Hardliners and skeptics on the Godbeat

A week or so ago, Archbishop Charles Chaput gave a speech at a special World Youth Day session for young pilgrims on the theme of religious freedom. Part of the discussion was about media coverage of issues about which the church has a say. Chaput, recently moved from Denver to Philadelphia, is a media-friendly archbishop who isn’t afraid to call out what he considers poor journalistic performances.

Now with the media largely focused on either the cost of World Youth Day or the protests in Spain during the event, it is perhaps not surprising that the U.S. media didn’t take much notice of the speech. If you’re interested, you can read it over at First Things, but here’s a snippet:

The so-called “Arab Spring” that happened this year has received a good deal of media coverage. But very little of that coverage has mentioned that the turmoil in Muslim countries has also created a very dangerous situation for Christians and other religious minorities across North Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, angry mobs have attacked Christian churches and monasteries, burning them to the ground and murdering the people inside. Christians have fled in large numbers from anti-Christian violence in Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia. In Saudi Arabia, it’s illegal to own a Bible or wear a crucifix. In Pakistan, Christians face frequent discrimination, slander, beatings, and even murder.

Here’s another:

We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, or MSNBC for reliable news about religion. These news media simply don’t provide trustworthy information about religious faith—and sometimes they can’t provide it, either because of limited resources or because of their own editorial prejudices. These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth.

And to think he wrote that before Bill Keller’s little declaration against conservative Christians!

What I thought was interesting, though, was that the Washington Post didn’t cover Chaput’s words except to respond to them. It’s interesting to note how they responded, which might be summed up as “You’re darn right, Chaput, we will crush you.” I’m only slightly kidding. Chaput’s words were discussed in a new media criticism blog by Erik Wemple:

Hard-liner Archbishop Charles Chaput has never been shy about his views on American mass media. He has a long-standing gripe, for instance, with the New York Times, which he blames for twisting his words in a 2004 story about Catholic bishops working against the presidential candidacy of John Kerry.

I find it hilarious that the Post offers one word to describe Chaput and it’s “hard-liner.” It’s just interesting to note that fidelity to church teachings here is given a negative word.

He critiques some of what Chaput wrote, saying it was overly broad and unspecific and unsupported. Of course, Wemple claims up at the top that he’s familiar with Chaput’s lengthy discussions of specific problems with various media coverage, so he’s just saying this particular speech could have been more specific. Sure, that’s a fine criticism. Although one might say the same about calling someone a hard-liner, etc.

He quotes the part where Chaput says that the American media are focused on profits, have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth and responds:

Check, check and check. Chaput’s description is something that editors at the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN and MSNBC would support, if not frame and post as a mission statement. News organizations should have little sympathy for any entity as powerful as the Catholic Church. And are you really going to pound the media for practicing aggressive skepticism?

Suppose Chaput were a government official. Here’s how his remarks would read:

“We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN or MSNBC for reliable news about politics….These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the U.S. government and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward officials on both sides of the aisle.”

Amen.

Interesting. Did you see how he didn’t accurately read what Chaput said? Chaput talked about the “Catholic faith.” Wemple responds by saying Chaput is correct that the media are aggressively skeptical against the powerful Catholic Church! Do you think Wemple even understands the distinction there?

And about the government example, my own view is that the most powerful bias in the media is toward greater government action. Or at least that’s what a casual read of any newspaper on any day might indicate. Now, is there a lot of aggressive skepticism toward politicians? Not as much as I’d like to see. But having said that, I think it’s also true the media have quite a bit of sympathy for politics and for government. They seem to completely embrace the idea that politics is a good thing and they very easily see how local, state and federal government might play a role in most any story. They seem to embrace democracy, even if they don’t (officially) take sides in a given political contest.

I wish that Wemple, rather than react defensively to Chaput, had thought a bit more about the comparison and whether there’s anything to learn from Chaput’s words.

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  • Dod

    And are you really going to pound the media for practicing aggressive skepticism?

    Wemple seems to be pounding Abp. Chaput “for practicing aggressive skepticism” with regards to the media he mentioned.

  • Jeffrey

    Is Chaput media-friendly or media savvy? Given his constant criticism of the media and his freezing-out of the NYT, I’d say he’s pretty savvy but not all that friendly.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    Whether or not he’s savvy is up to interpretation, I guess. I just meant media-friendly in terms of being willing to speak to reporters and answer their questions. When you think of all the bishops and archbishops out there that clam up when a reporter comes by, that’s not how Chaput is. The NYT situation is particular and related to a regrettable situation. But other reporters aren’t affected by that.

