Focus On The Burning Bridge

I’ve been 86’ed by Focus on the Family. Again.

That’s right, after a sometimes on, mostly off-again 14-year relationship, the Christian ministry and media empire has notified me that it will never, ever, ever, deign to be interviewed by yours truly again. I’ve burned all my bridges, I’m told, the ones that connect readers with the massive ministry that is headquartered in northern Colorado Springs.

My crime? Well this time I really did it. I accurately quoted their spokesman. That’s right. Accurately.Here’s how it happened: Last week, Colorado Confidential reported on an incident involving two lesbians who were hauled away by Colorado Springs cops on Feb. 19, after they refused to leave Focus on the Family. They wanted a private audience with the ministry’s founder James Dobson, to talk to him about his position on homosexuality.

During a subsequent phone interview, Focus spokesman Gary Schneeberger repeatedly described the ministry as a business, underscoring how reasonable people cannot expect to just waltz in and meet with Dobson. “We have protocol to follow,” Schneeberger noted.

What if, Schneeberger wondered by way of example, someone didn’t like an editorial that appeared in the newspaper to which I contribute. Could they just show up on the doorstep, expecting to meet with the publisher? Nope, that person, Schneeberger surmised, would be asked to leave – “that’s the way any business operates.”

And then Schneeberger said: “[The women] came in and wanted a private meeting with Dr. Dobson, and that’s not how it works in big business. You don’t go to USAA [insurance company] and ask to speak the CEO.”

I asked Schneeberger exactly what he meant by his repeated descriptions of Focus on the Family as a business – a big business. Is Focus a ministry or just a big business? Schneeberger immediately grasped the import of his own references, and amended them to include comparisons with another large Colorado Springs based ministry, Compassion International, as well as the Colorado Springs Police Department and the Air Force Academy.

“We’re a nonprofit ministry,” Schneeberger said. They  “reach out,” they “meet the needs” of families.

The resulting Colorado Confidential story focused on the lesbians who were arrested – and this is an important detail- I did not dwell on Schneeberger’s own repeated references to his place of employment strictly in business code-speak. Nor did I  drive home, for example, that the massive ministry processes so much mail it has its own ZIP code and, in 2005 reported total revenues of $138 million. Frankly, it really wasn’t intended to be a big and relevant part of the story.

But I did include this description in the story, along with Schneeberger’s quote:

Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger says the ministry welcomes anyone who wants to come and observe their work; however, no one can walk in expecting to have a private conversation with James Dobson, the founder and chairman. On Feb. 19, Dotti Berry and Robynne Sapp were arrested after they refused to leave the building unless they were granted a private audience with Dobson. But, Focus on the Family, Schneeberger noted, is a large company, with 1,300 employees.

“[Berry and Sapp] came in and wanted a private meeting with Dr. Dobson, and that’s not how it works in big business,” Schneeberger said. “You don’t go to USAA [insurance company] and ask to speak the CEO.”

Well, Schneeberger read that story and clearly got mad about what he said. He fired off this e-mail, axing me forever.

“… I do hope the “big business” quote was worth it,” Schneeberger wrote. “You knew precisely what I meant — “large operation” — and you went the direction you went because it gave you the chance to try to make us look bad.

“That really is sad, Cara. I tried to be fair with you — over the warnings of many colleagues. Ultimately, you proved them right.

“Consider the bridge burned. That was the last time anyone from Focus will speak to you for publication.

“Like I said, I hope it was worth it.”

Gary

I was, and remain, stumped. He said it, I quoted him. I was even polite enough not to, in the original story, unfairly dwell on Schneeberger’s own definition – which he hadn’t even seemed to notice until I pointed it out to him.

Schneeberger may never talk with me again, and one thing’s certain: He will probably also never describe the multi-million dollar company that he represents as a multi-million dollar company. And if he does, well woe to the reporter who publishes, verbatim, what he says.

This is the first in a series about Focus on the Family and the secular media. Cara DeGette is a longtime Colorado journalist and a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential. E-mail her at cdegette@coloradoconfidential.com.

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Cara Degette

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