Several times during the months of December 2011 and January 2012, various members of our congregation heard bits and pieces secondhand from friends and relatives that a reporter named Alex Hannaford was purportedly writing a story about us and seeking interviews from hostile former members in order to hear their accusations against us. Unfortunately, this kind of “story” was nothing new. Back in 2007, there had been a three-part front-page series in our local paper that aired complaints from this same disgruntled group. We slogged through hours of interviews for that story, answering scores of accusations and allegations (many of which we’d never even heard of before), and were ultimately disappointed with the way we were represented in the resulting story. In addition, there’s been an almost ceaseless flood of vitriolic blog postings that a few of these embittered ex-members have been churning out on the Internet for several years now, seemingly seeking to outdo each other with anonymous atrocity stories and the like. So the appearance of another reporter on the scene looking to dredge up some sensational material about a unique religious group in Waco, Texas, was all too familiar.
For many weeks, we didn’t hear anything from the reporter. Then on Tuesday morning, January 24, Alex Hannaford called our church offices and told the secretary that he was a journalist writing a story about our community for the Texas Observer news magazine and that he would like to speak to someone about setting up an interview. One of our ministers, Dan Lancaster, called him back around noon the same day. Alex explained who he was and said that he wanted to interview us “generally about the church and its founding, its way of life and also about criticisms from former members.”
When Dan asked how he heard about us and what the source of the story was, Alex wouldn’t answer directly, but said that he’d always had an interest in religion and had “just been fascinated” by Homestead Heritage and “certainly wasn’t looking for any specific angle to begin with.” He said he’d been to our cafe a couple times, had a couple of our books and had been “reading and talking to people for the last couple of months” and was now “getting to the stage where he was writing a piece” and had “questions he needed to put to [us].” He said “there wasn’t one source at all”—he just had a personal interest and “fascination” with us.
Alex also stressed, “As a journalist, I don’t come from any position at all. I deliberately come at it from a totally neutral point of view, and that certainly doesn’t mean necessarily a secular point of view—just no point of view at all, whether it be religious or secular. I have to come at it from a completely neutral angle.”
Dan explained that we were quite familiar with the type of accusations that are typically leveled against us, and we’d already had quite a bit of experience with the people who make them. He said that in any story that involved this type of accusation, we had a general concern that we not lend credence to the accusations by participating in the story to an extent that seems to bolster it and give it factual support when the overall effect is nonetheless misleading to those who might read it.
Alex hurried to explain that “all he would ever want as a journalist” was for anyone reading the article to say, “Well, that’s a balanced piece.” He said to publish an accusation and then not give the other side looked “wrong” in his opinion.
Dan replied that since we were a community, he certainly wouldn’t want to agree to an interview under the circumstances without considering it and discussing it with some others and that he would get back to Alex hopefully within a couple days.
Alex said that sounded “really good” and “very fair,” and then said he would be available to come interview us either Thursday or Friday, if we could just let him know.
Though the conversation was very cordial, we were concerned from the beginning for several reasons. First of all, everything we’d heard from other sources before Alex called indicated that the direction of his story was anything but neutral. Though he had declined to mention any specific questions on the phone because “it would just take forever,” we’d seen strong indications on the Internet that he’d been courting our embittered blog posters online, and we were also told he was digging for information with which he could attempt to link us to inflammatory topics, such as the sexual abuse of children.
Another warning sign was that Alex had admitted (perhaps unwittingly) to Dan on the phone that he had been working on a “wide-ranging feature story” on our community for at least two months without ever contacting us at all. If he was writing a piece about us just because he was personally “fascinated” with our way of life, why would he not have come to us first to see and hear firsthand what we are about? This was a very strong indicator that, figuratively speaking, we were on trial as the accused party. The prosecution had been amassing evidence, and we would now be headed up to the witness stand to be cross-examined. Though we knew we were innocent of the charges, we also knew this would be a trial that was impossible to win. For when someone is publicly accused of something sensational and emotionally charged, such as child molestation, even if he is ultimately exonerated in court, the association forever remains to taint the accused: “Oh, yes, wasn’t he once accused of . . . ?”
We also had other evidence that a preconceived cult template was informing the reporter’s approach. Some friendly former members told us that he had boasted to them that he’d been the one to expose a religious cult in New Mexico a few years ago, and so he was “experienced with groups like this.” He’d also written a feature story on the David Koresh debacle here in Waco. All this hardly indicated a “totally neutral point of view” or that he “certainly wasn’t looking for any specific angle to begin with.” It also cast doubt on just what the nature of his “specific interest in religion” was.
