By Patrick Elliott
Freedom From Religion Foundation
If you followed the news surrounding the college football championship this week, you may have read erroneous reports that FFRF “plans to sue Clemson University.” To the fans of the 14 schools that lost to Clemson this past season, we are sorry to disappoint you. FFRF is not suing Clemson University at this time, even though there are serious problems within the program. (If a Clemson athlete or athletic staff member came forward, that could change.)
The manufactured Clemson story is a microcosm of a larger problem with how the media cover news on state/church issues. Those of us who work at FFRF are in a unique position because we have observed thousands of stories about FFRF’s activities reported by the media. The legal department fielded more than 350 media calls in 2015.
One of those recent calls was supposed to be about religion within the Clemson football program and FFRF’s past efforts to address it. The caller identified himself as Michael Patrick Leahy, and despite my healthy hearing and excellent phone system, I could not catch what publication he was calling from because he mumbled it. I didn’t think much of not knowing the name, as nearly every publication in the country covered the Clemson vs. Alabama game.
Leahy began the call by essentially saying that he “needed a quote on Clemson.” After I answered several questions, it became clear that he was not an actual journalist. It was at that point that I found out he was calling from Breitbart “News” and I ended the call. Here is how Leahy reported the final exchange:
Elliott asserted that the Clemson football program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, but responded by laughing when Breitbart News asked how specifically the Clemson football program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
“What news station are you with?” he asks.
“That makes a lot of sense,” he responds when told Breitbart News, before immediately hanging up.
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Leahy’s website says he is a “Breitbart News contributor and evangelist for constitutional liberty” and “organized the conference call that launched the Tea Party movement.” He wrote a book published in 2007 titled, “Letter to an Atheist.”
No legitimate news organization would authorize Leahy to interview sources for a story about FFRF. Not surprisingly, the Breitbart report was not accurate.
The first sentence of the Breitbart story claims,
The Freedom From Religion Foundation [FFRF], a highly litigious atheist group, looks to sue Clemson University over the role head football coach Dabo Swinney’s Christian faith plays in how he runs the program.
Instead of contacting FFRF or otherwise verifying the Breitbart piece, other media outlets copied it. Al.com ran an online story with the headline “Clemson lawsuit planned: Group turns its sights on Coach Dabo Swinney’s Christian faith.” (The headline and story were changed after FFRF informed the writer that it was not planning to sue Clemson).
I regret taking the call from Leahy, but my self-admitted mistake pales in comparison to what a bona fide news publication did by regurgitating a biased report from a conservative “news” outlet. Both reports certainly seem to conflict with elements common to good journalism. Legitimate journalists strive to report the truth, verify information, and are not compromised by self-interest.
Other members of the media, and the public, must be skeptical of any reports on state/church issues that originate from biased media outlets. Those writers are not motivated by reporting the facts, but instead finding facts to twist to fit their narrative, which is often a Christian persecution narrative.
The college football season has concluded, but you can expect to continue to see rehashes of inaccurate reporting on FFRF’s efforts to address the problems at Clemson. That may be remedied if readers, and journalists, hold reporters accountable for their stories.
FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. We depend on member support, please join today.