Sunday, August 19, 2012

Slings and Arrows

“CT alleges that anonymity was granted because the publication ‘found evidence’ that its ‘sources could face retaliation’ for speaking to the magazine about the issue. The magazine did not substantiate ‘evidence’ of possible retaliation, and there has not been evidence of retaliation towards those speaking against Jang and groups allegedly tied to him in cases from East Asia.” - The Christian Post

When I started investigating David Jang’s movement, and when it became clear that the larger Christian community needed to be made aware of the things former members were telling me, I knew I was going to be exposed to some slings and arrows. There’s plenty of evidence that David Jang’s community has not been subtle in its attempts to undermine the credibility of those to whom they take a dislike.

Consequently, when I became aware several weeks ago that the Christian Post, a newspaper closely connected to David Jang, was preparing an article on me, I wasn’t exactly surprised. I did raise my eyebrows a little when one of their emails to Christianity Today said that the “story is going to be about Ken's involvement with an international network of pro-North Korean ,anti-Christian and leftist groups that are attacking Christian organizations.” But I had a pretty good idea that any story would focus less on my (non-existent) ties to North Korea, and more on my (actual) connections with Zango, an adware company where I was the CTO and co-founder.

There’s no denying that Zango was a controversial company, and even I can’t defend everything about it. I had plenty of my own disagreements with the other executives about aspects of its business, and and as a tech guy, limited influence over corporate strategy. But there was also a great deal about Zango that I admired, and that’s what kept me there for the better part of a decade. It had a great culture. It treated its employees well. And we worked hard to fix problems and to create an honest business. If you want more of my perspective on what was good about Zango, what wasn’t, and some of the internal battles I fought, you can just search for “Zango” on my blog. You can decide for yourself to what extent my involvement with Zango affects my credibility – or perhaps more importantly, the credibility of Ted Olsen, Christianity Today’s managing editor of news and online journalism, the lead author and fact-checker for the story.

But even though I had been expecting an attack, and was for the most part prepared to submit to it gracefully, I was still a little surprised to read in this morning’s Christian Post that I was all but a purveyor of child pornography.

I suppose I need to say a few obvious things: that Zango never sponsored or allowed child pornography on its network, that it dealt resolutely and immediately with any violations of its terms of service, and that had this not been true, there’s no way I would have allowed myself to be associated with it. Any allegation or implication otherwise is simply and entirely false.

It’s regrettable that I have to say these things – but I guess I do, at this point. I’m basically in the no-win situation described by Proverbs 26:4-5: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

Yes, on two occasions, Zango did have to deal with folks using its software in connection with child pornography. It was exactly the same problem that any large network of user-generated content faces, whether that be Google, Facebook, or Twitter. Zango’s response on both occasions was immediate, direct and resolute, and I have absolutely no reason to wish their response was anything other than what it was.

I hope it’s clear to neutral observers that this doesn’t really have much to do with whether David Jang’s community encouraged the belief that he was the Second Coming Christ. As with the accusations the Christian Post raised in their first article, even if everything they allege or imply is true (and it’s not), would it change a word of Christianity Today’s story?

Friday, August 17, 2012

My response to the Christian Post’s response to Christianity Today

I suppose most folks visiting my blog at this point are coming here because they’ve seen the article that Ted Olsen and I wrote for Christianity Today about David Jang.

It was clear to us for a while that the Christian Post was preparing a response to our article, and as expected, it came out this morning. I laughed so hard at their caricature of me that I’ve (temporarily) set it as my Facebook avatar:

Ken Smith

It’s very easy for this sort of thing to degenerate into a he-said/she-said debate, and I very much doubt anybody else out there is interested enough in the details to put up with an extended commentary, so I won’t go through every point they make. But at a high level, Ted Olsen and I stand by the story we wrote. We were aware of nearly everything that the CP article says, and where appropriate we had already included those responses in the CT article. Where we didn’t, it was generally because we didn’t consider it relevant: even if the allegation was true, it wouldn’t have changed the story.

The one significant piece of information that we didn’t have when we published the article was the testimony from Ma Li’s ex-husband, Yang Shuang Hao, and if we had, we would certainly have included it. This is the key part, in which he asserts that Ma Li had never been a member of the Young Disciples:

I am sure that she was not a YD China member, so everything she testified was a lie.

As I said, we hadn’t seen that specific testimony, but we had, however, seen indirect references to the allegation that Ma Li (the only former member who was willing to be named in our article) wasn’t actually a member of the Young Disciples. So several weeks ago, I asked her and one of our other Chinese sources about it.

