Last week I showed how Townhall writer Jerry Newcombe, who describes himself as a Christian truth teller, in fact fibbed badly when he wrote that, at a conference, peace activist Paul Kivel literally said that everything bad in the world is the result of Christianity.
Kivel, while critical of Christian hegemony, said nothing so extreme.
In an e-mail exchange I had with him, Newcombe first played dumb, but finally came around to saying that he’d made a mistake that he would correct.
That’s good, right?
Not so much when you consider that Newcombe only fixed the story on his own low-traffic website (and even there, he did it on the sly, without apologizing and letting his readers know how he’d initially sold them a piece of fiction). He also said he fixed it on the website for the D. James Kennedy Ministries, though we haven’t been able to verify that. The same story at the popular Townhall site, however, where it was served to 17 million potential readers, remains uncorrected as I write this. That’s six days after I called out the article for being based on exaggeration and deception, and five days after Newcombe admitted to me that he’d gotten the whole premise of his piece wrong.
Here’s our e-mail exchange:
JN: I’m very concerned about telling the truth. I read the article against me, and I don’t see what substantive comment I made that is untruthful. Hospitals, education for the masses, universities — they’re all a creation of the Christian church. The civil rights movement was born in the bosom of the church.
TF: Your entire column was predicated on something that you claimed that Paul Kivel said that he didn’t. Is that not a lie, Jerry?
JN: I [just] updated my piece on my site and djkm.org to include my source: Activist Says “Everything Bad Comes from Christianity” at White Privilege Conference. Normally, I document my sources. I didn’t on this one, and that was bad. Does Kivel say he did NOT say what he’s been said to say? Even Rush Limbaugh spoke about it.
If the Great Limbaugh says it, it must be true!
TF: Thanks, but it doesn’t work that way. I see where you got your information, and you can hide behind that, but the fact remains that the information [there] is wrong (and I would guess, maliciously so). Here is what a honest writer runs by means of a correction: “I’m sorry dear readers, I got snookered, and my source and I owe Mr. Kivel an apology.” Will you post that correction? Or are you really going to let the lie stand? Thanks for your time.
JN: Thank you for interacting with my column, and for bringing up this issue. Believe it or not, I do genuinely appreciate the criticism. After reading Mr. Kivel’s comments in your piece, I have come to the conclusion that I wrote too hastily, based on a characterization of his comments in another online source. While Mr. Kivel did issue a wide-ranging indictment of Christianity’s influence, one that I would still strongly reject, and while Mr. Kivel does acknowledge using an illustration with “Christian hegemony” as the center of “other systems of oppression” (from which it would be easy to draw the conclusion that he viewed Christianity as dominantly complicit), it was perhaps an overstatement to say that he “blamed Christianity for everything bad in the world” — though he indeed blames institutional Christianity for much of it.
After that, I contacted Newcombe a couple more times, to ask if he was going to run a correction where it matters, at Townhall.com.
For the record, every writer makes mistakes. Some of those mistakes slip into print, or onto the web. I die a little inside when it happens to me; it spoils my week for sure.
I’m actually kind of sympathetic to Newcombe when he says that another (online) source led him astray. It’s not always easy to separate the wheat (truth) from the chaff (lies and exaggerations). Been there, done that.
When we fuck up at Friendly Atheist, we typically take one of the following two courses of action. We update the post (like so) and explain what went wrong and what we’ve changed. Or, if it’s a particularly bad error that’s difficult to explain in brief, we’ll do a contrite post-mortem in a separate follow-up post, with rueful apologies proffered. This example comes to mind.
Here’s what we don’t do. We don’t knowingly let false information stand. And, per the above, we don’t make post-publication corrections without explaining what we’ve altered and how we’ve altered it (unless it’s just a typo, a botched link, a forgotten credit — something of that nature).
Are we naïve to expect that Christian news-and-opinion sites hold themselves to similar standards?
By the way, Jerry Newcombe works for D. James Kennedy Ministries (that’s the reference to djkm.org in his e-mail). The site uses the word “truth” on its home page a total of eleven times.
You decide whether Newcombe lives up to that shiny promise.