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Inside the Spectacular Implosion of Religion News Service

The country’s leading religious news wire hired a new publisher in 2016. Then it all fell apart.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Jerome Socolovsky originally didn’t know why he was fired. The former editor-in-chief of Religion News Service found out he’d lost his job on April 20, in an email signed by RNS publisher Tom Gallagher and a human resources official. Since then, matters have been clarified. “Tom and I had serious differences over the editorial vision for RNS,” Socolovsky, an experienced religion reporter who has also worked for the Associated Press, told me. Current and former RNS staffers, however, insist that those differences stretch beyond disagreements over editorial strategy.

Socolovsky told staff on Thursday evening that two members of RNS’s governing board, Jerry Pattengale and Nicole Neroulias Gupte, had informed him that he had been fired partly for failing to correct a story according to Gallagher’s stipulations. A current staff member who participated in the call told me that Socolovsky believes the story, which concerned a Chicago protest of a talk by Rev. James Martin, contained no errors. RNS reporter Emily Miller wrote that protesters numbered about 150. The archdiocese of Chicago claimed the number was much lower, around 50. Gallagher, who is Catholic, sided with the archdiocese. Socolovsky sided with Miller, and Gupte told me he refused to investigate the archdiocese’s complaint. An email obtained by The New Republic confirms that Gallagher requested the correction after he received a complaint from the archdiocese. 

Staffers tell me that Gallagher’s behavior was part of a pattern, with Gallagher repeatedly attempting to influence the site’s coverage of Catholicism. Internal emails, some of which were also reported by the Columbia Journalism Review on Friday, depict a deteriorating relationship between staff and a publisher who increasingly sought to tighten control over the nonprofit news outlet’s coverage and business dealings. The allegations reveal fissures in the heart of the country’s foremost non-sectarian religious news outlet—and the reverberations are still being felt.

Since news of his firing became public, reporter Kimberly Winston and managing editor Lauren Markoe announced they had voluntarily resigned. “I cannot say enough wonderful things about Jerome,” Winston said in a phone interview. “He has been the best thing to happen to RNS in years because he brought to us this calm, ethical, deeply experienced moral center that I think all of us tapped into in our reporting.”

The loss of Winston and Markoe, in addition to the loss of Socolovsky, brings RNS staffing to critically low levels. (Another staffer, former marketing director Wendy Gustofson, was laid off in November of 2017.) A small newsroom that wields outsized influence, RNS doesn’t break news so much as it explains it. Its beat reporters provide context and nuance to national religious news stories.

Religion News Service is a subsidiary of the Religion News Foundation, which supports the Religion News Association. When Gallagher became the publisher of RNS, he also became the CEO of RNF. Members of RNS’s governing board—who are major players in the Socolovsky story—are technically also members of RNF’s board. RNF and RNS, in turn, are affiliated with the University of Missouri, which handles human resources for the organizations. RNF has since named United Church of Christ minister G. Jeffrey MacDonald the site’s interim editor-in-chief.

On paper, Gallagher had no unilateral authority to fire Socolovsky. In fact, RNS’s governing board voted unanimously to fire the editor, on Gallagher’s recommendation. In a statement, the board said, “When we are notified that a story may contain errors, our process is to carefully review the facts and determine whether a correction is required. This process was not followed by our editor-in-chief in recent weeks, and contributed to our decision to make a leadership change.” Gallagher has yet to respond to a request for comment. 

But sources say that Gallagher had often berated Socolovsky, and that grievances either went unanswered or were met with what appeared to be reprisals.

Gallagher, a former Wall Street attorney with no experience in editorial management, quickly set about reshaping RNS after his hiring in 2016. Less than three months after he started his new job, he fired columnist Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a liberal Protestant, for a satirical piece on the National Cathedral choir’s decision to perform for Donald Trump’s inauguration. (The piece suggested, among other things, that the choir would perform in Ku Klux Klan robes.) Emails show that Gallagher terminated Graves-Fitzsimmons’s contract after he received complaints from National Cathedral staff. Not only did Gallagher fire Graves-Fitzsimmons, but the column’s archive is missing from the RNS website. This is not usual for inactive RNS columns. The archive for Faitheist—a column I contributed to on a guest basis—remains intact. Graves-Fitzsimmons lost somewhere around 80 clips.

