Fuzzy Ethics at San Fran. Newspaper

Chronicle upholds different standards for gays, Christians

Can you say hypocrite? If you are talking about Phil Bronstein, the editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, that is the word you must use.

Recently Bronstein made a great show of upholding journalism ethics by pulling Rachel Gordon, a city hall reporter, and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf off the San Francisco gay marriage story after the couple got hitched in the privacy of their home.

For all of Bronstein’s public posturing about how the marriage would create the appearance of conflict, it seems a different standard applies when a Chronicle newsroom employee is in bed with right wing groups.

Gary Fong, the paper’s director of editorial graphics technology, is slated to be a paid “guest teacher” at the World Journalism Institute in July. The Institute’s mission is “to overcome the culture’s efforts to eclipse God by providing an alternative voice in the mainstream media… WJI’s journalism courses strive to be a place of training and encouragement for a new generation of Christian journalists.”

The Institute is owned by God’s World Publications, which gives its mission as “developing a biblical worldview for all aspects of life, consistent with our organization’s doctrinal statement.”

The content of that “doctrinal statement” and the politics of Joel Belz, the head of God’s World, put this organization solidly in the social conservative camp, according to information from People For the American Way. God’s World publishes World magazine, a journal for social conservatives.

But that’s not all.

Fong is also scheduled to run a workshop for the Evangelical Press Association (EPA) that says its members “should advance the work and witness of Jesus Christ and the Church. EPA members should help all people understand their world in light of biblical truth.”

Further down in its mission statement, much further down, the EPA nods its head in the direction of accuracy and balance, but sorry folks you don’t get to have it both ways. We know what the EPA stands for.

The EPA board includes a senior staffer from Focus on the Family, a right wing group, and another from World Vision which bills itself as a “relief and development” organization, but it also gives major financial support to right wing groups such as the Family Research Council, Coral Ridge Ministries, and a number of pro-life groups.

When Gordon and Mangelsdorf were punished for getting married—and getting yanked off of a major story is punishment—Bronstein went to great lengths to say he did not question the integrity of the two journalists. It was solely the appearance of a conflict that concerned him. By getting married, even in their home, they were involved in the story.

So what did Bronstein have to say about Gary Fong? Apparently nothing. He did not respond to repeated calls seeking comment. But a spokesperson for the newspaper did and the standard has shifted.

“I’m saying it does not create an appearance of conflict because he has nothing to do with what goes into the paper,” said Patricia Hoyt, the Chronicle’s director of media and public relations, about Fong’s relationship with the World Journalism Institute and the Evangelical Press Association. The theory is that Fong, unlike Gordon and Mangelsdorf, is not a journalist––ergo no conflict.

The truth is a little more complicated than that.

Fong got his current job in 1994 after working as a photographer and then the director of photography at the newspaper. He has been with the Chronicle since 1975.

While Fong’s connection to the editorial content of the paper is not as direct as Gordon’s or Mangelsdorf’s, he works in the newsroom, he has regular contact with journalists there, his boss is the deputy managing editor for operations, and when I asked him if he considers himself to be a journalist he said “I think I do.”

Other journalists across the country get what Bronstein has elected to ignore.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, a religion reporter at National Public Radio, had agreed to teach a three-hour class at the Institute. Then a friend described its mission to her and its affiliation with World magazine. She canceled “because of their mission statement,” Hagerty told Gay City News.

“I can’t be affiliated with a very conservative organization like World magazine,” she said. “I don’t think you should have any bias in the news.”

Hamil Harris, a religion reporter at the Washington Post, also pulled out after Gay City News contacted both him and Leonard Downie, the Post’s editor.

“After doing research on the organization and consulting with my editors I have decided to not take part in the journalism workshop,” he said.

David Cho, also a Post reporter, taught a class at the Institute last year and he declined to discuss his affiliation. Responding through his secretary, Downie said he would have no comment.

Even Robert Case, director of the Institute, understands that he has to change the mission if he wants mainstream journalists as his guest teachers. Previously, most teachers have come from advocacy groups, World magazine or the Washington Times, the Moonie-owned newspaper where a right wing bias is the standard.

“To the extent possible I want to get away from that,” he told Gay City News. “I want to get mainstream reporters.”

On April 3, following reports that appeared on the Internet concerning mainstream journalists teaching at the Institute, Case put a new mission statement on its web site that is more in line with standard mainstream journalism practice. It remains to be seen if Case can overcome the connection to God’s World Publications. He envisions the Institute training Christians to be journalists––an entirely reasonable pursuit.

“The problem we have had is that our mission statement was written five years ago,” Case said. “We have evolved to the extent that we do not consider ourselves to be an advocacy institute.”

Unlike Bronstein, one mainstream journalist who has taught at the Institute for two years running at least thinks about the implications of being involved with the group.

Roy Rivenburg, a reporter on general assignment at the Los Angeles Times, was aware of the Institute’s mission and its connection to World magazine when he first taught there in 2002.

“A lot of it made me feel uneasy,” he said. “The language is a little strange… That kind of stuff makes me uncomfortable.”

But Rivenburg also made certain that what was happening in his classroom was standard journalism instruction. Rivenburg told the students that if they thought they could insert bias into their stories they were wrong.

“I’m telling them how things really work,” he said. “If it’s true that there mission is to infiltrate newsroom and not be objective… I don’t support that. I’m not teaching their students to do that. I’m teaching them the same way I would teach secular students. I’m teaching a course on how to write features.”

Rivenburg is scheduled to teach a class this year, but he is reconsidering. The attention from the media is unwelcome.

“If everybody is going to make a big deal about it, and I do think it’s overblown and my colleagues and editors think it’s overblown, it’s not worth having my objectivity called into question,” he said.

Karima Haynes, another Los Angeles Times reporter who is slated to teach a course this year, declined to comment and calls to the Times’ editor were not returned.

Bronstein is not alone in refusing to comment. Don Boykin, an editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution who is affiliated with the Institute, did not respond to calls nor did his boss.

We can say this about Bronstein. If he can tolerate having a Gary Fong in his newsroom then his posture of being concerned with ethics and appearances in the case of lesbian journalists Rachel Gordon and Liz Mangelsdorf is meaningless.

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