Furthermore, in one of his own articles he describes a time when he was trying to get permission to visit a religious group, and yet their leader was “reluctant,” so for weeks Alex just kept “promis[ing] him even-handed reporting,” exchanging emails, and making “more reassuring noises on the phone” until the man agreed. Now the man sits in jail, and his followers are scattered. This man truly had messianic delusions (he openly claimed to be God) and eventually admitted to criminal behavior to boot. Nonetheless, we could only wonder if we were being stereotyped as a similar “deviant religious group” that also warranted being lured by superficial friendliness and virtuous promises of fairness—all for the sake of springing the trap once the reporter gained access.
After discussion and prayer over the matter, we felt it best to respond to Hannaford’s interview request by email, so as to have a documented record of our communication. Thus we sent him the following email that Friday (the highlighting marks the portion Hannaford later quoted in the Observer story):
Dan Lancaster <****@gmail.com> Fri, Jan 27, 2012 at 6:25 PM
To: Alex Hannaford <****@alexhannaford.com>
Dear Mr. Hannaford,
I’m writing in regard to your request that we give an interview for the story you’re considering about our community. We have no general principle against giving media interviews, and we’ve given dozens of them in the past on a wide range of topics, including our history, beliefs, way of life, and even answering criticisms. But, as I mentioned to you on the phone Tuesday, since we’ve become quite familiar over the past few years with the motives and agenda of the disgruntled former members you said you’re building this story around, we’re concerned that this particular story will benefit no one and yet has potential to harm many. We’ve already had an investigative journalist write an extensive feature story on us that highlighted the accusations of some of these same ex-members. The angle of the story was slated to be just as you described to me on the phone, and yet not only we, but also all those who know us well, were very disappointed with the results. The article contained scores of inaccuracies, included numerous totally unsubstantiated and inflammatory accusations and subjective impressions, omitted a lot of essential relevant facts, failed to mention documented evidence that we gave the journalist, did not include any testimony from ex-members who are favorable towards us (of whom there are many), and, in spite of every assurance we received of total objectivity, contained subtle editorializing that weighted the story against us. The end result was an article that could perhaps have appeared “fair” and “balanced” to an uninformed reader, and yet was viewed as a travesty by those who knew the truth, both within our community and without.
We’ve always discussed with anyone on a personal level any questions on any topic, provided they were asked respectfully. But, as I mentioned in our phone conversation, we’re concerned that countering in a public media forum a laundry list of “sour grapes” accusations and distortions would, at best, simply lend credence to a characterization of our community that is misleading as a whole. (This is one reason why we’ve never thought it beneficial to answer the endless stream of vitriolic opinions about us propagated by these same detractors on the Internet blogs.)
Thank you for your consideration.
For Homestead Heritage
Alex emailed and left a voicemail the next day and said he’d like to talk, but we asked him to respond by email if possible:
Alex Hannaford <****@nofiction.co.uk> Sat, Jan 28, 2012 at 3:29 PM
To: Dan Lancaster <****@gmail.com>
Be grateful if you could give me a quick call on this. ***-***-****
Dan Lancaster <****@gmail.com> Sat, Jan 28, 2012 at 7:42 PM
To: Alex Hannaford <****@nofiction.co.uk>
Unless there is some pressing reason you cannot, I would prefer you to respond by email.
That evening, he sent the following:
Alex Hannaford <******@nofiction.co.uk> Sat, Jan 28, 2012 at 8:35 PM
To: Dan Lancaster <******@gmail.com>
I had hoped we could meet Thursday or Friday in person as I said in my initial approach. The reason I called today is because my deadline is Monday afternoon, and I strongly recommend you take the opportunity to respond to these questions. I'm sure you understand that an 'off the record' meeting would be a waste of both our time.
There are a number of things I'd like to discuss. Can I reach you via phone tomorrow?
