Skip to comments.Church of the ‘Times’[Former Newsweek Religion Editor Rebukes NY Times]
Posted on 04/29/2010 9:13:28 AM PDT by marshmallow
This article will appear in the May 7, 2010, issue of Commonweal.
The New York Times isnt fair. In its all-hands-on-deck drive to implicate the pope in diocesan cover-ups of abusive priests, the Times has relied on a steady stream of documents unearthed or supplied by Jeff Anderson, the nations most aggressive litigator on behalf of clergy-abuse victims. Fairness dictates that the Times give Anderson at least a co-byline.
After all, it was really Anderson who broke the story on March 25 about Fr. Lawrence Murphy and his abuse of two hundred deaf children a half-century ago in Wisconsin. Reporter Laurie Goodstein says her article emerged from her own inquiries, but the piece was based on Anderson documents. Indeed, in its ongoing exercise in Jaccuse journalism, the Times has adopted as its own Andersons construal of what took place. Anderson is a persuasive fellow: back in 2002 he claimed that he had already won more than $60 million in settlements from the church. But the really big money is in Rome, which is why Anderson is trying to haul the Vatican into U.S. federal court. The Times did not mention this in its story, of course, but if the paper can show malfeasance on the part of the pope, Anderson may get his biggest payday yet.
Its hard for a newspaper to climb in bed with a man like Anderson without making his cause its own. Does this mean that the Times is anti-Catholic? New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan thinks it ishe said so last October in response to an earlier series of stories on clergy abuse. Whatever one thinks of Dolans accusation, clearly the Times considers sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests more newsworthy than abuse committed by other groups. An April 13 verdict against the Boy Scouts of America, which has struggled with the child-sexual-abuse issue for a century, did not merit page-1, above-the-fold treatment but rather a single paragraph deep inside the paper. A longer April 15 story about a Brown University student credibly accused of raping another student, an incident the university did not report to the police and arguably covered up at the request of powerful figures in the Brown community, appeared on page 18.
No question, the Timess worldview is secularist and secularizing, and as such it rivals the Catholic worldview. But that is not unusual with newspapers. What makes the Times uniqueand what any Catholic bishop ought to understandis that it is not just the nations self-appointed newspaper of record. It is, to paraphrase Chesterton, an institution with the soul of a church. And the church it most resembles in size, organization, internal culture, and international reach is the Roman Catholic Church.
Like the Church of Rome, the Times is a global organization. Even in these reduced economic times, the newspapers international network of news bureaus rivals the Vaticans diplomatic corps. The difference is that Times bureau chiefs are better paid and, in most capitals, more influential. A report from a papal nuncio ends up in a Vatican dossier, but a report from a Times correspondent is published around the world, often with immediate repercussions. With the advent of the Internet, stories from the Times can become other outlets news in an ever-ramifying process of global cycling and recycling. That, of course, is exactly what happened with the Times piece on Fr. Murphy, the deceased Wisconsin child molester. The pope speaks twice a year urbi et orbi (to the city and to the world), but the Times does that every day.
Again like the Church of Rome, the Times exercises a powerful magisterium or teaching authority through its editorial board. There is no issue, local or global, on which these (usually anonymous) writers do not pronounce with a papal-like editorial we. Like the Vaticans Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the editorial board is there to defend received truth as well as advance the papers political, social, and cultural agendas. One can no more imagine a Times editorial opposing any form of abortionto take just one of that magisteriums articles of faiththan imagine a papal encyclical in favor.
The Times, of course, does not claim to speak infallibly in its judgments on current events. (Neither does the pope.) But to the truly orthodox believers in the Times, its editorials carry the burden of liberal holy writ. As the papers first and most acute public editor, Daniel Okrent, once put it, the editorial page is so thoroughly saturated in liberal theology that when it occasionally strays from that point of view the shocked yelps from the left overwhelm even the ceaseless rumble of disapproval from the right. Okrents now famous column was published in 2004 under the headline Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper? and I will cite Okrent more than once because he, too, reached repeatedly for religious metaphors to describe the ambient culture of the paper.
The Times also has its evangelists. They appear daily as the papers columnists. Like the church, the Times historically has promoted its evangelists from within the same institutional culture. This assures a uniformity of assumptions only the Vatican and Fox News can trump. Even when the editors reach outside the corporate fold, as they must for columnists of even mildly conservative persuasion, they do not look for adamantine conservatives like George Will to match the heavy-breathing liberalism of Frank Rich and Paul Krugman. Culturally, conservatives David Brooks and once-a-week columnist Ross Douthat inhabit the same world as their liberal colleagues, though it must be said that Brooks and Douthat are the only Times columnists I can recall who welcome an expansive role for religion in public life.
At the Times, the public editors job is to examine the papers news stories for evidence of biased reporting and unwarranted narrative assumptions. (Would that Rome had ombudsmenand ombudswomento represent voices not heard at the Vatican.) On this point, Okrents essay was forthright: it is one thing to provide a congenial home for like-minded readers, he observed, and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear. On social issues like gay rights, gun control, abortion, and environmental regulation, among others, Okrent wrote, ...if you think the Times plays it down the middle on any of them, youve been reading the paper with your eyes closed. And there was this: If you are among the groups the Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldnt wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel youre traveling in a strange and forbidding world.
