Scoops in all of those whispers

The other day, while cruising around online, I noticed that the newspaper that lands in my front yard had once again been scooped on a major religion story in its own backyard.

In this case, the news was that Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, at the age of 72, had received a rather symbolic, yet still significant, post in the Roman Catholic hierarchy — one that usually comes with a red hat and a seat in the College of Cardinals.

I wondered if I should mention this scoop in a GetReligion post, but then decided not to bring it up. After all, the Baltimore Sun misses major religion stories several times a year. This was nothing stunning, in other words.

Plus, the news source that did the scooping was Whispers in the Loggia, the website operated by the omnipresent Rocco Palmo of Philadelphia.

Getting scooped by Palmo is something that mainstream journalists are getting used to and, quite frankly, this was not the most embarrassing case in recent years. I am sure that editors at the Los Angeles Times would agree.

The Sun, of course, had a basic story on the appointment days later — after the official Vatican announcement. Everyone had the story by then. However, instead of sulking, the Sun editors did something that caught me by surprise. They ran a lengthy A1 feature story about the man who scooped them. It was more than a nice gesture. It was a look at an important religion-beat figure in the Internet era.

By all means, read it all. Those who have followed Palmo’s work will already know most of the facts and even some of the anecdotes reported here. Still, this is new stuff for most newspaper readers.

So bravo.

Here is the section of the report that I think will most interest GetReligion readers. Lurking in the background is a very basic question: Palmo is clearly an independent voice, but what kind of journalist is he? Many are not quite sure what to think of his approach to journalism. For example, what about his family’s ties to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua?

“People who would never speak to a reporter will talk to Rocco,” said John Rivera, a former religion reporter for The Sun who now is director of communications for Catholic Relief Services. “Partly, it’s because he clearly loves the church and is writing from the inside. He’ll criticize the church, but he’s not a critic of it.”

That’s not to say that Palmo is an apologist for the institution. Far from it. He has spoken out tirelessly against those priests involved in sex scandals, and those accused of protecting the clerics — including Bevilacqua. …

Palmo said he tried many times to talk to Bevilacqua about his alleged role in a cover-up. He hasn’t seen or spoken to the cardinal since 2007. Bevilacqua was never charged with a crime, and Palmo is aware that he’ll probably never know what really happened. So all he can do is to piece together what information he can from court proceedings and from his discussions with abuse survivors.

“He taught me that what’s best for the church,” Palmo said, “is more important than what’s best for any one person.”

The crucial concept in that passage, for me, was this one: “He’ll criticize the church, but he’s not a critic of it.”

What does that mean, precisely? Palmo is not a public-relations man, yet he’s a practicing Catholic who does not hide his love for his church.

So is he a journalist? Yes. An advocacy journalist? Sort of. But what is he advocating?

Here’s the key, for me (and I have not discussed this point with Palmo). I think that what sets Palmo apart is that he considers it controversial when Catholics (left or right) attack — in word and deed — the teachings and traditions of the Catholic faith. However, unlike far too many mainstream journalists, he does not consider it controversial (and thus hot news) when Catholics defend the church’s teachings.

Palmo is critical of Catholic leaders, in other words. He is not afraid to criticize the institution. However, he is not critical of Catholic traditions and doctrines.

Thus, it’s rather interesting to note who protests his work and who praises it.

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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.

  • Martha

    I think Rocco can best be likened to a sports reporter who loves and knows a particular game – football, baseball, cricket, rugby, pick your own – is steeped in the background and the traditions, has the inside knowledge and the connections, and is trusted because he isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade when the clubs or the management or the players or the governing bodies do something ludicrous, but everyone knows it’s because he loves the game and isn’t just cavilling for the sake of it.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Thanks for running this posting. I read his “whispers” regularly. If I could interview him I would ask what has been his experience with the mainstream media as far as employment (if he has ever wanted to be part of the MSM or having any free-lance works of his published–and paid for.)

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Rocco, more than most, reports on the Church as a community first, a body (if you will), and finally, if at all, as an institution. When he talks about bishops and priests, he speaks of them as people, and not so much as authority figures who become “The Church” in media parlance.

    I’m not sure I’m saying this right. Let me try it this way:

    Reporting on the Church often seems to use the leadership as props in a play about some cultural hobbyhorse or another. The hierarchy becomes “The Church” doing something – good or bad – to “its” people. And yes, Catholics have been guilty of talking like that, though the reality of Catholic life is much more complicated than that. To the faithful Catholic, however, the Church is the whole Body, lay and ordained, a transcendent incarnation of the Risen Christ.

    More than anything, it seems to me Rocco gets that and embeds it in his writing. The linked article on Abp. Gomez is a good example.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    And for those tempted to pigeonhole Rocco, three pretty conservative Catholics have now praised a guy who writes for The Tablet, most decidedly not a conservative journal.

  • Fr. Tim Moyle

    I admire Rocco’s record, especially given that he literally is a young lad who lives in his parents basement. (True… google it!)

    But I cannot help feeling that I am witnessing the birth of a Catholic ‘Drudge Report’. I cannot see given how such an internet entity has led to the coarsening of American political culture that such a development would necessarily be a good thing for the Church. Perhaps one could even compare what he is doing with the actions of Matthew Bradley and Wikileaks… exposing decisions and debate that takes place behind walls of structure and power. Given that he has taken upon his own shoulders what to publish and what to withhold, he is exerting influence in corridors heretofore thought to be inviolate.

    Still, it is amazing how much influence he has garnered in a few years within the Church given that he lives in Philadelphia, PA, some 7000+ km. away from the beat he’s covering.

    This new information age is certainly transforming the world we live in, for better or for worse.