There had been no indication whatsoever in Alex’s phone conversation with Dan that there was any “deadline” at all, much less that it was only a few days away. Was it just a bluff? And why would he be unwilling to simply meet with us face to face so we could discuss our concerns about his story? Dan wrote back the next morning:
Dan Lancaster <******@gmail.com> Sun, Jan 29, 2012 at 10:48 AM
To: Alex Hannaford <******@nofiction.co.uk>
The only case in which I can understand that, as you said, “an ‘off the record’ meeting would be a waste of both our time” is if your storyline is predetermined to the point that hearing our perspective of the history and dynamics of this controversy (not to mention the facts involved that are invariably twisted or omitted by our detractors) would not affect your approach or your decisions in regard to the article in any way. If that is the case (and I was certainly hoping and assuming it was not), then I agree that there would be no benefit in either an off-the-record meeting or an interview with you (though we have done both with numerous other media personnel). And as far as your deadline (which you only just now have made any mention of), I can only say that working with the accusative side of the story for two months and only then contacting the subject of a “wide-ranging” feature story a few days before your deadline seems impractical, at the very least.
Sunday is our day of worship, and so certainly would not be a good time for a discussion with our ministers anyway. But more importantly, if meeting us in person for a discussion of what’s involved and at stake in a story like this before you proceed does not interest you, then we couldn't be comfortable with a telephone interview for all the reasons stated in my first email, and many more that we had been hoping to discuss.
If you feel I’m misunderstanding something here, then I would appreciate clarification.
Within the hour, Alex wrote back:
Alex Hannaford <******@nofiction.co.uk> Sun, Jan 29, 2012 at 11:37 AM
To: Dan Lancaster <******@gmail.com>
I'm forwarding this email - and my response - to my editor at the Observer as well, to ensure there is absolutely no misunderstanding.
1. My article was certainly not 'predetermined'.
2. I gave you the opportunity to let me interview you - and other elders - in person, last Thursday or Friday. I was prepared to come to Waco and stay as long as needed. You finally responded to my request at 6.25pm on Friday night. I understand you have church today, and therefore I reiterate that I would still like to speak to you, on the phone, for this article. Monday morning would work.
3. An 'off the record' interview would be a waste of time for both of us because I'm writing an article for publication and I'd like it to be balanced. To do that, I need your response to some important questions. If you respond to them and then I can't use any of the material because it was all said 'off the record', then it is obviously a waste of everybody's time. Like any interview I conduct, if there are one or two comments the interviewee would like to make off the record, this is acceptable. But an entire interview? Absolutely not.
4. You mention the "controversy", "facts that are invariably twisted or omitted by your detractors", and, in an earlier email, that the accusations amounted to "sour grapes", but with the greatest of respect you have not let me put to you any of the criticisms, questions or concerns that I have uncovered in the course of my research for this story, so you are just hypothesizing. Let me interview you and then there will be clarity.
I look forward to a favorable response
We answered the next day with the following:
Dan Lancaster <******@gmail.com> Mon, Jan 30, 2012 at 1:09 PM
To: Alex Hannaford <******@nofiction.co.uk>
I want to address several things regarding the points in your email, in hopes of achieving greater understanding.
1. I did not say your article was ‘predetermined.’ In fact, I said that I had hoped and assumed it was not. I simply pointed out that only if that was the case could I concede that neither of us would benefit from you meeting with us off the record.
2. While you did tell me in our phone call last Tuesday that you were available on Thursday or Friday to interview us, you did not make any mention then of your Monday deadline, or even that there was a deadline at all. I responded that we would have to carefully consider the best approach, given our past experience with this kind of story and the people behind it. I said I would need to discuss the question of an interview with some others before making a decision that had potential to adversely affect our entire community, and that hopefully I could get back to you in a couple days. Please understand that I and the others I needed to consult are all very busy people, and we cannot always drop our other responsibilities on two or three days notice. Thus I was unable to get back to you until Friday. We wish you had contacted us when you began working on the story two months ago; that would have made it much easier to find a time that worked for both you and us before your deadline.
3. I did not ask for an “‘off the record’ interview.” I asked for an off-the-record meeting with you to orient both of us to the situation so that neither of us would proceed to make our decisions regarding your proposed story in ignorance. If you believe that your perspective remains open and your decisions regarding your storyline remain subject to change (in spite of your two-month investment and your imminent deadline), I don’t understand why you still see no possible benefit in such a meeting with us. It seems to me to indicate an assumption that we would have nothing noteworthy to say that might influence the approach or angle of the article. Furthermore, since you still insist that an off-record meeting would only be wasting our time as well, then you must also be assuming that our meeting you in person and having the opportunity to ask you our questions would be of no help to us in deciding how we want to approach the question of an interview for your story. I would have to completely disagree that this would waste our time.