This would not be the last time a column was removed from the RNS website after pressure from religious groups. On August 9, 2017, venerable evangelical theologian Richard Mouw published a critical open letter to Jerry Falwell Jr. in his own regular column, Civil Evangelicalism. In an email, Mouw confirmed that the piece had been removed. “I recounted the time when his father, Jerry Falwell, in the early ’80s, had apologized for having said that God does not hear the prayers of Jews,” he explained. “When my column appeared, a person from the legal department at Liberty University wrote to me and to RNS saying that Falwell Sr. had never said that—it was Bailey Smith, a Southern Baptist leader. If I did not retract they would take legal action. The RNS board instructed the editorial staff to make me correct my errors.”

Mouw, who served as the president of Fuller Theological Seminary for 20 years, disputes the claim that his column contained factual errors, and as proof, provided me with a list of citations for Falwell’s old remark. This same list did not persuade the RNS board. “I was told that the whole editorial staff was upset by this—which they took as simply overriding editorial judgment,” he said, a reaction that was confirmed by sources. Mouw decided to move on, in order to protect RNS staff. “I did not want to jeopardize the position of excellent staff people by putting them in a situation where they had to protest more on my behalf. To lose good talent at RNS would have let Liberty succeed in their efforts at intimidation,” he said.

A Washington Post report published in 1980 indicates that Falwell Sr. did make the remarks, that he was condemned at the time by the Anti-Defamation League, and that he met with the late Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, then an employee of the American Jewish Committee, to apologize. AJC confirmed that Falwell did meet with Tanenbaum at the time. An ADL report on religious liberty, published in 1994, asserts that while Bailey Smith made the initial remark about God not hearing the prayers of Jews, Falwell publicly concurred, saying, “I believe God answers the prayer of any redeemed Gentile or Jew, and does not hear the prayers of unredeemed Gentiles or Jews.” Redeemed, in the evangelical context, generally refers to individuals who have accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and this category excludes adherents of Judaism. Mark Silk, a professor of religion at Trinity College and a columnist for RNS, attributed this quote to Falwell in his 1989 book, Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II, as did Frances FitzGerald in her 2017 book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.

Falwell also made other anti-Semitic remarks during his career, among them his contention that the Antichrist would be a Jewish man. And even if Gallagher still questioned Mouw’s sourcing, he could have asked the theologian to amend the column, instead of scrubbing it entirely from RNS’s website. The legal department of Liberty University confirmed to me that it contacted Gallagher demanding a retraction and apology on August 9, 2017; Mouw’s column was removed the same day. Liberty’s complaint, which attorneys provided in full, reiterated the university’s position that Mouw misquoted Falwell Sr., and dismissed the late evangelist’s affirmation of Smith’s comments as a “fairly unremarkable theological point.” It also accused RNS of “attempting to join other fake news reporters by painting a false picture of the Falwell name with false statements and smears.” 

Bob Smietana, who was a member of the RNS governing board at the time, told me that the board had initially asked Socolovsky to correct Mouw’s column, though he admits that the idea the piece even needed correction was a “judgment call.” He added that Socolovsky refused to do so. “It’s clear that the board of managers has oversight over the editor,” he said. “If the board of managers asks the editor to do something, and it’s a reasonable request, and the editor refuses and then becomes hostile to the board, that’s a fireable offense.” According to Smietana, the board then asked Socolovsky to remove the column until it could decide what should be done; it was never restored to the site, for reasons Smietana says he doesn’t know.

Still, to current and former staffers, the scrubbing of the Mouw and Graves-Fitzsimmons columns became an example of censorious overreach by an inexperienced publisher and an overzealous board. In several conversations on background, they also raised another, serious concern: that Gallagher may have exhibited religious bias on the job.

Wendy Gustofson, formerly the marketing director for RNS, told me that Gallagher gave three press releases away to Catholic organizations in July, September, and October 2017. RNS’s press release business is one of its main sources of revenue. “It is not unusual to issue free press releases,” Gustofson said, either as part of an advertising package or for content partners. “After Tom’s first free press release, I emailed him and copied our business manager and explained that whenever a free press release goes out we are required to document why. He did a second and a third free press release. And upon the third free press release, all of them for Catholic organizations, I sent him an email that pointed out that I thought it was unethical.”

The reason, she added, is that it could seem that RNS favored one faith group over others. “What would our Buddhist clients think? What would our Jewish clients think?” she asked. Gallagher responded by assuring her that he understood his ethical and fiduciary duties as publisher. In a phone call with me, Gupte, the board member, asserted that his behavior did not give the appearance of bias.

