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Spin and professionalism

The press was even more an unruly beast in 1787 than it is today; yet the Framers of the Constitution gave the fourth estate extraordinary latitude, convinced that the robust exchange of ideas was democracy’s lifeblood. Journalism’s virtual immunity from legal sanction implies, however, certain responsibilities. One of them is to distinguish rigorously between what gets printed as “news,” and what gets printed as “opinion.” The welcome invention of the op-ed page should have thickened the line between what happens in the news hole and what happens on the opinion page. But has it?

On May 21, USA Today ran a news story on the recently-published Reagan diaries which, according to the reporter, “show Ronald Wilson Reagan more engaged in the job [of president] than had been portrayed.” (Portrayed by whom? By papers like USA Today, papers that clearly got it wrong.) Moreover, the diaries illustrate what Reagan was “really thinking” during “two terms of self-styled optimism…” (Self-styled? What does that mean? The man was an optimist, period; no mild put-down adjective was required — if this were really a news story.)

The very same day, in a New York Times story on “A New Breed of Evangelicals,” readers were informed that a 2004 Pew Forum study had “placed evangelicals into three camps — traditionalist, centrist, and modernist — based on how rigidly they adhered to their beliefs and their willingness to adapt them to a changing world.” “Rigidly,” I submit, is an op-ed adverb, not a news story adverb. The reporter could easily have used “firmly” or “deeply” — and in doing so, would have conveyed the real meaning of John Green’s study. Instead, “rigidly” was the adverb of choice: an editorial interjection signaling that there are evangelicals you can live with (because they “adapt…to a changing world”), and there are nutters. Two generations ago, no serious editor would have permitted such intrusions of reportorial point-of-view; today, no reporter could get a story on evangelicals into the Times without including such adverbial winks and nods.

Then there was the May 29 Washington Post “news” story on Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis. Burke, according to the Post’s gimlet-eyed reporter, has “roiled the Church in St. Louis” because he is “adhering to Vatican orthodoxy endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI,” a posture that has caused some St. Louis Catholics to “complain that the Church under his direction seems out of touch.” That’s a lot of confusion in a few phrases. The Catholic Church’s teaching on the impaired ecclesiastical communion of Catholic legislators who facilitate abortion (like Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill) is not a “Vatican position” that takes its force from being “endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI.” It’s settled moral conviction, based on philosophical convictions about the first principles of justice that are open to public scrutiny.

Things quickly got worse, however. For whom did the Post choose to illustrate, by contrast, Archbishop Burke’s being “out of touch”? Father Marek Bozek of St. Louis’s boldly schismatic St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, whom the Post presented as the paladin of a new, “open” Catholicism. The Post failed to mention, however, that Bozek had been run out of a seminary in Poland; had gotten himself ordained in a small Missouri diocese while someone wasn’t paying attention; and has subsequently been having fun wearing witch hats as complements to his Mass vestments. Other peculiarities at the parish could easily have been adduced. So is St. Stanislaus Kotska Church the embodiment of “open Catholicism,” or a gathering of schismatic malcontents? You make the call — but do it on the op-ed page, not on A2.

My first mentor in matters journalistic, Seattle’s David Brewster, once said that journalism’s claim to being a “profession” would remain an affectation until journalism became self-disciplining (like law and medicine), with the members of the guild taking real responsibility for policing themselves. Such professional responsibility means editors keeping editorials out of the news hole, and reporters telling the whole truth. That the misshapen stories cited here are hardly rarities suggests the unhappy probability that David Brewster, who was right thirty years ago, will remain right long into the future.

Which is bad news for American democracy.

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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