23 March 2013

The Secular Press and Religious Reporting

 The events of the last few weeks, with the resignation of Benedict XVI, the Conclave, and the election of Pope Francis, have put the Vatican in a spotlight.  The spotlight is provided in many ways by the international press corps.  As an English speaker, with at least a reading knowledge of Italian, I have been able to watch both the Italian press and the English-speaking (mostly American) secular press.  My general conclusion was how very, very bad the reporting was. 

On the other hand, there was some very good reporting from the religious press.  Now, I don’t mean simply that it was positive.  I certainly believe in an independent press, one that is willing to ask difficult questions and get to the heart of the story.  As much as I might find fault with the later reporting, much of the initial reporting of the abuse scandal in the U.S., as painful as it was as a Catholic to read, was not only good, but necessary.  What I mean is that the Catholic press was good at giving the full background and context of stories, so as to actually inform.

Thinking about it over the last few days, I decided to write up my impressions on the reporting I saw, and sometimes experienced, over these last several weeks.  My purpose for this is not merely to rant at the secular press—although I admit some satisfaction in that.  It is to help people to understand that you cannot take much of what is reported on the Catholic Church in the mainstream secular press at face value.  It does not mean everything they report is wrong, but they are increasingly like the boy who cried wolf, and it is hard to know what to believe and what not to believe.  A Catholic should balance his reading of Catholic issues in the news by some good solid religion reporters.

Below are what I see as some of the most significant flaws that surfaced in the reporting by the mainstream secular media, especially in the U.S.  I suppose if I had more time I could up with many more, although this is pretty long. 

1.       Pursuing their own narrative rather than reporting the facts.

It is clear that the secular press in the United States has a narrative about religion and especially about the Catholic Church specifically.  The notion is that the Church is a cult driven by a bunch of power-hungry old white men who use secretive and conniving ways to preserve their own power to subjugate those who may be different or disagree with their medieval and fundamentalist views.  The stories they tell generally are in advance of that particular narrative.  Facts that show the error of that narrative are downplayed or ignored.  Sources are courted that will support that particular narrative.  Editorial decisions are largely made not on the value of information or their objective newsworthiness, but solely on their ability to advance that particular narrative.    Giving the reporters the benefit of the doubt, it does not seem a deliberately chosen ideological binder, but is simply the result of a kind of group-think.  That is, the culture of secular journalism consists of people who are generally not personally religious.  Quite to the contrary, their political and ideological makeup suggests a common belief in the supremacy of an aggressively secular culture and government.  Many of them have passed through an educational establishment that presents the history of religion solely through a progressivist, post-modern, deconstructionist lens that analyzes all institutions based solely in terms of power relationships.  It is, then, a stunning cultural blinder.  Moreover, it is a cultural blinder that these same progressivists would reject as racist if it were discovered in reference to most other cultures or groups.

Let me provide an example.  Some of the worst reporting on religious issues has been and continues to be The New York Times.  It is perhaps the Platonic Form of aggressively secularist and anti-Catholic journalism. During the most recent conclave the NYT ran a story on the so-called Vatican Bank.  The point of view of the story was to present the Bank as an example of a dysfunctional, secrecy-obsessed, and corrupt organization.  Why was this story run?  It is interesting to note that the newspaper ran a very similar story on the Vatican Bank a few months prior.  What new information was presented to make this story newsworthy?  None.  There was no new information, but merely the re-presentation of a story that had already been reported.  The only change here was the timing, during a Papal Conclave when much of the world’s attention was directed again to the Holy See.

The second thing to note is what was reported, and what was not.  A very respected European auditor, Moneyval, was tasked by the Holy See to investigate the Bank.  It is true that they found a number of deficiencies in oversight.  However, the report also clearly stated that there was no empirical evidence of wrongdoing at the Bank.  Such a disclosure by a well-respected, independent auditor would seem to be relevant, especially in the context of a story that meant to establish, largely by rumor and innuendo, the opposite.  So, did the NYT report this statement by Moneyval?  No, it did no.  This fact, which completely undermined the ideological narrative that the NYT wanted to portray, was never mentioned in the article.

