An error in a Politico report Monday alleging evangelicals are conducting some kind of nefarious power grab inside the Health and Human Services Department suggests the outlet isn’t clear on what the term means. Reporter Dan Diamond initially identified HHS official Roger Severino as one of two evangelicals heading up this power grab. But Severino is not an evangelical, he’s a Catholic.
Diamond and his editors got a key fact about one of the main subjects of the story wrong, revealing either a stunningly negligent reporting process, or an utter failure to understand the term “evangelical.” Regardless, the error completely undermines the premise of the report — that a few evangelicals have seized control of HHS and are now trampling other voices in order to advance evangelical priorities.
“A small cadre of politically prominent evangelicals inside the Department of Health and Human Services have spent months quietly planning how to weaken federal protections for abortion and transgender care,” Diamond wrote in the lead. He then identified Severino and Shannon Royce as the two “pivotal” players involved.
Evangelicals are happy, he reports, “But inside HHS, staff say that those leaders are steering their offices to support evangelicals at the expense of other voices …” These unnamed current and former bureaucrats are upset with the progress HHS officials appear to be making in enacting President Trump’s agenda, even if much of it is symbolic.
The Trump administration recently established a new office at HHS intended to enforce federal conscience protections for health providers who object to performing certain procedures, such as abortions, on those grounds. Severino is director of the office, and Royce serves as a liaison between the agency and grassroots religious groups.
The unknown staffers cited in the Politico article are troubled by these and other changes, which sharply contrast the department’s actions under the Obama administration, which critics accused of directly violating the First Amendment rights of religious exercise and freedom of association. Among the changes Diamond cites are an effort to highlight pro-life voices in public comments to the agency, and a “vast outreach initiative” to religious groups in asking them how HHS can better serve them.
“Anti-abortion, evangelical leaders now shape HHS’ daily communications and overarching legal strategy — a major departure from the Obama administration and arguably leaving them more empowered than under previous Republican administrations,” he writes.
It’s understandable that some HHS staffers don’t like the direction Trump is taking the agency, given that their predecessor directed them to pursue opposite policies. Also, yes, there are some evangelicals in positions of power now, but there doesn’t seem to be anything necessarily “evangelical” going on here. Take the issue of abortion. Catholics are notoriously pro-life. It’s not just Catholics, though: decades of polling have consistently found most Americans are pro-life concerning most circumstances. Just 18 percent polled in 2017 said abortion should be legal under any circumstances.
Politico tweaked the lead of this story following an inquiry from The Federalist, replacing “evangelicals” with “religious activists,” and noting Severino is Catholic. The outlet also added a “clarification” note at the bottom of the story that contains another error: “A previous version of this report characterized the religious affiliation of an HHS official in overly broad terms. Richard Severino is Catholic.”
CNBC also called misidentified him as Richard in a piece on the new HHS office. It’s Roger.
Diamond said the initial error was a result of “reshuffling” in the editing process, although he repeated the “evangelical” labeling mistake when he posted his story on his Twitter account. He later sent a follow-up tweet correcting the error.
NEW: How a cadre of prominent evangelicals are gaining power at HHS. Critics worry about breach of church and state. https://t.co/fqudOMktMR
— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) January 22, 2018
“I know that the terms here matter and that there’s an important distinction in faith,” he wrote in an email to The Federalist. “Just talked to my editors, and we’re going to tweak the piece to make it more clear.”
Despite these minor and still factually challenged edits and an acknowledgment from Politico that Catholics and evangelicals are different groups, the story continues to conjure up an image of some kind of evangelical boogeyman running the show at HHS. Further, replacing “evangelicals” with “religious activists” is itself another smear, suggesting that merely being a Christian impedes HHS staff’s ability to carry out their jobs and makes them more likely than people of any other religious persuasion to carry out a dangerous political or religious agenda. Have we seen, and would we ever see, Politico articles breathlessly arguing that atheist and agnostics HHS employees are “secular activists” on an “anti-religion crusade”?
Mistakes happen, but the severity of this one suggests the reporter and editors who worked on this story don’t really know what an evangelical is, except something horribly scary. Politico also botched an earlier report on the new HHS office. Bottom line: if you don’t have a firm grasp of the subject, maybe choose a different one for your next article.
Update: A spokeswoman from HHS disputed the report’s characterization of the rollout of the new office as closed to national media outlets. Diamond reports that national media outlets were excluded from a media call on the rollout, but spokeswoman Arina Grossu said The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post were invited to participate in the call, and noted Severino made himself available for follow up interviews with the national press. “We have been very, very available to national media outlets,” she told The Federalist.