Elite magazines like Rolling Stone have a long history of providing highly talented writers with respected forums for crafting pointed advocacy that encourages intelligent discussion of controversial issues. Straight news reporting it is not.

Even so, there are some common expectations that attend both straight news reporting and advocacy writing, the most fundamental of which is that readers can expect journalists to be intellectually honest in their presentation of facts, perspectives, and logic.

Violating that most basic of expectations is invariably an indicator that the author(s) is up to something that has little to do with encouraging intelligent discussion among varying opinions and everything to do with pushing a chosen narrative, or, to put it more bluntly, peddling propaganda.

Which brings us back to this piece that appeared yesterday in Rolling Stone, making the case that an official with Liberty Counsel, a Christian public interest law firm that submitted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court’s Dobbs case, prayed with several of the conservative justices before the decision was issued and thereby improperly influenced the outcome.

Related: Rolling Stone Busted for Trashing a Conservative Movie Its Reviewer Didn’t Watch

Before getting into the specifics of how the authors of the Rolling Stone article manipulated their evidence to present a profoundly misshapen version of the truth, I need to disclose an important fact.

The official who is thus grievously misrepresented is Peggy Nienaber, executive director of the D.C. Ministry of Liberty Counsel, which has argued and/or submitted amicus briefs in dozens of cases before the Supreme Court for several decades.

The firm has also won a number of decisions, including most recently in Shurtleff v. City of Boston, the unanimous ruling affirming the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious expression in the public square.

I have known Peggy for several years and I have great respect for her faith and her professionalism. She has spent years in the nation’s capital quietly and humbly sharing her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as her savior.

She is widely known and liked on Capitol Hill and in the Supreme Court precincts for consummately linking people with shared interests, organizing events and demonstrations, and helping evangelical ministries like my own, HillFaith, do our thing.

And yes, she has prayed with several of the High Court’s justices and she has prayed for all of them, liberals and conservatives, because she is faithful to the New Testament injunction to Christ’s followers that we pray for those in power. For the record, I laid out in my own mind the basic points of this column on the article (and yesterday’s as well), after my third reading of it, but before talking with Peggy in detail about it. Neither she nor anybody connected with Liberty Counsel will see this column until it is published.

Now, the central question here is when did she pray with the justices — just as Dobbs was being deliberated or years before the decision came down. The Rolling Stone authors would have you believe the former. A thoughtful reading of their piece that recognizes its artful arrangement of key facts, however, makes it quite clear that those prayers happened years before Dobbs.

Consider, for example, the title (which, to be clear about typical newsroom practices, was likely written by an editor and not the authors): “SCOTUS Justices ‘Prayed With’ Her — Then Cited Her Bosses to End Roe.”

The clear implication of that headline is that the praying and ending of Roe were directly related. And that implication is essential to one of the two main points of the authors, which is their quoting of various legal experts suggesting a conflict-of-interest problem with such praying with the justices as they were deliberating on Dobbs, with the aid of an amicus brief filed by Liberty Counsel — one of more than 140 such documents filed in the case. 

The Rolling Stone authors present a video recorded a few days after Dobbs during an event in front of the Supreme Court building that Peggy coordinated and during which she was approached by a Corinne IRL, who described herself as an independent journalist.

In response to a rapid-fire flurry of questions from Corinne IRL, Peggy is heard responding “Yes, we’re the only people that do that,” when asked, “you actually pray with the justices?”

She is then asked, “the Supreme Court justices pray with you, they are cool about it, or they have to (haha)?” Peggy responds, saying “No, they will pray with us, those that like us to pray with them. Some of them don’t. We actually go in there.”

When Corinne IRL requests “an interview on that,” Peggy declines, saying her comments were off the record. Despite Peggy’s declaration, Corinne IRL posted her video, including the exchange with Peggy, to YouTube, which you can watch for yourself here.

Something else you will hear Peggy say to Corinne IRL is that due to COVID-19 restrictions, people like her haven’t been able to enter the Supreme Court building for nearly two years. That’s a key fact to keep in mind.

But the Rolling Stone authors describe Peggy as being “caught on a hot mic making a bombshell claim: that she prays with sitting justices inside inside the high court.” And ergo: “This disclosure was a serious matter on its own terms, but it also suggested a major conflict of interest,” the conflict being that the Dobbs majority cited, among much else, the Liberty Counsel brief.

Carefully massaged timing is essential for the Rolling Stone authors in creating the appearance that Peggy was claiming to have prayed with some of the justices as they were deliberating Dobbs. But two facts that are buried in their piece make it obvious that was not remotely what Peggy was saying.

First, the authors quote Peggy’s former boss with a different ministry, Rob Schenck, at great length, including describing his claim that he, not Peggy, “hosted prayer sessions with conservative justices in their chambers from the late-1990s through when he left the group in the mid-2010s.”

Second, the authors, as they were obligated to do, did in fact ask Peggy to clarify her statement on the video. In a written clarification which the authors quote, she says:

“My comment was referring to past history and not practice of the past several years. During most of the history up to early 2020, I met with many people who wanted or needed prayer. Since early 2020, access to the Supreme Court has been restricted due to COVID. It has been many years since I prayed with a Justice.”

That declaration should have appeared as the article’s fifth paragraph in order to make clear early on when the praying in question took place. But instead, it doesn’t appear until the 25th paragraph of the Rolling Stone article.

Yes, Peggy spoke in present tense on the “hot mic,” thus arguably seeming to suggest recency. But the authors, subsequently and properly, asked her to clarify the timing intended. She did, but they buried it in their copy because it undermined the conclusion to which readers were being led.

In other words, the Rolling Stone article’s headline perfectly captured the deceptive narrative presented by the authors — Peggy’s praying with justices led to Dobbs and the downfall of Roe. Distortion, not reality.

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