Sunday, November 20, 2005


I never did like Bob Woodward.

I was working as a newspaper reporter in Flint, Michigan in the early 70s when Woodward and Bernstein were getting famous as investigative reporters for The Washington Post, reporting on the Watergate scandal. I thought they got too much credit for breaking Watergate when it was really Judge Sirica, the no-nonsense district judge, who made the White House plumbers talk.

Part of the frustration of being a newspaper reporter is that you're always on the outside looking in. Woodward and Bernstein couldn't make anyone talk; only a judge, with threats of jail time for contempt of court could make an unwilling witness sing. The best a newspaper reporter can do is try to find out what is going on in the grand jury room. It's the difference between watching a game and being in the game. For much political reporting, it's not even watching the game, it's being locked out of the room where the game is being played and being dependent on the participants occasionally coming out of the room and telling you what's going on. Such information is inherently unreliable. The person leaking the information to the reporter is going to make himself look as good as possible. That's called "spin," nowadays, but the process was the same before the term was ever invented.

Memories are short and people now don't remember how much of what Woodward and Bernstein reported was wrong. The good their reporting did was not the content of the information they conveyed, but that they kept the Watergate story on the front pages of the newspapers for so long that Congress was finally forced to do its own investigation, which created yet more publicity.

Conservatives argue that the mainstream media have a liberal agenda which they try to impose on the rest of the country by the stories they publish. I used the term "argue" deliberately because thinking conservatives know better. The mainstream media are big business. They are all Wall Street traded companies whose only agenda is making a profit for their shareholders. They need to attract viewers and readers, and so they publish stories that will do that. Hopefully the stories will be more or less accurate because if the viewers and readers decide they can't rely on the particular media outlet, it will lose customers.

When I was a reporter we rarely used anonymous quotes. Woodward and Bernstein did great damage to the media by popularizing the use of anonymous quotes. While, arguably, anonymous quotes are necessary in order to get information out of government that officials want to stay hidden, politicians soon learned to use anonymity to their own advantage. They would leak information to make themselves look good without the readers being able to tell who was giving the information and thus be able to judge motivation and accuracy.

Woodward has made a career out of anonymous inside sources. The suspicion is that some of his material comes from his own head not from any anonymous inside source. The most egregious was a book about the CIA in which he claimed to have reported the dying words of William Casey, the ex-CIA chief, when no one was there except Casey's wife and she denied ever having talked with Woodward.

Woodward has had unparallelled access to the Bush White House, having found favor with The Lying Turd by publishing a laudatory book about the administration's reactions to the 9/11 attacks. Woodward was one of the cheerleaders in the run up to the Iraq invasion, and is the source of the unlikely story that at one point, asked the likelihood of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, CIA Director Tenet jumped to his feet and yelled, "It's a slam dunk." I doubt very much that incident ever took place. I very much doubt that Bill Clinton would have appointed as CIA director someone with that kind of childish demeanor.

The latest episode, with Woodward being told by "a senior administration official," that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA weeks before even the New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, was told about it, and then sitting on the information, never writing a story about it; not telling anyone about it (he claims he told Walter Pincus but Pincus denies it) demonstrates how distorted the practice of using anonymous sources has made the practice of journalism. To make matters worse, he then went on many talk shows and trashed the Fitzgerald investigation, saying that it wasn't going to amount anything, without revealing his own involvement in the matters Fitzgerald was investigating.

Woodward is supposed to be a newspaper reporter. If Dick Cheney told him that Wilson's wife is a CIA operative; that's news. He should have reported who told him, when they told him, what they told him and why they told him. Otherwise, he's simply being used as an administration public relations flack.

Maybe I'm just jealous that I never raked any muck in my short newspaper career, but I'm still never going to buy any of Woodward's books. His credibility is less than zero with me.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Battle at Rocky Top Salvage Store - Part Two

I had a pleasant conversation last night with Ruth Irene Garrett, the ex-Amish woman I wrote about in the previous post, who is in a dispute with Erma Yoder, the proprietor of Rocky Top Salvage Store.

A reader of this blog sent me the website of Irene (as she prefers to be called.) It is here: The website has a contact email address, so I sent her an email raising some of the questions I mentioned in my last post. I soon got an email back from her husband, who told me that she had just arrived home, was leaving today on a book tour for a new children's book that she has coming out for the holidays and that she would like to talk with me by telephone. So, I called her up a few minutes before I needed to leave the office to go home for supper, and wound up talking half an hour.