    I didn’t mean media-friendly in terms of being a cheerleader of the mainstream media or what not.

    But maybe the reporters I know who interact with him have a different experience than others …

  • Julia

    The WashPo completely missed the point that they don’t understand what they are writing about, not that there is disagreement.

    The Washington Post combox has some good observations:

    from cprferry:

    A bishop must be broad and unspecific because he performs a role of teaching an universal, transcendent. Thanks for proving Archbishop Chaput right again. Join the list. NY Times was shown to be completely clueless at how to read Vatican documents last year. In the Mormonism-Fox News riff a few months ago journalists completely missed the theological principles. For good religion reporting (and perhaps some adequate training in how to report and analyze these stories) try getreligion.org

  • Mike Hickerson

    Since WaPo covered Chaput’s comments on their MEDIA criticism blog, shouldn’t Wemple have looked at the NYT’s story that led to Chaput’s “gripe,” instead of just laying all the blame at the archibishop’s feet?

  • http://religionnewsblog.blogspot.com Justin

    Hmmm, I am asking an honest question here, and would appreciate an honest response:

    Does this blog cover the religious affiliation of the news owners and writers? Is it ever germaine to discuss how their religious identity might interact with the way they report on religious stories?

  • Jerry

    The so-called “Arab Spring” that happened this year has received a good deal of media coverage. But very little of that coverage has mentioned that the turmoil in Muslim countries has also created a very dangerous situation for Christians and other religious minorities across North Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, angry mobs have attacked Christian churches and monasteries, burning them to the ground and murdering the people inside. Christians have fled in large numbers from anti-Christian violence in Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia. In Saudi Arabia, it’s illegal to own a Bible or wear a crucifix. In Pakistan, Christians face frequent discrimination, slander, beatings, and even murder.

    Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t think the media has picked up on how Archbishop Chaput conflated the Arab Spring with ongoing problems Christians have in the middle east. North Africa, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have not been part of the Arab Spring. And I wish someone would have asked him for documentation about the “large numbers” he alleges for Syria and Tunisia (although Iraq is certainly true).

    But my real problem is that your excerpt caused me to get a distorted view of his basic point. As I read his words, I think his basic point is his sense that religious freedom is under attack world-wide. So while I agree with your basic opinion, I think you would have been better served to post the following excerpt:

    We also need to remember that religious freedom is not only under siege in places like China, North Korea, and many Muslim countries. It’s also at risk even in traditionally free environments like the United States and the European Union…

  • Martha

    Excuse me – the American Catholic bishops worked against the candidacy of John Kerry back in 2004?

    I thought he did a fine job of torpedoing his own campaign all on his ownsome, e.g. that picture of him receiving communion which was meant to show his ‘devout Catholic’ credibility but annoyed the likes of me, because to get that shot, it was obvious that a photographer had to be right up at the altar rail shoving his camera into the faces of people receiving, which seems lacking in reverence for the sacrament and turning it into a photo op.

    What next – a secret Opus Dei cabal undermined Amanda Marcotte to get her kicked off John Edwards’ team?

  • R9

    “And about the government example, my own view is that the most powerful bias in the media is toward greater government action”

    Not really inconsistent, I think. It’s possible to believe the government has a role in society whilst also holding every specific decision and policy up to close scrutiny. ie they shouldn’t be given sympathy or cut any slack as they have responsibilities.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Justin makes an excellent point. The mainstream media is always demanding “transparency” from the Church, business, or politicians.
    But there is probably no more opaque institution in our society than the mainstream media.
    Of course, because of the First Amendment, laws cannot be made to change that. But media outlets can reveal much more about its writers and editors if it sees fit. Like what kind of degrees–if any–do writers on religion topics have?? Just a journalism degree??? Or a history degree??? Or a MDiv. degree??? Is the reporter an atheist grinding an ax?? Or someone who has abandoned practicing a religion and is now using his-or her–position in the media to justify their apostasy???
    And to hear the media baying after Romney, Perry, or Bachmann over religion–where is the information about the reporters covering them??? To parody how they have covered these 3–Are, for example, these reporters secretly members of a cult that may affect the spin on their reporting??? Looking at other topics– Are they members of a labor union that might affect the spin on their stories regarding the turmoil in Wisconsin?????
    Inquiring minds want to know–BUT the fraternity of Big Media editors and reporters and headline writers will most certainly keep hiding in the shadows.

