The Medium is Not the Message
A Response to Fr. George Washburn's Reflection
by Chris Banescu, CA
As a fellow Orthodox Christian and an attorney I find Fr. George's reflection quite eloquent but unfortunately lacking in the depth and moral clarity that our faith and profession both require. Fr. George's central thesis is that "the nature of the medium, in this case the internet and blogosphere, is itself the message we get here even more than the content that people purport to communicate and consider." I don't believe that's true, especially with regards to OCANews.org. The medium is only a neutral tool to be used or misused as we see fit. The truth of the message and the reliability of the information this medium conveys and the good it has done, in addition to the wisdom, character, and integrity of the messengers, are much more important and relevant.
Fr. George begins his criticism of the web by saying that it is "democratic in the extreme, and fools who know little or nothing about what they are discussing or how to discuss things effectively with others get basically equal time and treatment with wise men and experts." That is true, the web is indeed "democratic in the extreme" and exposes both the wisdom of some and the foolishness of others. Thanks be to God for that, for otherwise how could we have distinguished between those who stood for truth and righteousness and those who lied, obfuscated, and muddled the issues. Seeing all the arguments and reading all those comments provided a more accurate and complete picture of the truth and the various problems the Church faced and still faces. The reality presented on the OCANews site was indeed clearer and more comprehensive than a few sanitized magazine or newspaper stories from the "official" church channels or any brief television segments. It is only the Internet medium that could have facilitated such an important feat.
Also troubling for Fr. George is the web's universal access that allows everyone, even non-academic and non-credentialed individuals, to express themselves freely: "In most spheres of value above public playground level - a university lecture hall or a sporting contest, for example - we distinguish very readily between people who know what they are doing or saying and those who don’t, and give the latter short shrift indeed." He insinuates that only intelligentsia – professionals, professors, and by inference priests and bishops – are qualified to express their views and contribute to anything of value in the public sphere of discussion and debate, especially at the higher levels. He conveniently ignores the tragic reality of many American universities full of professors with many doctorates, who while "knowing what they are doing," indoctrinate millions of students in the ways of atheistic Darwinism and the tenets of the Marxist ideology, while simultaneously disparaging America's Judeo-Christian moral values and despising its free-market principles. Unfortunately, the academic credentials of these intellectuals speak nothing of the truthfulness and wisdom of their messages. Often such individuals only spread the "wisdom of the world." We instead remember that "the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God," and the "foolishness of God is wiser than men." "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God," St. Paul proclaims. The faithful, through the Holy Spirit, can discern the wisdom (or foolishness) of the messengers without the need of worldly validation via "official" channels and special titles, in or outside university lecture halls or other venues.
Fr. George further disparages the content posted on OCANews.org judging it to be "essentially un-refereed … largely reactive in character", "unverified and essentially unverifiable", and "intrusive and inclusive by nature." What Fr. George doesn't seem to understand is that the web has a built-in mechanism of self-correction. Because everyone can participate and all comments are out in the open and easily accessible, everything is continually scrutinized, challenged, checked, and verified. Liars and fools are eventually exposed, corrected, and marginalized, while wise men and experts make themselves known and become respected and trusted by virtue of the truth, integrity, and good judgment expressed in their reflections.
Unlike the famous "if you build it, they will come" line from the Field of Dreams movie, just putting up a website does not guarantee anyone will come. A site's traffic, readership, reputation, and standing in the community are dictated by the overall quality, relevance, and truth of its information. Content, especially credible, reliable, and trustworthy content, is king! OCAnews.org would not have the reach it has and influence it has achieved if its founder, Mark Stokoe, and many respected contributors were not posting quality and trustworthy material.