Another example of ignoring facts in pursuit of narrative was the recent decision by Pope Francis to celebrate the Mandatum (the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday) at a prison.  A number of media outlets broadly proclaimed this “Break with Tradition” showing how different this Pope is from his predecessor.  What they failed to report was that Benedict XVI did the very same thing himself several years ago—hardly a “break with tradition” and certainly no repudiation of Pope Benedict.  Yet, the current secular press, in pursuing its desire of wanting the Church to conform to its perspective, will cast everything it can as a break with the past.  By doing so, they denigrate the Church’s traditions in other areas, especially on matters of faith and morals. 

2.       Aggressively pursuing a materialistic worldview

No one expects the secular press to advocate a particular religious view, or any religious view for that matter.  But an unbiased press ought to present, and attempt to explain, the religious dimensions of religious events.  The secular press proved time and again not only their refusal to do this, but how aggressive they were in downplaying or excluding these aspects.  From the point of view of the press, this Conclave was first and foremost a political event, on par with a Presidential election, and that was the way they would cover it.  Thus, for example, the press would always present the “most important duties” of the new Pope in strictly managerial terms.  Thus, they spoke only about bureaucratic reform, juridical responses to priests accused of abuse, and the like.  Never was there an attempt by the press to explain the Church’s own understanding of the role of the Pope and the triple duty of teaching, sanctifying, and governing.

The secular press in the U.S. tends to cover Presidential elections solely as a “horse race”.  There was wide criticism of the American press in 2012 for failing to cover issues, and to cover only poll issues, gaffes, and the general “who’s up and who’s down” approach to covering politics.  This same limited approach was seen in the coverage of the Conclave.  One story will suffice, I think.  Some American seminarians tell the story of being interviewed by a secular television news outlet.  They would often give spiritual answers to the questions.  Their responses were usually edited to remove any spiritual references or references to Christian beliefs, and limit it only to purely secular answers.

3.       Sacrificing journalistic standards.

Some years ago, a survey was completed in the various countries of Europe to determine the level of confidence the various citizenries had towards their own national press.  The worst—that is the country with the least amount of trust in its press—was Britain.  The recent phone-tapping scandals that have rocked the press there give some reason for the judgment.  Second only to the perfidy of the British Tabloids, was the Italian press.  That is, Italians are generally very skeptical of the quality of their press.  Part of that is because much of the Press is state owned, and is not trusted to objectively criticize the government.  The media owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is mistrusted for the same reason. 

However, I think there is also a deeper reason.  It is said that the Italians have never heard a conspiracy theory they are not willing to believe.  The Italian culture is built on relationships, and the communication that build those bonds.  This is also a culture that has seen since the founding of the Republic one of the least stable governments in Europe.  There is a great distrust of institutions, and a willingness to see in the political class especially a willingness to use personal power for private gain.  This combines to create a culture that loves gossip, the more scandalous the better, and especially when it concerns figures in authority.  This tendency bleeds over into the Italian press.  It must be born in mind, that the Italian press is much more likely to print a story without sufficient sources than has traditionally been considered ethical in the American press.

An example of this is a report about the so-called “Vati-leaks Report” that circulated in the Italian press.  A private journalist from Italy put together a sketch about what she thought the report contained. She cited no sources and never even claimed any existed.  Rather, she claimed that she had “pieced it together” based on a variety of circumstantial evidence.  It is hard to imagine even the New York Times printing such a story based solely on a reporter’s own theory, with no corroborating sources whatsoever.  Yet, the same NYT that would never print the story itself, felt free to refer to the reporting itself.  It did so without ever giving the reader the full context of Italian journalism, either in general or in reference to this particular story.  Again, this story in the Italian press tended to confirm the narrative of the NYT, and any cautionary notes on the trustworthiness of the story would have undermined that narrative, and so were never given.  This is, to my mind, a rather stunning lapse of journalistic standards that has increasingly come to characterize the reporting of the NYT, especially on Catholic issues.