  • MJBubba

    Archbishop Chaput says that “Christians have fled in large numbers from anti-Christian violence in Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia.” It is worth remark that there has been near-complete media silence on this. In fact, there has been almost nothing said about the Christian refugees from Iraq (which otherwise has received lots of coverage for ten years), which number well over a million. The Archbishop unfortunately must assume that Catholic youth do not know about this, due to the failing of the mass media to include this part of the news.

  • michael

    With all the self-righteous preening about a ‘skeptical’ media confronting the ‘powerful Catholic Church’, it is worth pointing out that there are a number of things that the media are positively unskeptical about: their own power to mediate the world to the rest of us, to determine what and how we think and talk about in public; their indispensibility to the public order and the assumption that this power generally increases freedom and is for the good; the adequacy of journalistic method for rendering any subject matter transparent, and the basic correctness of secular, liberal order.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Abp Chaput said:

    They have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith,

    Wemple wrote:

    News organizations should have little sympathy for any entity as powerful as the Catholic Church.

    Slight difference, significant difference.

    But what I wonder about is all this “power” the Church has. Has the New York Times or Boston Globe gone out of business due to this alleged Catholic power? All this power and still the Church had to go out of the adoption ministry in Massachusetts. Yeah, that’s power.

    Tagging on to michael above, it’s clear that Wemple’s real complaint is that someone disagrees with him.

  • Julia

    The WashPo completely missed the point that they don’t understand what they are writing about, not that there is disagreement.

    I should clarify this.

    Archbishop Chaput’s point is that the media often doesn’t understand the religious matters they are writing about. That leads to misrepresenting what religious people say and
    do. He was not complaining about honest disagreements with what religious people say and do.

  • Julia

    Here’s a few of the recent anti-Christian incidents around the world that the media ignored:

    Pakistan – 14 yr old girl kidnapped to convert her to Islam
    http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Punjab:-Muslims-kidnap-14-year-old-Christian-to-convert-her-to-Islam-22456.html

    China – police arrest dozens of underground Catholics
    http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Tianshui:-police-arrest-dozens-of-underground-priests-and-lay-faithful-22441.html

    India – Christians arrested for converting “untouchables”
    http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Karnataka,-4-Christians-arrested-over-door-to-door-forced-conversions-22491.html

    Pakistan – 13 yr old boy kidnapped during Mass
    http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Rawalpindi:-13-year-old-Christian-kidnapped-during-mass-22497.html

    Turkey – BIG good news – confiscated properties to be returned to religious minorities; seminary may re-open.
    http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Historic-decision:-Erdogan-returns-seized-property-to-religious-minorities-22481.html

    Vietnam – govt won’t return confiscated church properties, 8 Catholic protesters arrested, priest re-jailed.

    Last week, thousands of Catholics in Vinh City took to the streets protesting against a decision by local authorities to seize land in Cau Ram parish to build a park dedicated to soldiers who died during the war with the United States.
    In the last few weeks, authorities have upheld a seven-year sentence for human rights lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu on charges of propagandizing against the state, returned to prison activist Father Nguyen Van Ly, and will try maths professor Pham Minh Hoang on Wednesday for being a member of Viet Tan.

    http://www.monstersandcritics.com/news/asiapacific/news/article_1655830.php/Eight-Catholics-arrested-after-taking-part-in-protests

  • Flo

    a little tidbit, in his actual presentation in Madrid he also added Fox News (somewhat extemporaneous) to the list of media outlets one can’t rely on for reliable reporting on religion…

    personally I was disappointed by the whole session, the panelists just seemed to air their pet peeves with the American media rather than have a serious, general engagement with the question of religious freedom and the media (admittedly, Archbishop Chaput’s presentation was decent and at least engaged the question to some degree)

  • MJBubba

    Flo, regarding Fox News, they are not more reliable than the others, but they do provide a voice for conservatives. They do not serve as a competent voice for conservatives, however, as they are definitely in the infotainment business, and seem to gravitate to the conservative voices that are more interested in shooting first and less interested in nuance. They do seem to be less hostile to religious people, so it may be surprising that Archbishop Chaput would specifically reference them as unreliable, but they have not covered global anti-Christian violence any better than the rest of the American mass media.