By the end of the conversation, I was completely won over. She knows way more about Amish culture than I do. The Amish are even stranger than I had remembered.

We spent the first 10 minutes of our conversation doing what all Amish and Mennonites do on meeting each other; trying to figure out how we are related. It is a given that we are related, the only question is how far back the connection goes. She has connections to the Arthur community from which stem my Amish roots. She is probably at least a third cousin.

Irene's mother is from Kokomo, IN; but she grew up in Iowa. While I was Amish only because my parents were and left at the age of 10, when they left, Irene was baptized as a young teenager into the Amish church. Irene committed the sin not only of leaving the Amish church but marrying a divorced man, put her in a double whammy.

Irene was aware of the relatively mild shunning practiced by the Amish in Arthur, IL, and quickly rattled off five or six other Amish communities that are similarly "liberal." In Kokomo, IN, where Irene's mother is from, a ban lasts only for six weeks. In Iowa, where she grew up and left the Amish church, the ban is permanent. Once ex-communicated, the person is shunned until they come back to the church. In Iowa, commercial transactions are not allowed, and, in one case, involving Irene's aunt, who had also left the Amish church, an Amish person could not even touch money that her aunt had touched.

Irene's father is an Amish minister. Although he will allow her to come home and visit, her husband is not permitted on the property. Usually, Irene has someone else drive her to her parents' house for a visit, but one time her husband did so. He was not permitted to even sit in the car and wait for her on their property; her father ordered her husband off the property and made him sit across the road to wait. She said the visits, which she limits to several hours consist of her father preaching to her about her sinfulness and her mother sitting there crying.

Like the Amish of Illinois, the Iowa Amish would not have banned Irene if she had left to join a conservative non-Amish denomination. Her crime is compounded because she joined the Lutheran church, hardly considered Christian at all by the Amish, and she married a divorced man, so she is in a state of continual adultery.

The Glasgow, Kentucky area, where Irene now lives, has five separate groups of Amish, varying from the regular Old Order Amish to New Amish to Swartzendruber Amish to others. Some of the groups will not fellowship with each other. The Swartzendruber Amish are the strictest of the Amish in the Glasgow area and, according to Irene, will excommunicate and place in the ban any members who leave the group, even if it is to join another less severe Amish group.

Erma Yoder, the owner of the Rocky Top Salvage Store, does not belong to one of the strictest groups, Irene says. While her group forbids commercial transactions with a persons in the ban, it permits circumvention. For example, like the Sabbat goy Orthodox Jews can hire to turn their electric light switches on and off, Erma's Amish permit commercial transactions to be done with someone in the ban through a non-church member. So, Irene says, Erma could have had one of her non-church member children take Irene's payment for her groceries.

In fact, Irene says, that Erma did propose such a solution. Erma said that Irene could have her husband pay for the groceries. This would have been acceptable, because although he was helping Irene commit adultery by being married to her, he never belonged to the Amish church, so he was not ex-communicated. This would have been acceptable even though the payment would have been from the same joint checking account. Irene's husband was out in the car waiting for her, has difficulty walking, said "This is stupid," and refused to participate.

Irene told me that she had shopped in other Amish-owned stores in the community, been refused service in some and been allowed to make purchases in others. She said that the reason she pushed the issue in Erma's Rocky Top Salvage Store is that while the other Amish proprietors who refused her service did so quietly and politely and spoke to her in Pennsylvania Dutch so that other customers would not know what was going on, Erma spoke to her loudly and in English, which embarassed her. Irene says that when she protested, Erma said, "What are you going to do about it, write about it?"

I asked Irene why she didn't accept the free groceries Erma offered. She said that she didn't want Erma to say she just came to get free groceries.

Ottie, Irene's husband told me that they were surprised that the newspapers were reporting about the confrontation. Apparently, in Kentucky, like in Illinois, Human Relations Commission proceedings are not public. He states that the lawyer for Erma broke the story in their local newspaper. He emphasized that they are not looking for money; all they want is an apology and training for Amish store owners in human rights laws.

So, who is in the right here? I will let my readers decide. Which is more important, the First Amendment right to freely exercise one's religion or the laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion? You decide.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Yoder's Rocky Top Salvage

There's an interesting battle being fought in Kentucky between Erma Yoder, an Amish woman, and Ruth Irene Garrett, an ex-Amish woman, that involves a clash between the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and human rights laws that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion. (The Lexington Herald-Leader has a story about it here

Supposedly, Erma refused to do business with Ruth Irene when she came into her grocery salvage store because Ruth Irene had been excommunicated from the Amish in Iowa where Ruth Irene grew up. Ruth Irene has written several books about being Amish and her "escape" from the Amish, and Erma supposedly recognized her from her picture on the book jacket.