It was also evident in the degree to which the American secular press merely repeated the reporting of the Italian press, often without attribution.   There was an interesting Twitter exchange during the Conclave.  The religion reporter for the New York Times accused an editor and blogger from a well-respected English newspaper from stealing her story without attributing it to her.  It was pointed out that that NYT Reporter’s story itself was very similar to one that had been printed in the Italian press two days before her own.  She quickly apologized and backed down from her rather spurious accusation.  What it shows is the degree to which Reporters simply absorbed stories from the Italian press, and re-presented them in the U.S., without apparently even an awareness of the degree to which they relied on foreign press, and never accounting for it.

This is important especially when one realizes how wrong the Italian press was on so many things regarding the Conclave.  There was a story about the deal that was made to have the Brazilian Cardinal elected in a deal for an Italian Secretary of State.  There was the ongoing reporting of the likelihood of the Cardinal from Milan being elected.  There was the surge in the days before the election of the popularity of the American Cardinals, especially a certain Capuchin.  There were constant reports of infighting, lack of agreement, and discord. 

This led, for example, to the ridiculous claim by a Canadian reporter, after the fourth ballot concluded without a candidate being elected, that the Cardinals were deadlocked.  This was a point of view that comported wonderfully with his own portrayal of the hierarchy of the Church as dysfunctional and hampered by intrigue.  Of course, they very next ballot (the fifth) was the one that elected the Pope.  I do not believe this Canadian reporter ever admitted his error. 

We now know that so very much of the guesswork of the secular press, fueled by a conspiracy-hungry Italian press, was so very wrong on so very many things.

4.       A lack of respect for the object of their reporting

One of the accounts I heard was of the activities of the secular press in covering events.  Many Catholics went to pray with their Cardinals who went to say Mass at their “Titular Churches” in Rome.  That is, every Cardinal is, in a sense, a Roman.  That is, he is given a Church in Rome over which he serves as the “Titular”.  Some of them even have traditional national links, as the great Basilica of Sts. John and Paul is now commonly associated with the Cardinal Archbishops of New York.  Many of the Cardinals went to pray with the people, the symbol of the unity of the Church.  Although not much mentioned in the press, it is widely known among the people in Rome how rude and disrespectful the secular press was.  For Catholics, these Masses were spiritual events, made especially so in this significant moment in the life of the Church.  By most accounts, for the Press this was something akin to a political rally.  Normal expectations of decorum and respect for the religious sensibilities of people were simply ignored by the press. 

My own personal experience of this was with a blogger/reporter for the Washington Post (WaPo).  He had a blog which claiming to give a “wonky” account of the news.  For those who may not know, describing someone as wonky means they are preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field.  In addition, his blog entry promised to give all the details of the Conclave.  I pointed out to him, that some of his details were wrong and that he had missed a few things.  I assumed that someone who was a self-described “wonk” writing about the conclave would want be right on the “wonky” details.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I received some very testy tweets from him complaining—of all things—that I was being too picky.  Too picky?  For a “wonky blog” purporting to tell you “everything you need to know” about the Conclave.  But that wasn’t the worst part.  His angry outburst including using the name of Christ as if it were an expletive—knowing full well that I was a Catholic priest.  Can you imagine if he had used the name of Mohammed as an expletive to a Muslim?  But it apparently perfectly acceptable in the mainstream media to denigrate Christ to a Catholic in a public forum, and not even feel the need to apologize for it.  That is the degree to which it is simply acceptable in the mainstream press to hold Christians in contempt, and at the same time to assert that your news coverage of Christian issues is objective.

Let me just be clear.  I am not saying that newspapers should hire only devout Catholics as reporters.  What I am saying is that the reporters they have should not have an antipathy to the Church or her teachings.  Most of the reporters covering the Catholic Church in the mainstream secular press are not simply independent observers of Catholic issues, but have a contempt for the Church, the faithful, and especially the hierarchy and clergy.  This hardly makes for objective reporting.