Media Matters

The Pope, the Scandal, and the Crib Notes for Journalism 101

You'd think Richard Nixon was the target.

By 4.5.10

Send to Kindle

Here we are among the calla lilies, many of us meditating on the eternal resonance of events in and around old Jerusalem, yet spring chores still need doing, and the crabgrass of ignorance is even more stubborn than the weeds that threaten suburban lawns.

Could anyone familiar with the people involved think the Old Gray Lady of American journalism would pass up a chance to encumber a target who rejects conventional wisdom about abortion, gay marriage, and the ordination of women?

Nothing else perfumes the air of a newsroom like a whiff of self-righteousness, or intoxicates certain reporters faster than evidence of mismanagement and hypocrisy at the Vatican.

When it comes to brand management at the New York Times, the snark of Maureen Dowd, the delusion of David Brooks, the bitterness of Paul Krugman, and the name-dropping of Thomas Friedman are well known, but recent developments mark perhaps the first time that that quartet of vices has purchased vacation property: Snark, delusion, bitterness, and shallowness -- the Four Horsemen of the Obamalypse -- now gallop freely between different sections of the publication.

Senior religion correspondent Laurie Goodstein unwittingly exposed this pattern in her March 24 story about the case of a priest in Wisconsin who sexually abused as many as 200 deaf boys. Together with a clutch of similar stories about the abhorrent behavior of some priests in Ireland and Germany, the Goodstein report on Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy was meant to shed light on a culture of buck-passing that allegedly infected even Pope Benedict XVI.

Ms. Goodstein has written that she strives to give views other than her own a fair shake. I believe her. Beyond that, I appreciate reporters who are game enough to spar verbally with comedian Stephen Colbert, as Goodstein did when divisions within the Anglican Communion were making news. But in trying to undercut the moral witness of the pope by suggesting that as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger he was too forgiving of the monstrous Fr. Murphy, Goodstein committed errors of fact, interpretation, context, and journalistic procedure that together make nonsense of any claim to objectivity on the part of the New York Times.

Here (for the benefit of Maureen Dowd and others who have forgotten Journalism 101) are some of the ways that Goodstein and her editors botched the "Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys" story. Anyone following the hyperlinks will see that I've paraphrased published comments from priests, laypeople, and journalists not working for the New York Times.

Issue One: Chronology. If you want to charge a man with trying to cover up a scandal, the questions that demand answers are "What did he know and when did he know it?" But Fr. Murphy disgraced his priesthood long before Pope Benedict was in any position to notice, as even the New York Daily News observed. When Fr. Murphy's conduct eventually came to the attention of the Vatican, then-Cardinal Ratzinger's office approved a request for trial, and waived the statute of limitations that would otherwise have precluded trying a priest for crimes he had committed more than twenty years before.

Issue Two: Sourcing. Would you write an investigative report that relied on documents provided by a morally compromised bishop whom you had already written sympathetically about, and lawyers with a financial interest in squeezing reparations out of the institution you're looking at? Would you also miss a chance to interview the judge who presided over the trial relevant to your story? If you answered "no" to both questions, you're a step ahead of the New York Times.

Issue Three: Interpretation. Here's a pop quiz: 1. Metaphorically speaking, is it more appropriate to think of the church as a hospital for sinners or a hotel for saints? 2. Has Pope Benedict, with an eye on sexual abuse cases worldwide, warned bluntly and repeatedly against "filth" in the church? 3. Do Cardinals supervise the daily activities of most priests?

The questions are not hard. Reporters like John Allen, and comedians like Stephen Colbert, would answer them correctly without even stopping to think. But neither Allen nor Colbert works for the New York Times, and one could be forgiven for supposing that the people who do cash checks from the Times seem to think that Easter is mainly an excuse to wear pastels and eat chocolate bunnies.

Issue Four: Context. You wouldn't know from reading the Times that Pope Benedict has influential enemies within the church, or that he has been out front in fighting the scourge of predatory priests. For context there, it's hard to beat the observations of Lutheran theologian John Stephenson, who writes (among other perceptive things) that "Neither apostates within Holy Christendom nor naked unbelievers outside her borders will ever forgive Ratzinger for the grave breach of secularist, pluralist etiquette involved in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth. It goes without saying (and around the Holy Week of each year the several forms of mainstream media say it loudly, often, and emphatically) that Jesus was an ordinary man, a wacko apocalyptist, or a failed political revolutionary. Stones must fly and clubs be brandished against a learned man fully familiar with all the 'Jesus of history' literature from Reimarus to the present, who winsomely draws on believing scholarship of all confessions to offer a calm and cogent argument that the real, actual Jesus is the one who meets us in the Gospel record."

Dr. Stephenson does not mean to suggest that papal handling of moral issues has been above reproach, and I would not say that, either. But neither will I pretend to objectivity that I do not have: Pope Benedict writes accessibly. He brought back the red shoes, unshackled the Latin Mass, and annoys professional dissidents just by getting up in the morning. He doesn't think "children" and "church" are opposing terms. What's not to like? Beyond that, I once dabbled in journalism, and learned from my mistakes. Taking occasional shots at big media goes with the territory. In this case, the New York Times deserves a few licks. It's a matter of "Here I stand; I can do no other." And if Laurie Goodstein has to Google the origins of that phrase, religion reporting at the paper of record has fallen on hard times indeed.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.