Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When Comparing Apples and Oranges Leads to Lemons

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. So wrote Mark Twain, some say, and that was well before anyone saw the latest Pew Report.

Pew usually does creditable work but the November report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life makes one pause. In trying to get a handle on advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill, Pew researchers compared apples and oranges and got lemons.

The report is named “Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, DC,” and that’s where the misconceptions start. The report is less about lobbying than advocacy, and it defines advocacy as broadly as possible. Example: Pew includes work of the bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting (OFB) when it speaks of advocacy. OFB reviewers recommend family-friendly movies to people who follow Catholic media. This has nothing to do with congressional activity.

Pew lists the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as spending more than $26 million on advocacy. It acknowledges that it is speaking about advocacy in broad terms, and not what people generally think of when they think of lobbyists. Whatever Pew meant, its title speaks of “lobbying” for the faithful that may conjure up money changing hands. It makes one think of pro-abortion groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL pouring dollars into politicians’ coffers. OpenSecrets.org, for example, says that Planned Parenthood and NARAL stand among “the most generous contributors to federal candidates, parties and committees.” Pew’s use of the word “lobby” led to the Nov. 21 Washington Post headline “Religious lobbying groups multiply on Capitol Hill,” and the Post’s declaration that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stands among the “biggest spenders.”

Pew acknowledges that its figures for religious advocacy groups, such as USCCB, are imprecise. It got its figures from a USCCB consolidated financial statement that listed all kinds of USCCB activities as “policy activities.” The USCCB may share in the blame for Pew’s skew given its own lack of precision in the statement Pew studied; but “policy” here cannot be equated with “public policy.”

The USCCB does engage in government relations not in electioneering and has three full-time staff assigned to the task. None of them hands out money and the cost of their efforts reaches no where near $26 million. The entire cost of salary and benefits for the entire USCCB staff, in Washington, Miami, New York and Rome, is $29 million, somewhat more than the $26 million Pew claims USCCB pours into lobbying/advocacy. If Pew were right there’d be no funds for USCCB’s central efforts in evangelization, liturgy, helping the poor, educating Catholics, doctrine and canon law.

In estimating advocacy expenses, Pew included costs for the Communications Department, including publishing, media relations, digital media, and Catholic News Service. A look at the activities of these offices suggests something beyond lobbying/advocacy.

Publishing, for example, has spent most of this year working on the revised Roman Missal, so the nation’s 17,000 parishes can pray new responses at Mass starting Nov. 27, the First Sunday of Advent. The only lobbying has been to try to get all the clergy on board as they lament changes in what they’ve gotten used since the missal was revised forty years ago.

Digital media, which conveys church teaching through modern means, boasts of some terrific efforts. Its most popular site by far is the Scripture readings page, where people get the day’s Gospel with the click of a mouse. Its only advocacy is asking God for help. Petitioning the Almighty is not lobbying Congress.

Pew says my own Office of Media Relations does advocacy. Perhaps the occasional blog seems like that, but I spend more time writing about new appointments in dioceses, religious education, vocations to priesthood and the plight of nuns whose retirement funds are woefully underfunded.

Catholic News Service (CNS) is no more into lobbying/advocacy than is the Associated Press, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, or any other news agency. It reports the news, whatever it is, and like any other news agency it does not always cultivate friends. I shout or laugh at a CNS news report the same way I shout or laugh at the evening news and morning paper.

The Pew Report may prompt commentary. Hopefully, people will realize its figures are way out of whack.

1 comment:

Questions from a Ewe said...

I agree that the Pew figures are likely inaccurate. That is because the bishops individually or within their regions spend money lobbying as well. Lobbying involves more than buying politicians dinners. The bishops spend money lobbying the faithful with campaigns about how to vote on issues and implied advice about politicians to support. The "information" in the materials the bishops publish on topics such as marriage, sexuality, or sex abuse scandal are often questionable, at best. At times, their statistics are highly suspect if not "lies" or "damned lies". Sadly the bishops are seen more as political lobbyists to many faithful rather than as shepherds. That is a tragedy. But even more tragic is that their collective reputation of lying, concealing and enabling pedophile priests, as well as track record of taking great liberties with the 8th Commandment (Thou shall not bear false witness) make them poor authorities on truth.