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Damage control

Religion | Richard Land may have been sloppy in his work, but did he deserve to lose his radio program?

Richard Land got sloppy and it cost him his weekend radio program. The executive committee of the trustees of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), of which Land is president, pulled the plug on Richard Land Live! last week, blasting him for plagiarism and for racially insensitive remarks involving the Trayvon Martin case.

But it's not clear that Land went much beyond standard practice for talk radio. Apparently the executive committee, with Southern Baptists in the midst of a racial reconciliation campaign, decided to focus on damage control rather than try to weather the controversy.

The controversy began on March 31, when Land, on his radio program, which is heard on 250 stations nationally, delivered a rant accusing President Barack Obama and others of exploiting the Martin case for political advantage. Among other things, Land said that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were "race hustlers" and that the president "turned this tragedy into a national issue" with his comment that if he had had a son, he might look like Martin.

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"The president's aides claim he was showing compassion for the victim's family," Land said to his radio audience. "In reality, he poured gasoline on the racialist fires."

Over the next few weeks, Land's comments went viral on liberal news outlets. Many people found his remarks offensive, including African-American pastors within his own denomination. One pastor told The Tennessean that Land's comments left him "embarrassed" to be a black Southern Baptist.

The likely incoming president of the Southern Baptists, Rev. Fred Luter, who is African-American (see "Milestone," by Jamie Dean, WORLD Magazine, June 16), said Land's comment "doesn't help" the denomination's effort to diversify. Land said at the time that he had no regrets.

Then Baptist blogger Aaron Douglas Weaver revealed that Land's more aggressive comments that day matched word-for-word columns from a few days earlier published in the Washington Times and Investor's Business Daily. Weaver later found another example from a Feb. 4 broadcast involving a column from the Washington Examiner.

The radio program's website linked to those columns, but Land gave no indication on air that he was reading someone else's work.

After meeting with denominational officials, Land offered two abject apologies for his "hurtful" comments and sent personal letters to Obama, Jackson, Sharpton, and the Martin family.

An investigation by the executive committee of the trustees of the ERLC led to the delivering last Friday of two stinging rebukes to Land and the cancellation his radio program, noting that its content and purpose "are not congruent with the mission of the ERLC." The last broadcast with Land as host was Saturday. The ERLC is deciding whether to continue with another weekend program.

Land has a long and commendable record of working for racial reconciliation, which is why comments on a racially charged case that were unremarkable in other publications-even mild by the standards of talk radio-generated a modest firestorm when Land said them. Defending remarks that later turned out to be not his own made it even worse. He left himself open to charges, justified or not, of hypocrisy on two counts.

But Tom Tradup, the vice president of news and talk programming at the Salem Radio Network, the radio syndicator that carried Land's program, had another perspective.

"I found this to be a case where theologians approach talk radio from a different perspective than those in the industry," he said, adding that comments considered hurtful by some are just part of a "free and open exchange of ideas" on talk radio.

Nor does Tradup-speaking for himself and not for Salem-think Land's failure to cite the sources of his comments on air quite qualifies as plagiarism. The fact that all the sources were listed on the program's blog makes it clear Land had no intent to deceive. Further, while talk radio hosts usually mention the source of a commentary before reading portions on air, they deliver a seamless blend of others' commentary and their own opinions that's intended to be provocative and generate calls. According to Tradup, listeners understand this: "As long as we're having full disclosure in the process, I sleep well at night."

Land will likely continue to be a part of a half-hour weekday ERLC program, For Faith and Family, which airs on 450 stations across the country.

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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