This was Ma Li’s response:

At that time, the community hadn't been divided into so many branches, all of us were in the community, and the community was called as general church(we have different works, mainly 3 divisions at that time, economy-verecome, praise-Jubilee, and preaching. It was explained as 3 level of Noah's Ark - spirit, mental, and flesh), and we even didn't know our name, some older members(attend the church earlier) mentioned that we had a name as "contract gospel" in Korea, we are all together, there was no any media at that time, but in oct.,2002, when David Jang came to Shanghai, in a meeting of key members (Sarah Zhang, Xianzhu Gao-Korean and some others) , he(Davide Jang) said that we will put emphasis on developing more young members(students) in universities, and would establish YD(Young Disciples) based on these young people, so, they lied that i was not a member of YD, but i was almost one of te founders of YD, and also at that time, i was assigned as a missionary to Vietnam to develop church per Korea mode of Jang's community. so, am i a member of YD or not?

This was what the other former member from China said:

If you remember the debate in Hong Kong, the people from YDJ said that Mary has never been a member of the YDJ.  This may consider right, because Mary belongs to Heaven Church in Shanghai. But, in fact, YDJ and Heaven Church are the same organization, similar to one organization with two different names.  They can use different names according to the needs of the outside world.

This source said that she knew Ma Li well. She also said that she had read the Chinese book from CGNER which contained Ma Li’s testimony in Chinese (available here), and gave this assessment of the book:

I admire what CGNER did, they work hardly, trying to find the truth. But I don't like them to give an conclusion as "cult" label to the community. It is very serious annoucement to say some organization is cult. But you can trust Li Ma's testimony completely in the second version of the book. I read her testimony completely and I think it is just.

Of course, it’s always possible that Ma Li and this other source were conspiring to lie to Christianity Today. That’s just one of the many reasons that, for this story, CT didn’t rely on just one or two sources. As you can tell from reading the article, in addition to interviewing multiple former members from Asia, we were also approached by multiple current and former members from the United States. Making allowances for different viewpoints, cultures and locations, these independent testimonies sufficiently aligned that we judged them credible.

The Christian Post’s article also included some references to yours truly. I’m really of two minds as to whether it’s worth responding or not. But I’ll toss these three things out, hoping that they don’t make me sound too petulant. (I have three preschool children, so I’m a little sensitive to whining.)

(1) Among other things, CP included a quote from an email I sent to one of their lawyers, after they threatened to sue me for a Facebook post I made back in April. It’s my understanding that when I sent that email, it was part of a protected, confidential conversation, so I’m not sure about the journalistic ethics of their including it in the article. Nor am I sure what it was supposed to show. They note correctly that, as a gesture of good faith, I did in fact remove the post in question. (I didn’t care about the post, and I’d just as soon stay out of court, thank you very much.) But the lawyer continued to demand that I acknowledge that the post was false, which I wasn’t able to do. Here’s the key paragraph of my second email to the same lawyer, lightly edited to avoid naming the individual in question (yes, I still want to stay out of court):

I am afraid that I cannot communicate to Christianity Today or to the ABHE that my earlier statements about Mr. X were false, as they were not. I was, in fact, told by two internal sources whom I believe credible that it was their belief and understanding that Mr. X had in fact made this confession. To say otherwise would be to lie - and I hope that Mr. X is not requesting that I lie to avoid a lawsuit. It is, of course, possible that those two sources are mistaken: but it is the simple truth they told me this, and it is the simple truth that I believe they are credible. To say otherwise would be to lie, and I will not do that, even to avoid a lawsuit.

I note wryly that they didn’t quote from this email.

(2) They also included some quotes from a sermon I preached last September, in which I used my initial interactions with Olivet, and the lessons I learned, as an illustration of “dying to self”. I’d encourage you to read the sermon for yourself. My first impression, for what it’s worth, is that if I ever took a source’s quotes that badly out of context, my journalistic integrity would indeed be very much open to question. But since I am, in fact, trying to repent of the sins I describe in that sermon, I’ll try to submit to this graciously as penance.

(3) You know, I have to admit, I wasn’t as charitable in some of my blog posts about the WEA or Olivet as I should have been. I keep imagining God reading them back to me on the day of judgment, and looking at me with a raised eyebrow as He comes upon certain phrases. It’s not a terribly comfortable feeling. I don’t want to go back and re-edit the posts – that would feel weird: not only did I say what I said, but I fully stand by the concerns they raise. But if I were to write them over again, I would use less inflammatory language. And to those concerned, I offer my apologies. I’ll try to do better.