Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput offers a Catch-22

chaput.jpgOne of the most exciting and terrifying features of the World Wide Web for me is the degree to which it places the building blocks of many news stories at the fingertips of readers and other journalists.

So you pick up your morning newspaper and read a reporter’s take on a major address by a local political leader. Hmmmm, you think to yourself, that report seems a little strange. So you get on the computer and click your way to the political leader’s homepage and read the transcript of the speech for yourself. Lo and behold, the reporter has ignored large chunks of the text, including sections that address the very topic that most interests you.

Will you trust this reporter’s byline again? Are you more likely to question his judgment and, perhaps, even ponder whether some bias is at work? You betcha.

I have advised friends who face tense news interviews to tape the interview for themselves. That way, if worse comes to worse, you can transcribe the tape and post it for yourself. Let people make up their own minds about what you said.

Here’s why I bring this up. The other day, the always outspoken Archbishop Charles Chaput addressed the City Club of Denver. It was a lively event, as was made clear in the opening of the Rocky Mountain News’ daily story, by veteran religion writer Jean Torkelson:

Verbal fisticuffs broke out Tuesday between Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and a luncheon audience that challenged him to defend the church’s role in public life.

“Why do (religions) feel they have to impose their views on us?” asked one woman during a spirited question-and-answer session following Chaput’s speech to the City Club of Denver.

“If we don’t — you’ll impose your views on us,” Chaput shot back to murmurs from the group of about 120 business and civic leaders.

And so forth and so on. The shorter piece in The Denver Post took basically the same approach — cover the questions raised by the speech rather than the speech itself.

Meanwhile, the cyber-friendly archbishop did that World Wide Web thing he likes to do. He posted the entire speech on his homepage at the archdiocesan site. If you read the speech, you can see that the reporters present were put in a rather ticklish situation. The opening of Chaput’s speech made it clear that he was tired of the press focusing only on one or two controversial Catholic teachings, while ignoring the church’s other work and teachings in areas that Rome believes are woven into one fabric of life and doctrine. Here is what that sounded like:

Some of you may remember that a year ago I was part of a rally on the Capitol steps to protect state funding for the poor and homeless. But you didnÂ’t read about it in the Rocky or the Denver Post, because they didnÂ’t cover it.

Last September, just a few weeks before the election, I preached a homily to 5,000 people at Red Rocks, and I had them repeat out loud three times that if we forget the poor, weÂ’ll go to hell. ThatÂ’s one of the principles of Catholic social teaching. If we forget the poor, God will forget us. By our indifference, we will damn ourselves. But you didnÂ’t read about that in the press either, because – again — nobody covered it.

Our diocesan website has at least 18 articles IÂ’ve written and talks IÂ’ve given against the death penalty in the past few years. TheyÂ’re just a fraction of what IÂ’ve said and done against capital punishment for more than three decades. The press covered that one time recently — when I criticized our Republican governor.

I think you can figure out where the archbishop is headed with this. He also knew, of course, that these quotes would never make it into the local newspapers.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Winston7000

    Give His Excellency a Red Hat soon! The Archbishop certainly does not hide his light under a bushel.

    And thanks for posting the whole story. It adds a critical dimension.

  • Eric Gorski

    As the author of one of the articles in question, IÂ’d like to offer a critique of the flawed critique. First and foremost, the archbishopÂ’s address to the City Club of Denver mostly restated his views about religion and the public square, which our paper thoroughly covered during the 2004 election season. There wasnÂ’t a whole lot “new” there to write about. As an editor of mine has said of similar assignments, “it is what it is” – a speech story, short in length, properly placed inside the local news section. Does that let us off the hook for reporting it straight and summing up the main points? Of course not. Terry writes that, “The Denver Post took basically the same approach (as The Rocky Mountain News) – cover the questions raised by the speech rather than the speech itself.” Inaccurate. Our lead summarizes ChaputÂ’s main point and delivers, in the second graph, what I consider a money quote that summarizes his opinions: “When the separation of church and state begins to mean separating religious faith from public life, we begin to separate government from morality and citizens from their consciences. And that leads to politics without character, which is now a national epidemic.” A couple of paragraphs of the story deals with crowd reaction and interaction, which was passionate and deserved mention. The rest of our story touches on an angle that is of pressing, newsworthy interest (and in the text of Chaput’s speech): the churchÂ’s opposition to legislation pending before the state Legislature that would require Colorado hospitals, including Catholic ones, to notify rape victims of the availability of an emergency contraception pill to prevent pregnancy. The most disturbing thing about all of this: In these pretty innocuous stories, one of the authors of this blog is on a media bias witch-hunt, suggesting to readers that we may have an ax to grind in our approach to these stories. This is so patently ridiculous that it doesnÂ’t really even deserve a reply. I can vouch for most of my colleagues who cover religion for the secular press – there is no underlying bias to what we do, but instead a passionate commitment to getting it right and doing it fairly, no matter the subject. I would argue that our sensitivity radars are more attuned than most reporters’ because the subject matter is so often radioactive. By the way, we did not write a full-blown story on Archbishop Chaput’s taking part in a rally on the Capitol steps to protect state funding for the poor and homeless. But we did take note of that very fact in a lengthy, front-page story last year to illustrate the archbishop’s point that abortion isn’t all he cares about politically. So much for media bias.

    Eric Gorski
    The Denver Post

  • http://www.tmatt.net Terry Mattingly

    ERIC:

    First of all, if you think I mischaracterized your story I certainly apologize for that. I was primarily referring to the shortness of the story and the lack of material from the speech.

    But I don’t think my post accuses you or Jean of bias in this case. I said I thought it put you in a ticklish situation, because of his “where was the media” opening.

    Now, I am MORE THAN willing to be corrected on the matter of earlier stories that I have missed! Honest. Bring on the URLS and I will gladly share them. One of the things I like about blogs is the ability to dialogue and self-correct.

    But the purpose of my post was to talk about the situation in which reporters — such as myself — find themselves today, in which there are so many materials by which to judge their work. The posting of full transcripts is merely one example. My nightmare? Doing a telephone interview in which I cannot tape the interviewee and they tape themselves and then take me a part on small inconsistencies in direct quotes or, worse yet, some major error that I make in a collapse of note-taking skill. That’s the one that makes me break out in a cold sweat.

    But the purpose of this post was not to accuse anyone of media bias. It was to point out the tensions that can result in this post-it-all media age.

    And I very much appreciate you reading GetReligion and offering your comments. Please continue to do so and offer corrective comments. Honest.

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