A final problem Fr. George has with the Internet is the ability of individuals to post "anonymously." He acknowledges that staying "anonymous" is "useful in a few situations," but then proceeds to list the many potential abuses such functionality enables; all of them true. Yet absent from his criticism is the powerful and significant impact anonymity can have in situations where the unchecked and unaccountable authority of leaders silences dissent and punishes and demonizes the messengers. Posting anonymously is often the only alternative left for clergy who know that speaking up means getting reprimanded, transferred, or fired, and faithful who can be excommunicated, demonized, and personally threatened (look at what happened in Alaska and the current situation in Troy, MI). Anonymity was the only lifeline for the persecuted OCA priests and deacons in Alaska under +Nikolai, the marginalized OCA clergy under +Herman, and the sexually abused individuals in the GOA, and now it's the only way that AOCANA priests can speak up without fear of reprisals.
Furthermore, even if a messenger is anonymous, the comments posted still stand and fall on their own merits. As explained above, the web is open and available to all and everything eventually comes under the scrutiny and verification of others. Yes, the wicked, the liars, and the fools can hide behind the shield of anonymity, but their evil and shenanigans ultimately get exposed, denounced, and rejected.
The many faults Fr. George finds with the Internet and the blogosphere are mostly true, but morally meaningless. Yes, the web and instant Internet communications can suffer from all the troubles and ills he outlined. Yes, free men will abuse their freedom and lie and insult. Yes, some will try to muddy the waters and distract from the truth. So what? That's freedom, that's democracy, that's life! The right not to be offended does not exist in the Constitution. For freedom to exist and democracy to thrive such things must and will always exist. We must deal with it, not run away from it.
The mountain of truthful information, solid reporting, trustworthy testimony, and ethically sound reflections and insights, would never have seen the light of day without the power of the Internet. The positive and constructive impact OCANews.org has had on the Holy Orthodox Church stands as a testament to the power of liberty and the functionality of the medium. Should a few poorly worded and irresponsible posts in the public comments of the website overshadow the thousands of other solid, thoughtful, and intelligent posts, and the hundreds of excellent reflections and articles posted? To hear Fr. George explain it, just a few tares justify the removal of all the wheat also. I seem to recall a different Gospel message.
What is at issue in all the exchanges and multiple spiritual, moral, and financial crisis threatening the Orthodox Church is the lack of truth, lack of ethics, lack of integrity, and lack of Christ. Christ warned us to be watchful and discerning. He taught that "You shall know them by their fruits!" OCANews.org showed us exactly what "fruits" were produced by these false prophets. Many of those who claimed to follow, preach, and practice His word, were actually impostors who squandered His Talents to fuel their greed and lavish lifestyles, used His teachings to excuse corruption (moral, spiritual, and financial) and enable abusers, and misused their authority to escape accountability and liability.
These ravenous wolves forsook their sacramental duties and instead of laying down their lives for the sheep, used their sacred positions to abuse, mistreat, and scatter the sheep. By virtue of this tool and the testimony of many others the corruption and evil destroying the Church was revealed for all to see and was mostly confronted and removed. That is holy, just, and good, despite the imperfections of the messengers and the potential misuse of the medium. We should be thankful for such a blessing, not advocate its demise. Yet Fr. George bemoans that "this medium and its inherent message is liable to do nearly as much good as ill." Tell that to the priests in Alaska!
In a previous message, posted on OCANews.org several months ago (also re-posted below), I outlined just how much good has been accomplished in the OCA because of the vey existence of this venue and the tireless efforts of Mark Stokoe and dozens of other courageous and faithful Orthodox priests and laymen and women. These are indeed the faithful and true vinedressers whom the Lord shall praise and reward. It is their message, not the medium, that shone forth and brought the light of truth, of Christ, and ethics to our corrupt and suffering Church.
Fr. George calls these critical accomplishments just "some good results." I beg to differ!
A World and an OCA Without OCANews.org
Let's imagine what the OCA would be like if www.ocanews.org did not exist and Mark Stokoe had not done anything to help, shall we:
1. +Herman would still be Metropolitan. No audit of the OCA finances and accounts would exist and none of the financial and ethical abuses committed would have been brought to light.
2. Robert Kondratick would still be OCA Chancellor and continue to manipulate millions of dollars of the OCA's budget with little accountability and oversight. His outrageous spending sprees (22 credit cards and hundreds of thousands of dollars) would continue to squander the Church's money on himself and his cronies (see note 11 below).
