WSJ reporter says suit story one of a kind

By Bill Stough

Wall Street Journal reporter Jess Bravin, who works out of the newspaper's office in New York, wanted to report on the continuing legal dispute between the Worldwide Church of God and the Philadelphia Church of God because the lawsuit includes "very interesting legal questions."

Mr. Bravin, who has worked for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) for three and one-half years, said the story of the WCG's suit because of the PCG's unauthorized republication of the book Mystery of the Ages by WCG founder Herbert W. Armstrong, was timely because of another copyright issue much in the news lately.

That issue involves the Napster Web site and software that facilitate copying and distribution of music recordings. Musicians and recording companies recently sued Napster to halt rampant reproduction of music recordings because of copyright violations they say have resulted in a huge loss of income from royalties. Mr. Bravin's article draws parallels between the Napster story and the WCG-PCG situation.

Unusual collision

The Journal: News of the Churches of God talked with Mr. Bravin before and after the WSJ's front-page report came out Feb. 21. As part of his research for the article, he had requested and received a set of back issues and the current issue of The Journal.

"There was an unusual collision between copyright laws, freedom of speech and freedom of religion," Mr. Bravin told The Journal. "All these are protected by the U.S. Constitution.

"Another item that fits is that the Philadelphia Church of God considers Mystery of the Ages directly inspired."

Mr. Bravin said the issues in the WCG-PCG dispute are so complex that the judges hearing the case on its various levels have not been able to decide unanimously for either the WCG or PCG.

Mr. Bravin is more interested in the legal issues than religion, he says, although he had to include substantial background information about the churches rather than just cover the legal aspects. The WSJ is not written only for lawyers, he said.

While working on the story, Mr. Bravin visited headquarters of both churches, in Pasadena, Calif., and Edmond, Okla. He attended Sabbath services and spoke with members of the congregations.

"I liked being able to do that. Sometimes as a reporter I am hindered by authorities, but not in this case."

People on both sides, he said, parroted "the party line," but everyone seemed sincere in doing so.

In Oklahoma Gerald Flurry, founder and leader of the PCG, told Mr. Bravin that Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the WCG, had been inspired by God but did make minor mistakes such as predicting dates of fulfillment of prophecies that turned out not to be accurate.

Mr. Bravin said he had to write about the religion of the people involved in the suit because many readers of the article had no doubt never heard of either church. But one of his goals was to be fair to both sides.

"People have to understand what you are writing, even though some people will also dislike what you write," he said.

Judges can't agree

The Journal asked Mr. Bravin whose side he is on the WCG-PCG legal dispute.

"I have no opinion on that," he said. "It is a multisided issue and one that is very important for U.S. law. I'm not in a position to judge but only to report. I can't really assess the character of the two churches."

The judges can't agree on the case because of their "different perspectives," he said. "As it now stands, the law is on the side of the Worldwide Church of God in that they can block publishing Mystery of the Ages. But there are still some issues left to be decided."

The Napster decision relied on the precedent of the Mystery of the Ages case, he said, so legal decisions can have far-reaching consequences, says Mr. Bravin.

"For knowledge to grow, people must be able to use information from books or be able to use part of them. But the PCG claims it needs all of Mystery of the Ages the way it is because it is divinely inspired."

Yet "it is not for me to say who should win. I am only a reporter."

Mr. Bravin said seeing the copies of The Journal while researching his article helped him see the larger picture of the Churches of God.

"I read articles in it and used it for research but made no direct quotes from it. I was impressed with the professional quality of The Journal. I wasn't expecting that."

Nothing like it

The Journal asked Mr. Bravin if he has ever covered a story like this one.

"There is nothing similar to this story," he said. "This one involves a copyright dispute over inspired writings."

Mr. Bravin is interested in "intellectual-property law," of which copyright statutes are a subset. The WCG-PCG story caught his attention, and he became "fascinated" by it.

"This story is entirely unique."

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