According to this article, and others which have been in the media over the last several days, Erma offered to give Ruth Irene the groceries, but was afraid she would go to hell if she accepted Ruth's money.

Kentucky apparently has a law, like Illinois and many other states, that makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment, and also in public accommodations, on the basis of religion. Such a law makes sense. A store should not be able to put a sign out front; "No Catholics Admitted," or "We Don't Sell to Jews." On the other hand, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a state from interfering with a person's right to freely exercise her religion, with some limitations, of course. Mormons cannot have more than one wife, and certain Indian tribes cannot use peyote in their religious rites.

But this story smells. I've been Amish. I've been a newspaper reporter. I am a lawyer and I've handled many discrimination claims, including claims of religious discrimination (although in Illinois, not Kentucky.)

First the caveats. Although Amish communities in different localities have many similarities, there are also many differences; differences that an outsider might not recognize. That is because there is no Amish pope. Each Amish church district makes its own rules. The rules tend to be similar, but there are also many variations. The prayer coverings the women wear, vary in size, style and manner of wearing. One Amish district may require its women to tie their prayer coverings with strings in front of the neck; another may allow the women to put the strings behind the neck. There are variations in how the dress is made. There are variations in how the practice of shunning is enforced.

The Anabaptist movement from which Mennonites descended started in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525. In 1545, the movement first began to be called "Menists," or "Mennonites" after a Catholic priest, Menno Simons, in The Netherlands, who became well known as a writer in behalf of the movement. The Amish got started about 150 years later in southern Germany, when a young Mennonite minister, Jacob Ammann, insisted that the Mennonites had gotten too lax in church discipline. Ammann was something of a nut and went around placing in the ban, thus calling for shunning, everyone who disagreed with him. At one point, he even placed himself in the ban.

The purpose of shunning, which like everything else, can be justified by reference to a verse in the Bible, is not to punish but to make the sinner realize the seriousness of the sin; get him/her to stop sinning and return to the church. It is not practiced against anyone who has never been a church member.

The way that shunning is practiced, at least in the Amish churches with which I am familiar, is that it is very pro forma, done for a brief time, and after it is clear the "sinner" is not going to return to the church, it is dropped. So, although a church member is not supposed to eat with someone who is in the ban, when a family member is being shunned, they may be required to eat at a table, technically separate from the table at which the other members eat, but the two tables are separated by a crack so small that someone ignorant of what was going on would not notice it.

My parents were briefly in the ban after they left the Amish church. The only consequence was that one of my uncles refused to ride in my father's car for about six months after my parents left the church. After that, all was forgiven, and his Amish siblings were happy to not only eat with him, but to be hauled around by him.

I question the newspaper story on several levels. It is odd to me that Erma would have read the books Ruth wrote and recognized Ruth from the book jacket. Why would someone as devout as the story paints Erma, waste her time reading an infidel-written book when she could be reading the Bible? Secondly, the story claims Erma offered to give Ruth the groceries Ruth attempted to purchase, but would not accept money from her for fear of going to hell.

I have read a good bit of Mennonite and Amish history, and I have lots of personal experience with Amish, although admittedly, the Amish who are my relatives do not live in Kentucky. I have never heard of anyone advocating the idea that shunning would prevent someone from being paid money for goods, but would permit giving the goods away. That makes no sense. How would a "sinner" come to repentance by getting free groceries instead of having to pay for them?

Nor have I ever heard or read of any Amish teaching that an Amish person who does not shun someone in the ban would go to hell. Even the most ardent shunners view it as a tactic to convince the "sinner" to repent. All of the Amish churches with which I am familiar view the practice of shunning as optional, not mandatory.

Finally, from a legal standpoint, I doubt that the Kentucky law against religious discrimination would view giving merchandise to a customer, instead of receiving payment for it, as anything actionable. How has the customer been harmed? Indeed, I would think that Yoder's Rocky Top Salvage Store would become Ruth's favorite shopping place. Talk about low, low prices!

I think the problem here is in the reporting. I doubt that the newspaper reporter had anything other than a superficial knowledge of the Amish, and he didn't know what questions to ask, so we got a story that is basically absurd. Absurd, but interesting.