3. Kondtratick's entourage and friends (Fr. Fester, etc.) would still be complicit in his self-dealing, supportive of his unethical management, and fully benefiting from his generosity (most likely financed via Kondratick's diversion of OCA funds intended for other purposes).
4. Hundreds of thousands of dollars from specific charities (9/11, Beslan, etc.) would still not be distributed to their intended beneficiaries, orphans, widows, the sick, and injured, etc..
5. +Nikolai would still be bishop of Alaska firing, abusing, and attacking anyone, including priests, deacons, teachers, seminarians, and elders who dared speak the truth, ask questions, and look for righteousness and accountability.
6. Convicted statutory rapist, Terenty Dushkin would still be a tonsured reader in Alaska.
7. +Tikhon (of the West, now retired) would not have been exposed to the whole Church as the vindictive and divorced from reality hierarch he really was; a fact known mostly by those who had the unfortunate "blessing" of daring to question him on anything in the past. Now the whole world understands the darkness and dysfunction that we suffered under.
8. No audits of St. Tikhon's Monastery would have been initiated.
9. +Jonah would not be the new OCA Metropolitan.
10. Fr. Brum would most likely now be Bishop Brum.
11. The following key information from the Summary Report of the Preliminary Report of the Special Investigative Committee would not have been discovered and brought to light:
• Between 2001 through 2005, over $1,000,000.00 was withdrawn in cash from the operating checking account of the OCA and given directly to Robert Kondratick. The OCA records lack any supporting documentation to indicate how the cash was spent and for what purposes.
• $575,300 of the approximately one million dollars withdrawn in cash was taken from the special appeals funds and given to Robert Kondratick, who has been unable to provide the name of one person or parish who received any of this cash.
• Despite meeting face-to-face five or six times with the accountants from Lambrides, Robert Kondratick could not provide them with the name of one 9/11 victim or parish who received any of the $176,500 allegedly distributed.
• An audit of the check and wire disbursement from the special appeals funds, from 2001 through 2005, shows American Express charges of some $5,600.00 for a member of the Kondratick family, designated by Robert Kondratick as a charitable distribution.
• In December 2004, Robert Kondratick used for travel expenses in Russia $12,000 that was raised and intended for the Christmas Stocking Project.
• From 1999 through 2005, the OCA paid not less than $1.2 million in Kondratick family members' credit card charges, which covered no less than 22 credit cards. The majority of the credit card charges lack any documentation or original receipts to support the purchases by the OCA. To date, Robert Kondratick has failed to provide the OCA with receipts of any kind to support the expenditures of more than $1,100,000. 
• Credit card charges for which the OCA paid Robert Kondratick include personal travel to and lodging expenses for places including Aruba and Las Vegas, tanning and hair salon charges, jewelry store purchases, and his family members' ordinary monthly living expenses such as groceries, wine, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, cable bills, clothes, and shoes.
• Robert Kondratick still owes the OCA at least $137,000 in acknowledged personal credit card charges.
• From at least February 1996 through August 2002, Metropolitan Theodosius and Robert Kondratick controlled three discretionary accounts under the name of the OCA, into which at least $1,077,000 was deposited; the Metropolitan's account, a joint account whose signatories were Robert Kondratick and Metropolitan Theodosius, and an account for which Robert Kondratick was the signatory. Other than the Metropolitan's account, the very existence of the discretionary accounts was undisclosed to internal and external auditors.
• $227,943 was deposited into Robert Kondratick's discretionary account from the operating account of the OCA and was spent almost entirely between February 1996 and February 1997.
• No less than $850,000 was deposited into the two other discretionary accounts and spent on such things as Metropolitan Theodosius' and Robert Kondratick's personal lawyers, accountants, and other consultants relating to their opposition of auditing the discretionary funds in 1999 ($125,000), Robert Kondratick's personal credit cards ($50,000), and withdrawals in cash ($195,000).