We can agree in a general sense that an article for publication should be balanced. But this ignores the larger questions of the whole nature and perspective of the article, its form and content, and its appropriateness for publication in the first place. Consider the following example for the purpose of demonstrating the relevance of these larger questions: would a “balanced” article airing inflammatory accusations against the blacks have been ethical to publish in the deep south during the Jim Crow era, as long as equal space was given to both sides of the story? Do both sides equally benefit from such a “balanced” story? I’m not comparing the degree of our situation to the plight of the blacks; I simply raise the question as an example of the principle involved with a story that propagates subjective criticisms of a minority group such as ours. We are of the nonviolent Anabaptist tradition, which throughout its long history has been repeatedly subjected to persecution. Unfortunately, we’re not unfamiliar with the dangers of malice that’s fueled by inflammatory accusations, and we’ve more than once found ourselves the target of prejudice. At various times in the past, from just the type of people now accusing us, we’ve had our church pulpit desecrated, our property defaced with swastikas, we’ve received grotesquely unprintable hate mail and violent death threats, and on one occasion years ago we’ve even had our children shot at. I hope this helps you to understand our caution.
4. You told me on the phone that you were putting together a story that would give “very disgruntled former members” that have been criticizing us on the Internet, and with whom you’ve been talking with for quite some time now, a chance to “share their concerns,” countered by our response. I can only conclude, then, that your story will feature the “controversy” that I mentioned in my last email, a controversy we are definitely not “hypothesizing” about—as I’ve already said, we’re all too familiar with it by now.
It’s true, of course, that you haven’t told us what the specific accusations you want to put to us are (and, since many past accusations have been fabricated from thin air, there’s always the chance that there’s a new twist to the familiar story that we haven’t heard yet), but we’ve had much experience with these detractors, and we know their storyline quite well by now. I believe my characterization of it and concerns about it are legitimate. If you feel that you have something substantively different to bring to the table that might change our approach in regard to all this, that would have been something beneficial to bring to the table in the off-record meeting we asked for.
Finally, “clarity” on both our parts is exactly what we had hoped to achieve by meeting with you—before jumping into an interview.
Our concerns still stand, as does our offer to meet with you off the record to discuss all this and more. In regard to your deadline, I can only say that in our own case, whenever we have needed to write on something volatile or controversial, we have always tried to make accuracy and complete understanding of the issues involved paramount, rather than rushing anything into print.
I hope this helps you to understand our perspective and concerns. Please feel free to forward this to your editor, as well as my first email, if you’ve not already done so.
That evening, we heard from a friendly former member that Hannaford had called them and asked them to call one of our ministers and ask him certain questions while Hannaford listened in without their knowledge. They refused. He also mentioned that some of the “anonymous” stories he was planning to include in the article were actually compilations of stories that he just “put together because they were similar.” Referencing again the New Mexico cult, and how all the children from that group are forever grateful to him for exposing it, he reminded this former member that he was “good at this.” He urged them again to give him an interview, saying that “all your friends have found the bravery to come out and tell their stories.” Then when this former member still refused, he said they must still be under the “mind control” of Homestead leaders. Several other former members called us the same day, all having heard again from Hannaford, and all confirming again their concern about the nature of the story he was writing.
When we had received no response from Hannaford after two days, we decided that it would be best to end the discussion and simply offer a statement for publication in the Observer article explaining why we never granted an interview (the highlighting marks the fragment actually quoted in the Observer article):
Dan Lancaster <******@gmail.com> Wed, Feb 1, 2012 at 8:53 AM
To: Alex Hannaford <******@nofiction.co.uk>
Given that I’ve received no response to the email I sent you Monday, and given that you told me last Saturday night (for the first time) that your deadline was this past Monday afternoon, and given that you have stated clearly that you will “absolutely not” meet with us as we offered, I’m writing this email as our final communication with you. Please forward it in its entirety to your editor.
In light of everything we’ve learned about your story and your methods of pursuing your story, both from my direct contact with you, as well as from several friendly ex-members that you’ve given much detail to, we have decided that we will not be involved any further with you or your story. We’ve been given every reason to believe it will portray a false and misleading characterization of our community, our history, our families, our mission, our faith, and everything we stand for. If you and your editors choose to publish this story in spite of our concerns about its defamatory content and the manner in which it was pursued, then we offer the statement below for publication in your story, and we ask that you use it over and above any other materials that you might intend to use to represent us, and that you use it unedited and in its entirety.
