accurate and also has the bulldog determination that reporters need when digging into a story whose principals may be covering up wrongdoing."
My email message to Mr. Minnery noted that "We'll be glad to put this part of your letter in the Mailbag: 'Focus on the Family enters the sad Abramoff story only because we fought the same casino at the same time. We did it because gambling hurts families -- and, as always, we used our own money. Our trusted Louisiana allies, Tony Perkins and Gene Mills, alerted us to this fight, not Abramoff or Reed.'" Our editor, Mindy Belz, also told Mr. Minnery that we would run that part of his letter, and it was set two days ago for the Mailbag of the issue scheduled to go to press on Feb. 23.
As my Feb. 8 email also noted, "Our Mailbag pages regularly contain vigorous criticism of the ideas WORLD expresses and our acknowledgment of the mistakes we make. But I cannot see Jamie's dogged questioning as a mistake." That's still my sense: She was doing her job, and doing it well.
For nearly twenty years now this magazine has aspired to tell our readers the truth about actions that do not glorify God. We often fall short, but we keep trying to be salt, not sugar. That gets some folks mad at us at times, but by God's grace Jamie and the rest of us will continue to do our job.
Where do we go from here? First, the focus is on Ralph Reed. Since Oct. 31, 2005, Jamie has sought an on-the-record interview with him. He has refused to grant one. Here's the one mistake we have made in this affair: We had been stonewalled so often in our attempts to interview Mr. Reed that we stopped trying, and did not ask him about the potential prosecution in Texas that he might be facing ("Focus on the finances," Feb. 4). That was our error: His refusal to answer questions did not relieve us from the obligation of giving him the opportunity to comment on possible legal action.
That lapse makes us redouble our determination to keep questioning Mr. Reed and others. We hope that Focus on the Family will join us in insisting that Mr. Reed stop dodging and start explaining why his emails to Jack Abramoff stated that he was negotiating with Focus. Our sense is that Dr. Dobson is telling the truth, and our logical conclusion is that someone else was not.
One room at the National Press Club in Washington bears the name of John Peter Zenger, a Christian newspaper editor who in 1735 exposed corruption among those powerful enough to put him in jail. We are not worthy to be his successors if we don't ask tough questions for fear of losing ad revenue and circulation. By pushing hard we risk a lot every day, because publications need money to stay in business, but what profiteth any of us if we receive big or little checks garnered through manipulation or dishonesty?