Indeed, even read with eyes wide open, the Times is remarkable for what it systematically leaves out. In its annual Christmas list of the years most notable books, there is no category for religion, much less theology. A reader of the papers regular education coverage, not to mention its quarterly Education Life supplement, would never know that the New York Archdiocese runs one of the largest parochial school systems in the world. Or that the Lutherans, the Seventh-day Adventists, and Orthodox Jews also educate thousands of kids throughout the metropolitan area. In the secularist and secularizing world of the Times, only public schools and New Yorks elite prep and nursery schools are worthy of the readers attention.
Every institution creates its own sheltering culture. The Holy See is larger, more complex, and much older than the Times, and the Roman curia is inherently more diverse than the newsroom of the Times, despite the latters periodic bouts of mandated diversity training. But as anyone who has covered the Vatican can tell you, its institutional culture is also inherently traditional, conservative, and self-protective. It is, after all, the last functioning Renaissance court.
As U.S. newspapers go, the Times is also a venerable institution and its hierarchy of editors, deputy and assistant editors, and copyeditors is a match for the Roman curia. The paper has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896. To those who devote their lives to it, the Times has become a place that will shelter you the rest of your life, as Arthur Gelb wrote in his detailed memoir, City Room. I know what he means: Newsweek in the nearly four decades I worked there was also a sheltering institution. Moreover, with reporting flowing in from our worldwide news bureaus, we in New York felt as if we were operating at the throbbing center of the known and knowable universe. Given its exponentially larger work force, not to mention hourly input from the Internet, this illusion is all the more powerful at the Times. A journalist could spend a lifetime in its newsroom without encountering a dissenter from the institutional ideology.
Every journalistic operation generates its own newsroom culture. By that I mean an implicit set of assumptions about what cultural norms and attitudes the newspaper, magazine, etc. should reflect in its collective editorial outlook. As in the church, these norms are passed down from the top, becoming part of the air the composite Timesman breathes. For example, religion was well and routinely covered by Time magazine, because co-founder Henry Luce, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, considered the subject of major cultural importance. Religion was important at Newsweek because the magazine imitated Times template. Why is it then, that the devout of any religion should find the newsroom culture of the Times (Okrent again) a strange and forbidding world?
For that we have to look at the family dynasty that made the Times the nations establishment newspaper. After seven years of researching the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, biographers Susan E. Tifft and her husband Alex S. Jones concluded that it has become increasingly apparent that the familys self-image as Jews has profoundly shaped the paper. The story that Tifft and Jones tell in their extraordinary family biography The Trust is a narrative of social assimilation by the papers publishing clan, a determination not to espouse Jewish causes in its newspaper, and the familys progressive ambivalence toward religion of any kind.
Much of this attitude was an understandable reaction to the pervasive and unapologetic anti-Semitism that characterized American culture at least until after World War II. And even today, of course, there is much criticism of the Times that smacks of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, especially when it comes to the newspapers coverage of the Middle East. Still, the papers institutional suspicion of traditional religions, especially when they assert themselves in public affairs, makes Orthodox Jews as well as conservative Evangelicals and Catholics feel like barbarians at the gates. The most telling comment Tifft and Jones elicited in this regard was from the current publisher, Arthur Ochs Pinch Sulzberger Jr. He described his personal faith this way: I have the Times. Thats my religion. Thats what I believe in, and its a hell of a thing to hold on to.
I have to think a lot of people who write for the Times do too. Perhaps this is why some Catholic editorial columnists (names on request) cite the papers questionable reporting on the church as if it were revealed truth. Its a nice example of how belief in the Times makes any other form of religious identification merely private and provisional when measured by the one true faith. Writing as a columnist, the affable Bill Keller once described himself as a collapsed Catholic. The adjective is new to me and I gather it describes how the weight of the Times as church collapsed his faith in the church of his earlier commitment.
As executive editor, Keller is now responsible for front-paging journalistically questionable stories that attempt but never quite manage to make the pope personally complicit in the clergy-abuse scandal. He apparently thinks that Jeff Anderson has handed over the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Pentagon Papers.
No, I am not suggesting that the scandal is merely media-driven, as some at the Vatican have argued. There would be no stories if there had been no history of abuses and cover-ups in the first place. But I am saying that the Times has created its own version of the scandal as if they had discovered something new. They havent. Until they do, I remain a dissenter in the pews of the Church of the New York Times.
Stopped clock and all that............
Bump for later.
Interesting concept, but the Times dates back to 1851. It isn’t even old among businesses.
Kenneth Woodward is now and always has been a Roman Catholic apologist.
Jeff Anderson is an ACLU member. It fits so succintly and tightly here in a textbook attack on the Catholic Church that’s as sickening and frequent as foraging barbarians crossing the frontier in search of job opportunities and loot.
Am I alone in noting that the people most enraged that the Catholic Church allowed sexual perverts into their ranks are the same people who were most enraged when the Boy Scouts disallowed the same?
Some people get so quilted/immersed in protection their own they fail to see the over all picture. Redemption comes in the form of socialized saint Teddy 'deathcare' and the ungodly demand of US, American citizens to open up our homes and safety to a vast illegal invasion. Social justice is the raging religion these days.
And a rather good one too, I must say..................
The anti-Catholic New York Times won’t bat an eye over this criticism, but the rest of us are enjoying it immensely.
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