For Homestead Heritage
Statement by Homestead Heritage for the Texas Observer
Though we at Homestead Heritage have given dozens of media interviews in the past on all facets of our community, including our beliefs, our way of life, and even answering criticisms from former members, we chose not to grant an interview for this story. Our decision was due in part to the manner in which we were treated by the journalist, who did not contact us until a few days before his deadline, and then refused to meet with us to discuss our concerns about the story.
Furthermore, we’ve become very familiar with the character and agenda of the former members behind these slanderous and inflammatory, yet typically subjective and unverifiable, accusations against us. Their storyline as a whole presents a blatantly false and misleading characterization of our nonviolent, peace-loving Christian community, and thus we didn’t think it right to lend credibility to it by participating in it directly. Therefore, we have chosen instead to present our side of the story on our website at: www.homesteadheritage.com/slander
We also encourage readers to come visit us, ask questions, and see for themselves. We’ve been open to the public for over 20 years, and we now have over 50,000 visitors annually. See our website for details.
Though we disagree that this story is appropriate media material, we thank the editors of the Observer for including this statement.
This email apparently got Hannaford’s attention in a different way, for in spite of the fact that we had clearly said it would be our final communication, he was trying to call us within twenty minutes of our sending it. We did not answer his call, as we didn’t consider it prudent to be pulled into an unwanted telephone interview. About an hour and a half after we sent this email, we received the following:
Alex Hannaford <******@nofiction.co.uk> Wed, Feb 1, 2012 at 10:24 AM
To: Dan Lancaster <******@gmail.com>
Dan, as you know the first draft of the story was due yesterday, but we would still like to give you every opportunity to put your side. Although my editor now has an initial draft, we still have until this Friday to finalize things. Once more, I would like to emphasize the importance your response is to this story. I have to say we both find it unusual that you would issue a statement in response to a story you've never read and questions you've never received.
With this in mind, I've included some questions in this email. If you would like to participate, via email or by phone, please do so by Friday 3rd at 10am. As I think I said in a previous email, I am not averse to you speaking to me off the record about certain things, but we could never agree to an entire interview (or meeting) off the record. My editor is in full agreement. If there are any questions below that you don't want to answer, please say so. Otherwise, I look forward to hearing from you,
Why do you think people join Homestead Heritage?
What makes Homestead Heritage unique?
Why do people leave Homestead Heritage?
Is Blair Adams a messenger from God?
Do church members believe he is a messenger from God?
Are all the elders at Homestead messengers from God?
Former members say the bedrock of Homestead doctrine is that there is no disctinction [sic] between Blair Adams's words and those of Jesus Christ. Is this true?
There have been allegations, as you're aware, of child abuse. Have any of the elders in your community ever been told about sexual abuse of a child (someone under 18) taking place and not reported it to the police or CPS?
If someone has committed a crime in the eyes of the law, would there ever be a situation in which you would choose to pray about it or ask God to deal with it rather than inform the authorities (police, etc.)?
Former members have said that sometimes corporal punishment that went on in family units in Homestead constituted child abuse. Were the elders ever told and did they contact CPS or the police on each occasion?
Are families encouraged to discipline their children if they find out they've been masturbating?
Has any member believed to have committed a crime been disfellowshipped or disassociated rather than turned in to the police or relevant authorities?
Have you ever asked would-be members to sign a form saying they will never publicly speak out against or sue the church or any of its members? If so, why would you want them sign a document like this?
Do you require the elders in your church to sign any sort of document imposing limits on their authority? If so, have they been published?
Do your members have any recourse for addressing concerns or grievances that you consider legitimate, other than through the elders?
“As you know” in Hannaford’s first sentence is disingenuous, for we had heard nothing about it being just “the first draft” that was due on Tuesday. We had simply been told that the deadline was Monday afternoon. The fact that we still had until Friday to give an interview had never been mentioned. We replied:
Dan Lancaster <******@gmail.com> Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 10:29 PM
To: Alex Hannaford <******@nofiction.co.uk>
As I stated in my last email, we will not participate any further in any way with your story.
The nature and content of your specific questions are indeed reflective of the very same accusations from the detractors that I’ve been referencing in all my communication with you. Seeing them in print has only served to further confirm to us our concerns about the misleading characterization of our community that your story will be built around—concerns which you have absolutely refused to discuss with us. Our statement stands as is.
We heard nothing more from Hannaford. The Observer released his story eight days later. It included only one and a half sentences of our statement.
From the nature of the story he published, we leave it to the reader to judge the honesty of Hannaford’s portrait that we were jumping to conclusions in our expression of concerns about the nature of the story he was writing.