Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Chaput takes on the media

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. 

Comments read comments(12)
post a comment
Robert R.

posted September 28, 2010 at 10:40 am

With all due respect Mr. Silk, I think that Bishop Chaput made valid points about the current state of journalism today. I hope that his audience took his words to heart and try to raise the level of discourse on a topic that is of vital importance. I found his closing remarks to be spot on:
“Religion journalism deals with the most fundamental things about human meaning, things intimate, defining, and sacred to many millions of people. So master and respect your material. Know yourself and your prejudices. Acknowledge mistakes, and don’t make them a habit. Be as honest with yourself as you want your sources to be. Understand believers and their institutions as they understand themselves. And if you do that—and do it with integrity, fairness, and humility—then you’ll have the gratitude of the people you cover, and you’ll embody the best ideals of your profession.”

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posted September 28, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Mr. Silk’s reaction to Chaput is so predictable! He indeed epitomizes the kind of meat cleaver “religious” journalism Chaput criticizes. As an example, Mr. Silk found funny to link to the most poisonous, offensive banners paraded by the pope’s critics during his recent trip to the UK. What was funny about that Mr. Silk? Is that an example of your mature, balanced self-criticism and respect in your comments? Chaput was making a simple point: disagree as much as you want, but at least be decent, so you can be your own ombudsman. And to that suggestion, all you have to say is “Yeah, but what about the bishops, THEY should here an ombudsman?” Many quotes of the Gospel come to my mind, but of course Mr Silk, you have already used them all against those you don’t like. The good news: time is not on Mr. Silk’s side.

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Ann Carroll

posted September 28, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I guess this is meant to be some kind of awkwardly ignorant joke: “Now, it’s pretty white of Chaput to include . . . ” since Chaput is part Native American. But on another level, Mr. Silk simply proves the point the archbishop makes: Too many religion journalists simply do not have the capacity to criticize their own prejudices and weaknesses. Instead, Silk engages in standard dissing. Chaput is certainly not above hard questions — but why not just read what the archbishop actually said (note that Mr. Silk, oddly enough, did not provide the link) and draw your own conclusion:
Whether you like what Chaput says or not, he’s always civil and always rather articulate. Mr. Silk loses credibility when he refuses to acknowledge that even voices that may personally annoy him can have character and intelligence.

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posted September 28, 2010 at 6:57 pm

He did include the link. But he makes Abp Chaput’s point for him. Bishops have not been perfect and the mistakes that they have made need to be examined. But that should not exclude examining the mistakes of the news media. You seem to be arguing for perfect bishops before anyone can raise any question of journalistic ethics.
Abp Chaput makes good points but he is talking to the wrong crowd. Religion reporters don’t get stories right. The trouble is the editors don’t care. They pretty much don’t think religion matters. If it hits some hot button issue they might print it but they are not going to bother with fact checking.
The catholic church has very complex proceedings. MAny of these stories also involve civil and/or criminal angles as well. Someone who can not or will not make the proper distinction is like a bull in a china shop. But the average editor does not want to hear it. Scandal sells. That is all they know.

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posted September 29, 2010 at 11:28 am

Every time I see Chaput or another member of the Magisterium gripe about the media, I am reminded of the “Syllabus of Errors,” put out by the paranoid Pope Pius IX, where it was deemed a mortal sin to objectively disagree with papal pronouncements. If you don’t believe me, simply Google, “Syllabus of Errors!” Did you know that both Pius IX and Pius X did everything in their power to quell the Freedoms of Speech, Religion and the Press? Why? Because it was their reactionary reactions, due to the fact that the new nation of Italy, sickened by centuries of being unable to protest Papal power, was curbing their powers and the powers of future popes, by throwing them out of governing the Papal States. In order to unify Italy and make progress toward a Democratic form of government (known as the hated, “Americanism”), they had to fight against Democratic principles, just for purposes of self-preservation! Since the Church (in the 1800’s) basically controlled the media, probably with threats of excommunication, it was necessary to advertise unification plans thru graffiti. One of the most famous passwords was “VERDI,” the name of the famous composer, who was an underground leader in the movement. This acronym symbolized King Victor Emanuel and his liberating “Resorgimento Movement.” Good old, Archbishop Chuput is simply living out the memories of the reactionary popes, Pius IX and Pius X. Wasn’t the world just beautiful when we didn’t have Freedom of the Press, Religion and Speech? Do you want to go back to that day? Then, listen to Chuput and heed his advice.

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posted September 29, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I commend Archbishop Chaput for his great integrity and his great articulation of the impediments of our secular society. The insults will simply bounce off of him and back on to the heads of those who spew them.
The fact that he is pushing the hostility buttons of this ungodly culture is a good sign that he is being heard and I am hoping that more Christians would be so courageous. Thank you Archbishop Chaput!

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posted September 29, 2010 at 6:24 pm

The pile-on against you at GetReligion seems strangely personal.

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Mark Silk

posted September 29, 2010 at 8:20 pm

I take pokes at GetReligion from time to time, so perhaps they’re enjoying the chance to get even, bless their hearts.

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Rev. Peter M. Calabrese, CRSP

posted September 29, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Apology noted and personally I will give you the beneift of the doubt. The crack about Chaput never “known for being up to date” is empty. Up to date by whose standards? The same one’s that htink up to date means promoting fornication, infanticide etc. CNN’s latest “documentary” on the sex abuse scandal is the latest proof of what he was saying and that is fresh on the tubes. The NYT has never apologized for its shoddy attacks on BXVI and lapdog CNN followed in lockstep. As for the media’s ombudsmen the correction is still always buried in the fine print. We’ll start using the media as a model of self-control when the Mea culpa headlines are the same size as the mistakes.

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Mark Silk

posted September 30, 2010 at 5:59 am

Thanks for the benefit of the doubt, Rev. For the record, the NYT’s ombudsman column is published in the op-ed pages of the Sunday Week in Review section of the paper.

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Andrew Barga

posted October 2, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I also think the “white” comment was not racial, although it was somewhat confusing (I was lost in the metaphor for a while, possibly because I was still drinking my morning coffee). It was this quote which caught my eye: “Hire independent observers to monitor and critique your actions.” Your point, I believe, is accountability for public figures, specifically Catholic Bishops, should be strenuous. Is it not? They are public figures who make public announcements, pronouncements, and deliver speeches; you are a religious beat reporter/commentator who reports and comments on such events. Does that not make you one of the “independent observers” who “monitor and critique” the American Bishops? However, instead of a critique, your “modest proposal” is an attempt to deflect or parry the issues raised by Chaput. As a member of the reading public, I would be interested in an actual answer to his challenges.

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