On the subject of those Jewish clients, Gustofson further claims that Gallagher ended a project she’d initiated to provide potential new Jewish clients with Jewish-only coverage. “I had a concern that there was a gap in our distribution. We had virtually no Jewish subscribers, and they had continually asked me to find a way to send Jewish-only content to them,” Gustofson said. Gallagher provided no rationale for ending the project.

Other current and former staffers object to what they consider attempts by Gallagher to influence the site’s coverage. Winston told me that Gallagher once took advantage of Socolovsky’s absence from the office to pitch her on a Catholicism story. “He said, there’s this great Catholic monastery down in Big Sur, and that I should go down there and report on what a great job the monks are doing of ministering to the people in the community after the mudslides,” she said. Winston typically covers atheism and secularism.

“I do think he is particularly invested in news related to Catholicism. He was a columnist with the National Catholic Reporter and is very proud of that. I don’t know if [the free press releases] was just a case of giving favors to friends, or if it’s a more overt religious bias,” said a current staffer, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “Either way, as journalists who pride ourselves on our independent and non-sectarian religion coverage, we all were deeply disturbed by it.”

The staffer added, “Then there’s the question of the board’s appointment of G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a pastor, as interim editor-in-chief. I, as well as much of the staff, don’t think that being an ordained minister necessarily means you can’t be a religion journalist. But I hope the board, which includes some evangelical heavyweights, at least thought about the optics of firing a Jewish editor, without giving him cause, and replacing him with a Christian minister.”

Gallagher and Socolovsky also clashed over Catholic stories Gallagher believed the site should cover. An excerpt from a performance review of Socolovsky, compiled by Gallagher and shared with me by a current member of staff, accuses Socolovsky of having poor news judgment for rejecting Gallagher’s ideas. Among Gallagher’s grievances: Socolovsky did not want to send Winston to cover the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in 2017. “San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, a Pope Francis bishop and the smartest U.S. Catholic bishop, gave a profound address that ‘electrified’ attendees,” Gallagher contended. “His speech generated a three-minute standing ovation and brought people to actual crying and to tears.” As examples of coverage of the event, he cited articles by America and Commonweal magazines, which are both Catholic. Gallagher also criticized Socolovsky for illustrating a piece with a photo of a protester in a “Fuck Trump” hat.

Gallagher is new to the role of publisher. His actions could be explained by unfamiliarity with the position’s requirements. But it is clear, from another internal email, that he sought and received an unusual level of control over RNS’s coverage and affairs. After a contentious September 2017 meeting with some members of staff and the RNF board, Gallagher emailed staff to inform them that the RNF board had “confirmed” that the CEO is “the only person with hiring authority at RNS.”

“In the case of new journalist full-time and contract hires, the Editor in Chief will chair a search committee and will recommend to the CEO a new hire for the CEO to approve or disapprove,” he added. He also asserted that RNS and RNF staff are “not encouraged” to contact members of the governing board with grievances, and that doing so could be considered insubordination.

Gallagher didn’t act on his own; he had the support of the RNS governing board. The board’s membership includes a number of members, like Jerry Pattengale, who are luminaries in their respective faith traditions but are not journalists by trade. Some sources suggested that Gallagher had managed to win over other conservative Christians on the board, which gave him a solid base of support.

But this doesn’t quite  explain how Gallagher was able to poison the well so thoroughly against Socolovsky. Religion reporting is a small field, and a beleaguered one: Few national newspapers still keep full-time religion reporters on staff, though The New York Times and The Washington Post are exceptions. As a result, the beat is sometimes reduced to a subplot in national stories by reporters who lack familiarity with the faith traditions in play. With the religious right playing an influential role in the Trump administration, religion reporting is more important than ever, but the field seems to shrink with every fluctuation in the journalism industry.

RNS therefore occupies a vital niche for religion reporters. Its non-sectarian nature sets it apart. The field’s small size further means that RNS’s finances are, as one former staffer put it, “precarious.” Gallagher, with his Wall Street ties and his new ideas, may have seemed like a necessary adjustment to business as usual—a Hail Mary pass to rejuvenate an important outlet and a faltering beat.

Now the site is bleeding staff, with more departures expected in coming days. In trying to save RNS, its board may have dealt it a mortal wound.