Mark Tapscott is a veteran Washington, D.C. political pro and investigative journalist (who has weighed in at Ethics Alarms a time or two). Late yesterday he focused on clarifying the troubling Rolling Stone story I wrote about here.
That Rolling Stone piece was headlined, “SCOTUS Justices ‘Prayed With’ Her — Then Cited Her Bosses to End Roe,” an allegation that fed directly into the pro-abortion trope that the Dobbs decision was substantially motivated by theological fervor rather than legal analysis. In the Ethics Alarms post, I expressed skepticism that the story could be accurate because no mainstream media source had picked it up, and also because any Justices praying with a representative of a religious organization before ruling on a case in which that organization had submitted a brief would create a neon-bright appearance of impropriety. On the other hand, I found it unlikely that the publication would drop such a “bombshell” without strong evidence, since its news reporting credibility was on lengthy probation after its phantom UVA “gang rape” story fiasco in 2015.
Now the verdict’s in, thanks to Tapscott: Rolling Stone apparently hasn’t learned anything about journalism ethics the last seven years. In a “Culture” column for PJ Media, Tapscott explains:
- The headline is deliberate deceit. It implies that the Dobbs opinion was issued following prayer sessions with an official of Liberty Counsel, a Christian public interest law firm that submitted an amicus brief in the case. But “following” in this instance means “more than two years later.”
- Tapscott writes,
The clear implication of that headline is that the praying and ending of Roe were directly related. And that implication is essential to one of the two main points of the authors, which is their quoting of various legal experts suggesting a conflict-of-interest problem with such praying with the justices as they were deliberating on Dobbs, with the aid of an amicus brief filed by Liberty Counsel — one of more than 140 such documents filed in the case….
- Moreover, Tapscott learned by reading the RS article three times (and obviously more carefully than I did) that it buries a material fact. A written clarification by Peggy Nienaber, whose off-the-record comments formed the basis for the “bombshell,” was included at the end of the piece:
“My comment was referring to past history and not practice of the past several years. During most of the history up to early 2020, I met with many people who wanted or needed prayer. Since early 2020, access to the Supreme Court has been restricted due to COVID. It has been many years since I prayed with a Justice.”
Got that? She had not prayed with any SCOTUS Justice in “many years,” nor could such sessions have occurred in the Supreme Court building for more than two years. Tapscott states, correctly,
That declaration should have appeared as the article’s fifth paragraph in order to make clear early on when the praying in question took place. But instead, it doesn’t appear until the 25th paragraph of the Rolling Stone article.
Tapscott’s conclusions from this episode:
…there are some common expectations that attend both straight news reporting and advocacy writing, the most fundamental of which is that readers can expect journalists to be intellectually honest in their presentation of facts, perspectives, and logic.
Violating that most basic of expectations is invariably an indicator that the author(s) is up to something that has little to do with encouraging intelligent discussion among varying opinions and everything to do with pushing a chosen narrative, or, to put it more bluntly, peddling propaganda… the Rolling Stone article’s headline perfectly captured the deceptive narrative presented by the authors — Peggy’s praying with justices led to Dobbs and the downfall of Roe. Distortion, not reality.
Good job, Mark.
The fact that the organization’s staff ever prayed with Justices in the Court building is still troubling. It should not have been permitted, and the Justices involved should have known they were treading carelessly in a conflict of interest minefield.