At the Religion Newswriters Association meeting in Denver last weekend, the local Catholic ordinary, Archbishop Charles Chaput, delivered himself of a classic culture-war critique of the news media’s coverage of religion: Journalism is composed of knowledge-class professionals who make secularist assumptions about American society that shows they are out of touch with real Americans. Coverage of Christianity in particular is negative, focused on stories about fundamentalism and decline and infighting and repression. This kind of thing was a lot more common back in the 1990s than it is today–but then, Chaput has never been known for being up to date.
I could get on my hobby horse about how the media tend to view religion not through secularist glasses but in categories derived from Western religion. Take, for instance, the Eddie Long story that has been so much in the news in recent days. Like other allegations of clerical sexual abuse, it turns on the issue of hypocrisy. Over at GetReligion (whose picking apart of religion coverage Chaput singled out for praise), Brad Greenberg opines, “More importantly, though, such acts become no more heinous just because they are seen as hypocritical.” Well, maybe not in a court of law–but in the court of Christian public opinion they’ve been so ever since Jesus denounced the “scribes and Pharisees” as “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead [men’s] bones, and of all uncleanness.” Hypocrisy is a religious trope.
But be this as it may, what really caught my eye in Chaput’s address was this:
One of the worst habits many Catholics had at the start of the clergy
sex abuse crisis, including many bishops, was to minimize a very grave
problem. But news media show many of the same patterns of denial,
vanity, obstinacy, and institutional defensiveness in dealing with
criticism of their own failures.
Now, it’s pretty white of Chaput to include “many bishops” on his side of the comparison–would that other members of the hierarchy did the same. I’m not sure, though, about the Catholic non-bishops, who remarkably were neither defensive nor vain nor in denial about the abuse. And as for the comparison itself, well, in my observation the news media have, since the mid-nineties, been notably eager to do better by the religion beat. But perhaps the archbishop was referring to more general patterns of vanity and institutional defensiveness on the part of the press. If so, I’ve got a modest proposal.
Just as some leading American newspapers have hired ombudsmen to monitor and critique their coverage in their own pages, I suggest that American bishops do the same. Hire independent observers to monitor and critique your actions, and publish the results in your diocesan newspaper and on your website. How salutary would that be?
Apology: I’ve caught some criticism for characterizing Chaput as “mighty white” above. I confess that while I was aware that he is a Native American, I wasn’t thinking about that when I used the phrase--but rather was referring to the “whited sepulchre” quotation from
Matthew. The idea was in fact to acknowledge with the off-color (as it were)
reference–as I did directly by referring to other bishops–that Chaput had
said something honorable: no mere whited sepulchre he. But I apologize for what
clearly can be taken as a racist slur. Mea culpa.