Cardinal Dolan dares to tweak the NYTimes

If you’ve paid attention to religion news at all in recent days, you probably know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has responded to the latest attempt by the White House (.pdf here) to draw a legal line between religious liberty in church pews and freedom of religious expression in the marketplace and the rest of American life.

The bishops’ key point appears to be that this latest version of the Health and Human Services mandate “falls short” of the mark.

The New York Times put it this way:

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday rejected the latest White House proposal on health insurance coverage of contraceptives, saying it did not offer enough safeguards for religious hospitals, colleges and charities that objected to providing such coverage for their employees.

The bishops said they would continue fighting the federal mandate in court. … The bishops said the proposal seemed to address part of their concern about the definition of religious employers who could be exempted from the requirement to offer contraceptive coverage at no charge to employees. But they said it did not go far enough and failed to answer many questions, like who would pay for birth control coverage provided to employees of certain nonprofit religious organizations.

In the eyes of Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also the current leader of the U.S. bishops, that simple word “rejected” does not capture the full intent of his organization’s response. Thus, he took to his blog to say:

Unfortunately, there were some news reports today that claimed the bishops “rejected” the White House proposal, ignoring the fact that we bishops said, “we welcome and will take seriously the Administration’s invitation to submit our concerns through formal comments, and we will do so in the hope that an acceptable solution can be found that respects the consciences of all.”

Now, my goal here is not to argue with Dolan on his point about the accuracy of that “rejected” paraphrase.

Instead, I would like to voice a hearty “amen” to the post written by the omnipresent Rocco Palmo over at “Whispers in the Loggia” in which he notes a significant trend — which is the willingness these days of Catholic leaders to use social media and/or the Internet to directly debate major newsrooms about issues of content and interpretation.

Palmo writes:

… This is the second time in a week that an American cardinal has taken to his own blog to rebut a significant story … as watershed moments go for Catholic new media, well, there you have it.

Though Dolan’s lament of “some news reports” cited only the New York Times‘ story run in today’s editions — which ran with the headline “Bishops Reject Birth Control Compromise” — for good measure, it bears noting that the “reject” lede was identically employed by outlets ranging from Politico, Reuters and Religion News Service to National Public Radio … and, sure enough, even the cause’s most likely allies at Fox News.

Please click on over and read it all.

Mainstream journalists will want to bookmark “Whispers” in their WWW browsers, if they are among the dozen or so Godbeat pros who have not done so already. It’s an essential site.

While this air-it-out trend might be a bit annoying for some reporters and editors, I see it as a positive step toward improved communications between journalists and the “stakeholders” — there is that Poynter.org term again — who lead major religious organizations. Instead of simply slamming their doors, it is a good thing when bishops and other religious leaders put their criticisms in places where people can read them and debate them.

Let’s have more information and more debate out in the open. That would be good for journalists as well as the church.

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.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What I would find interesting to discover is when the NY Times story ran as opposed to when the stories in Politico, Reuters, Religious News Service, National Public Radio, etc–(yes even Fox) ran.
    Virtually all news anchor persons, commenters, reporters, etc. have made no secret of the fact they read the Times as the day’s first order of business. Thus, it would not be surprising that the Times story would influence other major news outlet’s choice (intentionally or unintentionally) of parrot-like vocabulary. (yes, even Fox).
    Also, I never see in the mainstream media the honest and accurate observation made by t.matt here referring to the dispute between the White House and the bishops as “the latest attempt by the White House to draw a legal line between religious liberty in church pews and freedom of religious expression in the market place and the rest of American life.” Also, except in religious publications, I never see mentioned that this locking Christian expression and actions behind church walls was the policy of the old atheistic Soviet Union.

    • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

      You’re right and I agree. Of course it’s not to the advantage of those wishing to keep religion a behind-closed-doors-only-on-Sunday affair, to broadcast their agenda….

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Prior to the days of social media and diocesan websites, I often wondered why bishops would even bother talking to the press, who were so likely to be unfavorable in the story. It will be interesting to see how it influences the media to have their spin directly challenged in well-followed outlets run by the people they want to spin against.

  • Harris

    The first notice that came to my box was from the Washington Times, and that also presented the news as “rejection.” The NYT coverage was modest, and not part of their morning e-blast; in the dead-tree edition the story was below the fold, not featured. Even on NCR there was a lag between initial reports and Cardinal Dolan’s response.

    The bishops’ response is less than clear as to what the actual status is with respect to the administration. Taking the final words cited by the Cardinal, it can sound conciliatory. Earlier, the language is fairly direct (“we cannot”) when coming to the role of private enterprise and conscience — that surely sounds like rejection of administration proposals. The real difficulty is assessing to what extent we are seeing a negotiation in public and to what extent this is devolving into the more visceral assertions of political power.


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