    Fr. Tim Moyle
    Mattawa, Ontario

  • Climacus

    Journalism or the fourth estate was once meant as an objective check and balance to report on government and society to keep it honest, although this function has been largely lost or fallen into misuse and has become something much different. It seems to me Rocco is serving a similar function as the fourth estate for our Church. However, can bloggers, using the vehicle of op/ed blogs be considered journalism?

  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    Re: Rocco’s experience in the mainstream media.

    To the best of my knowledge, he has none.

    He began “Whispers” right out of college, and has maintained his independence. I believe he’s written some op-ed pieces for papers from time to time, and he’s contributed as a commentator on television (most notably, for WNBC in New York, during the papal visit in ’08).

    But that’s about it.

    Full disclosure: Rocco is both a friend and a colleague of mine. But I can honestly say there’s no one else out there doing what he does, the way that he does, with the fervor and fidelity that he brings to his beat. His knowledge of the Church is nothing less than encylopedic. Along with that, he tries, as best he can, to uphold journalistic standards that would put most bloggers to shame. I wish there were more out there like him.

  • Matt

    The crucial concept in that passage, for me, was this one: “He’ll criticize the church, but he’s not a critic of it.” What does that mean, precisely?

    I took it to mean that Palmo has no problem with criticizing the church when appropriate, but he does not take a general posture of criticism or hostility in everything he writes.

  • Dave

    “He’ll criticize the church, but he’s not a critic of it.”

    What does that mean, precisely?

    It means the same thing it would about me and Paganism or Unitarian Universalism. When I’m critical, even vehemently so, it’s a lovers’ quarrel.

  • Jeffrey

    But, as an insider, how easily is he coopted by the people who give him access? Criticizing the abuse scandal isn’t brave or a sign of independence, even for an insider. I’m not sure that proves that Rocco is independent of the people he writes about.

  • Julia

    I think Rocco has a political science degree, not a journalism degree.

    I stumbled upon Rocco when he was first starting out – I think it was a link from Amy Welborn’s uber-early Catholic blog. [A lot of us also first met Fr Z in Amy's combox]

    Right away you feel like you’re part of Rocco’s family and he’s passing along newsy doings and happenings. We get news about his beloved grandmother as well as who is going to fill the next empty bishopric. He can be serious, but also just chatty.

    Hey gang, get a load of what’s going on in Cleveland.

    I made that up, but it’s the kind of feel you get from him.

    Palmo presents videos of the annual Vietnamese Catholic gathering in rural Missouri every year. And the the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations near Chicago. And the St Joseph’s Day floats, pillars and parades. And YouTube clips of sacred music appropriate to whatever is current in the Catholic calendar.

    One thing that has been ebbing in Catholicism in the United States is that cultural Catholic milleu; the multiple and diverse ways that Catholics celebrate their faith. Rocco’s blog, in a addition to providing scoops, is a little like what the kids see and recognize at World Youth Day – the big, old, messy, serious but party-loving Catholic Church and its fallible but loving people.

    Discussing church matters can get so arid and dry. Rocco’s style of writing reminds us that the church is people, a family; the innocents, the rascals, the admirable, the flashy, the modest, etc. etc. Nobody else does that as well as him.

    It’s more of a family newsletter/gossip column, but also doing straight journalism at times. A new genre for the internet age.

  • Martha

    Jeffrey, you make a good point, but it’s one applicable even to mainstream reporters. To expand on the sports reporter analogy I made, over here Sir Alex Ferguson (manager of Manchester United, the currently most successful team in England in the Premiership) is notorious for refusing access to reporters that he feels are too critical of the team. It was only last week that he finally ended his SEVEN-YEAR boycott of the BBC and agreed to speak to them again.,

    So what does a reporter do when his paper or radio station or tv station is banned from the press conferences and all their rival papers will have the scoop on the new multi-million pound signing from South America? Don’t tell me there’s no temptation there to go along to get along – or with political correspondents either, who seem to have a cosy little circle of their own contacts both on- and off-the record, and are used as much by political sources to leak stories as they do reportage.

    I think that Rocco, precisely because he is a one-man band operating on a shoestring of readers’ donations to keep “Whispers” up and running, is protected from that – what good does it do to try and manipulate him when, for instance, he’s not writing for “The New York Times” or “Newsweek” or a big-name media outlet?

    He puts a human face on the names in the press; if the media is getting worked up about “The Vatican has just appointed the Baby-Eating Bishop of Bath and Wells to the vacant diocese of Liberalville!”, Rocco can tell us whether or not the bishop ever ate a baby, and if so, who the baby’s parents were, where the baby’s aunt went to school, and how many courses the bishop had the baby served up in.

    In other words, when I see the usual “a source in the Vatican told our reporter” and know that really means “a guy in a dog collar I met in a café overlooking the piazza”, Rocco will genuninely know a real “source in the Vatican” (or at least someone whose second cousin serves morning Mass for a monsignor who assists at an under-secretaryship for the Curia) even if he did get the story in a café overlooking the piazza.

  • IC

    Rocco understands Catholicism. Regardless of what you think about perspective, objectivity, etc., he “gets it” better than any reporter I know, with the exception of John Allen (NCR and other MSM venues) That makes him worth listening to.

    And the Sun was wise to scoop on the scooper! Great story on lots of levels: where is the religion beat, blogging/reporting, cool human interest story.

    I wonder if he WANTS a MSM job.

  • dalea

    This is the sort of journalism that tmatt calls ‘european’, which is the kind I like. Rocco does not pretend to be objective; instead he is upfront about being a Pope Catholic who is not uncritical of the Roman Catholic Church. When I read him I know where he is coming from. Good article.