MAY 16, 2002
Is the Media Anti-Catholic?
-- Scott Appleby
The scandal involving the sexual abuse of children and minors by a small minority of priests, and the attempted cover-up of these sins and crimes by some American bishops, is now in its fourth month. Along the way friends and colleagues have asked me whether I think that the mainstream media, led by the Boston Globe, the New York Times and the major television networks, have revealed anti-Catholic bias in the style, intensity, and unrelenting nature of their coverage.
Certainly there is some truth to the charge that lingering anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable public prejudice in the United States. And there have been occasional episodes of tabloid-y, sweeps-months style sensationalism from normally responsible outlets. These include an ABC News Special ("Forgive Me, Father, For I Have Sinned"), which taped four or five "observers" at length and then ruthlessly edited us to support a one-sided, melodramatically somber "script" that had obviously been outlined in advance by the show's producers for maximum lurid effect.
Editing, of course, is unavoidable and absolutely necessary; heavy-handed editing -- whether driven by bias or merely by the need to craft an accessible story under pressure of deadline and word limits -- is the media's Achilles' heel. Sloppy or biased editing too often leaves balanced and nuanced views on the cutting room floor.
The New York Times, for example, demonstrated remarkable lack of judgment last Saturday, May 4, when the paper published an editorial by Bill Keller ("Is the Pope Catholic?"), an editor clearly with an axe to grind. Keller, after comparing Pope John Paul II to Leonid Brezhnev and the Catholic Church to the Communist party, describes himself as "a collapsed Catholic" and leaves the particulars of church reform "to Catholics who care more than I do." The editorial, awash in hyperbole and apparently willful misconstrual of sources, borders on yellow journalism.
Because I deeply respect the vast majority of Catholic seminarians and active priests in the United States, I cringed when I saw myself misconstrued (I was not directly quoted) in the editorial. To set the record straight, I do not believe that part of Pope John Paul II's legacy in the United States is "a generation of inflexible young priests who have no idea how to talk to real-life Catholics." That phrasing is an all too typical example of the way Keller distorted his sources to fit his pre-fabricated, resentment-driven approach to the topic. Thus was a nuanced, thirty-minute conversation reduced to a "sound bite" that I never uttered.
In response to his leading questions during the interview I tried to temper Keller's enthusiasm for hyperbole and over-the-top rhetoric by setting the question of seminary formation in recent historical context. (The editorial showed no such signs of historical awareness; it was written in a tense best described as the "eternal now.") Accordingly, I began with the early years of John Paul II's pontificate, describing the pope's conviction, shared by many of the U.S. priests he elevated to the rank of bishop, that the pastoral application of church doctrine on sexual morality had become unregulated and inconsistent in the years following the Second Vatican Council. This led, they believed, to a wide (and confusing) range of priestly attitudes and practices-in hearing confessions, offering moral guidance and preaching-toward the teaching on artificial birth control, in particular. In the 1980s some U.S. bishops and seminary rectors responded to this diagnosis by introducing new rigor in seminary training, a reform which emphasized the letter of the law, sometimes at the expense of conveying ways to bring it to life in the hearts and minds of lay Catholics. One can be thoroughly orthodox on such matters and still be woefully ineffective as a pastor and teacher.
In my own voice, I lamented the constraint this placed on seminarians and newly ordained priests in the 1980s and 90s, many of whom faced complex moral situations in ministering to the laity, cases that required more than a faithful iteration of doctrine. I also wondered whether seminarians in those years were being adequately prepared to work collegially with lay women, who constitute the heart and soul of most Catholic parishes and dioceses. Finally, I noted explicitly to Mr. Keller that many Catholic authorities believe that the training in seminaries respecting these matters has improved considerably since the mid-1990s.
All this was boiled down to "an inflexible generation of young priests who have no idea how to talk to real-life Catholics." Ouch. I work hard to maintain a reputation as a fair-minded and balanced commentator on matters Catholic. In one irresponsible line, a journalist writing in a prominent venue can set back such efforts many months or years. Moreover, the Times' decision to publish the editorial revived suspicions that the Times' coverage of the scandal is something less than disinterested. The suspicions are not new. In Robert Kennedy: His Life, Evan Thomas notes that "Kennedy developed a lifelong resentment of the Times. He groused that the editors' idea of a good story was 'More Nuns Leave Church.'"
While they are egregious departures from professional media standards, such episodes still seem to be departures. I continue to respond to questions of media bias by defending the mainstream media. The media did not create this scandal, I point out; we Catholics -- certainly, our leaders --handed it to them on a silver platter. But what about the relentless coverage that recycles and rehashes old stories in order to generate a new, sordid daily headline? Perhaps. But it does not require a special animus against the Catholic Church to send journalists falling over one another in a scramble to exploit a story that has "Pulitzer" written all over it. As modern American journalism goes, unfortunately, it IS a great story, with astonishing elements of sex, power, human interest, victimization, arrogance, repentance and lack of repentance in high places, and the obligatory outraged laity. In time-honored tradition journalists thrive on the challenge of bringing another powerful (and conservative) American institution to its knees.
None of this should shock or surprise us; the Church, as every institution with a public face, has had almost three post-Watergate decades to learn the lessons of public accountability and transparency, and the futility of cover-ups. The best journalists, in my experience, are ambitious but not ideologically driven; they care less about undermining the moral authority of the Catholic Church and more about collecting the choice quote or insight that sharply defines an issue and lends authority to their story line. Yes, they have a story line; otherwise, no one would read them. Scholars and public officials who deal regularly with the media know they are contributing to a crafted story; but "experts" can influence the content of a story by discussing background issues with reporters, most of whom are grateful for the time and do their best to represent their sources fairly.
All the more reason to call the reputable media to account when they blow it.
-- R. Scott Appleby is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, and is director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.