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Amazing Gracelessness 

Duquesne University stands on principle -- and on a radio station's throat

Since this is an article about a Catholic university, I'll begin with a confession: I'm one of those people who listen to WDUQ-FM without paying.

I don't listen much -- just a few NPR headlines in the morning, and occasionally This American Life. But yeah, I'm the guy they're talking about during pledge drives. When American Life's Ira Glass does those aren't-you-ashamed-of-yourself spots, it's me he's talking to.

But now, it seems, I have been granted special dispensation to ignore him. And it's all thanks to Duquesne University, the Catholic institution that holds WDUQ's license.

Last week, university administrators demanded the station reject a sponsorship campaign funded by Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. In exchange for a little more than $5,000, WDUQ had been running spots like this one:

"Support for DUQ comes from Planned Parenthood, providing health-care services to more than 3 million women and men each year. Planned Parenthood: Their mission is prevention."

Two days after the campaign began, however, Planned Parenthood received written notice that "WDUQ has been ordered by the Duquesne University administration to immediately cease airing the acknowledgment of underwriting support from Planned Parenthood."

Planned Parenthood, of course, provides a range of reproductive-health services, including several not espoused by the Catholic Church. But its spots don't even use the words "abortion," "birth control" or "contraception." Its raciest ad touts "teaching adults how to talk to their teens about sex."

Why cancel the campaign, then? Because Planned Parenthood has fallen short of the glory of God. Or as a Duquesne spokesperson flatly put it, the group "is not aligned with the university's Catholic mission."

In fairness, according to DUQ staffers, the school doesn't interfere with the station's content. I believe it, partly because WDUQ's news department furnished a straightforward account of the dispute a day before anyone else reported it.

Too, Duquesne isn't the first broadcaster to blanch at accepting money from someone espousing birth control. As noted in here in July, some local TV stations rejected ads for Trojan condoms earlier this year. Those were commercial stations, which traffic in such primetime bacchanals as Desperate Housewives. How much can we expect from a Catholic-supported station that mostly broadcasts dentist-chair jazz?

None of this satisfies critics. "Duquesne University shouldn't be able to tell WDUQ not to air our message or accept our donations," Planned Parenthood told supporters in an e-mail blast. "[P]lease contact WDUQ and Duquesne University to tell them to reverse their decision."

The problem, obviously, is that there's no way to punish Duquesne University without punishing the people who bring us NPR. DUQ is in the midst of a pledge drive, and I'm told contributions began dropping off precipitously once this story broke. So to lash out at Duquesne's religious cretinism, we're actually stifling a rational voice. I'm also against making journalists suffer just because their management is stupid. (Though I do make an exception when the journalists in question are working for me).

Then again, since I support birth control and reject papal infallibility, I can only assume my contribution wouldn't be welcome either. We apostates are to be denied this path to righteousness -- not to mention the complimentary wind-up LED flashlight with DUQ logo, which, like the free gift of salvation, is intended solely for the blessed.

So here's what I'm doing. For the first time, I'm contributing a nominal sum to WDUQ, in memory of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger -- just so Duquesne's balance sheet will remain tainted with the blemish of heresy. But I'll contribute double that amount to Planned Parenthood, on behalf of University President Charles Dougherty. (If you want to do the same, make your check out to "PPWP" and send it to 933 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222.) So way to go, Dougherty: You just made it easier for some poor couple to acquire birth control.

It's a small gesture, I know. But as the old hymn puts it, "This little wind-up LED flashlight of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." And at least for now, the still, small voice of Ira Glass will no longer trouble my conscience. When I listen to WDUQ, I will instead feel the warmth of self-righteousness wash all over me.

Which is, I guess, exactly how it feels to be an administrator at Duquesne.

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