Mollie Ziegler regrets the error

wuerlA few days ago I wrote a post so bland and non-controversial that it kind of bored me. It was about the first day’s coverage of Roman Catholic Bishop Donald Wuerl’s appointment to head the Washington archdiocese. I even said I would monitor coverage in coming days to see if profiles became more thorough. Well, for a very boring post, it sure generated a lot of negative mail. A number of reporters thought their coverage merited notice more than the few that I posted.

Other reporters thought it was unfair of me to cite stories that were quickly thrown onto the web rather than the later stories that reflected a day’s worth of reporting and careful writing. In fact, one of the writers to lodge that complaint was veteran religion reporter Ann Rodgers, whose work I cited. She commented on the post:

The story linked here from the Post-Gazette was a sausage-in-the-making version that ran Web only as a stop-gap while I scrambled to get the real story. To see what ran in the newspaper — and the analysis of the significance that Terry was looking for — check www.post-gazette.com for our May 17 story.

I thought her placeholder story was great, but the later one is much better in terms of analysis. It’s chock full of perceptive commentary:

The appointment of Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl to head the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., indicates that Pope Benedict XVI wants bishops who are loyal but who nevertheless are flexible and diplomatic when dealing with sensitive issues of faith and public policy.

“They are not heresy-hunting types by any stretch of the imagination,” former Vatican Radio journalist David Gibson said of Bishop Wuerl and newly appointed Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco. “They are people who are comfortable engaging the culture, standing up for Catholic orthodoxy, certainly, but not condemning with fire and brimstone.”

The story The New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein wrote for the paper bears almost no resemblance to the one I quoted from — a Web-only piece that drew largely on the AP wire story and an old Washington Post interview. Goodstein’s piece is based on original reporting, interviews with the major players, and an understanding of the larger issues. To wit:

Bishop Wuerl, 65, is well regarded in the Vatican, where he once worked, and by fellow American bishops as a pragmatic conservative, church experts said. In 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh, he won respect by consulting parishioners in a major reorganization of parishes and by insisting that the Vatican defrock a priest with a history of sexual abuse.

Although the Archdiocese of Washington, with 560,000 Catholics, is smaller than the diocese in Pittsburgh, with 800,000 Catholics, it is more prominent. The archbishop of Washington often serves as the church’s primary contact with politicians and the news media and is traditionally elevated to cardinal, making him eligible to vote for pope.

The question is obvious: which piece should represent a newspaper’s take on a given story? The quick Web report that throws together wire copy and a bit of archival research, or the thoughtful piece done after a day of reporting? Yep, I messed up. I would hate it if people judged my reporting based on the quick Web reports I file while writing more thorough and balanced stories for my newspaper.

Media critics need to ponder the issue since we are barraged by wire service and online news that may not reflect a paper’s best effort on a given issue.

Another reader pointed out that Washington has more than one local paper, that The Washington Times‘ Julia Duin deserved to have her work highlighted, and that I obsessively analyze the Post. It’s all true. Duin’s story was great, including this bit:

Born Nov. 12, 1940, Bishop Wuerl received graduate degrees from Catholic University in the District and the Gregorian University in Rome. He became a priest in 1966 and worked in Pittsburgh under Bishop John J. Wright. When Bishop Wright was transferred to Rome as the prefect for the Sacred Congregation of the Clergy, he took along Father Wuerl as his secretary.

The young priest, who would earn a doctorate in theology from the University of St. Thomas in Rome in 1974, spent much of the first 20 years of his priesthood in the church’s central city. In January 1986, Pope John Paul II made the unusual move of personally ordaining him to the episcopate in St. Peter’s Basilica; a pope usually only ordains cardinals, not bishops.

But the pope had an emergency on his hands: He needed an American priest to serve on quick notice as the new auxiliary bishop to Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, a pacifist who dissented on homosexuality, sterilizations and remarriage after divorce. The Vatican stripped him of much of his power in early 1986 and forced him to share his duties with Auxiliary Bishop Wuerl.

I hope I’ve touched on all the issues that readers complained about. I would defend myself but I’m unable to do so because I was completely wrong.

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  • http://cyberbrethren.typepad.com/cyberbrethren/ Paul T. McCain

    Mollie, interesting story indeed. Here’s the conundrum. The Internet makes it possible for news and information to be transmitted, instantly, world-wide. Are readers to be faulted for, well, how to put this, for reading stories as soon as they appear on the web site of newspapers? Frankly, I do not read a physical newspaper. I have the Internet and I have my weekly news magazines. Newspapers? Nope. So, what are we to do about newspapers if we only read them on the Internet? Are we to wait a day to read them?

    I’m not convinced you were so wrong in analyzing what was put up on the Internet.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Preliminary stories could be labeled as such. As we all move to filing “first draft” stories to the web, it would be useful to our readers — and to increasing our web traffic — to alert them that it would behoove them to come back later for more and better…

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I think that this larger issue of placeholder stories is one newspapers will have to answer for themselves. But I think that in the meantime, media critics should know that it will take a good reporter a good day of reporting to write her story. This story broke at 6:00 AM and the stories I quoted from were from a few hours later. I should have waited a day or two to write my post. And I should have looked at a wider variety of newspapers.

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    The pope “usually only ordains cardinals, not bishops”. Oh brother…………

  • http://www.washingtontimes.com Julia Duin

    Mea culpa. The pope elevates cardinals, installs archbishops and ordains bishops.
    When you regularly report on a rainbow of 20+ religions – where you’re supposed to be conversant in everything from Assyrian Christians to Zen Buddhists – sometimes you get a few things wrong.


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