Is Cardinal Dolan’s star fading? NYTimes ‘somes’ it up

I’ve just made up a rule for reading news: The confidence a writer places in an article is inversely proportional to the number of times he/she uses “some.” Such words often substitute for actual findings.

I know, because I occasionally did it myself as a reporter. But I’m not sure I used it six times in one story, as did a New York Times article on Cardinal Timothy Dolan and his place in the Catholic power structure.

The story’s basic assessment is that Cardinal Timothy Dolan was Pope Benedict XVI’s American culture warrior, fighting trends like abortion and same-sex marriage. Benedict was also fine with Dolan’s upper-middle-class lifestyle, and with Dolan delegating archdiocesan matters to his vicars instead of handling them himself.

But with a new pope in town, Dolan — well, isn’t on the outs, exactly; he’s just out of step with the newer, humbler, more pastoral church of Pope Francis. So says the Times.

But to make that case, the arguments get pretty, well, argumentative.

In the last years that Benedict XVI served as pope, Cardinal Dolan, 64, was America’s top bishop as the president of the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops. Ever the genial guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, he led the charge against the Obama administration’s efforts to require some religious employers to cover birth control for employees. Some church experts say he was also the go-to cardinal for many in the Vatican when they wanted to know what was going on in the American church.

See that? Even that nut paragraph, as journalists call it, uses the “some” qualifier. Here are others:

Some see the influence of Cardinal Dolan, once considered a possible candidate for pope himself, waning in the era of the new pontiff.

And:

 

But some priests said a silver lining of Cardinal Dolan’s lowered profile would be a more hands-on approach toward running the diocese.

And those are just the examples that aren’t backed up with quotes or anecdotes. Three or four other “somes” are followed with attribution or quotes — a little better, but still more opinion than fact.

Not all of those “somes” are supported, either. Like that last example, predicting Dolan would take a “more hands-on approach toward running the diocese.” After that is a priest saying: “Those of us in the parishes, we don’t work closely with the archbishop on a day-to-day basis.” Complaints are not evidence.

I also have an issue with the Times trying to maintain that cherished media narrative: the break between Francis and his papal predecessors. The article, for instance, holds up Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston as a Francis kind of guy. Well, O’Malley was used extensively by Pope John Paul II as a fixer in scandal-plagued dioceses, including Falls River, Palm Beach and Boston itself. And who made O’Malley a cardinal? Benedict.

The Times also highlights Francis’ choice of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, “widely considered a moderate,” to replace the more conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke on the Congregation of Bishops, the Vatican committee that selects new bishops. But as my May 14 story notes, Wuerl’s influence at the Vatican is hard to measure because of his quieter style and carefully parsed public statements.

This paragraph may be one of the reasons that this article is tentative:

Cardinal Dolan is still on several important Vatican committees, and in the United States, remains the preferred bishop to speak on television. He is a master communicator, pithy and gregarious. But the buzz that followed him into the conclave to select Francis as pope in March 2013 — that he himself could be a papal candidate — has dissipated.

So Dolan is still influential, but his star has faded because he is no longer considered a papal candidate? Well, gee. At the 2013 conclave, 115 cardinals voted, and 114 of them weren’t elected — including O’Malley, who was considered a papabile that year, too.

No, the problem is more like trying to read a situation that has no handy measurement, and gets no confirmation from official sources. Closest is:

It’s not that he’s out of favor or irrelevant,” said John Allen, who wrote a book with Cardinal Dolan and now reports for The Boston Globe. “But both in terms of who Rome listens to in the American church, and setting priorities for the American church, I think there’s no question that Tim Dolan is no longer the prime mover in that regard.”

Allen is a veteran Vatican reporter, and I respect his opinions. But if the Times asked him why he thinks Dolan has lost pull, the article doesn’t say.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting that not everyone agrees, and that there’s more than one way to look at a situation. But overusing qualifiers can start to look like a cloak for guesses or opinions. “Some” times, a newspaper should use another word: commentary.

Photo: Archbishop Timothy Dolan in a 2009 file photo. Uploaded by Gugganij to Wikimedia (CC By 2.0).

About Jim Davis
  • Darrell Turner

    Excellent point about the use of the word “some,” Jim. I will keep that in mind when I read and evaluate media reports. And because the word is often overused in stories that generate faux alarm about people expressing opinions, perhaps those stories could be characterized as “the ‘some’ of all fears.”

  • Julia B

    Doh! For one thing – Francis has known O’Malley for a long time and even hosted him at his apartment in Buenas Aires. For another – O’Malley is extremely fluent in Spanish and made Hispanics the focus of his early years in priesthood. For yet another – O’Malley is also a member of a religious order (both took vows of poverty), whereas Dolan was ordained as a diocesan priest. Lots of reasons for Francis to find O’Malley a bit more simpatico that have nothing to do with disliking or downgrading Dolan.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I look at this as the NYT trying to control Cardinal Dolan’s agenda: “Hey, Dolan! Look at what we’re reporting Pope Francis is saying and doing. When are your going to get with the program? Why don’t you sell that mansion next to the cathedral? Why don’t you stop using a driver? Why don’t you get out into the parishes more? Why do you have so many vicars? Why aren’t you more available to your priests? Why are you traveling so much? Why don’t you just stick to spiritual matters and leave the political stuff alone?” But that’s all based on their perception of what Pope Francis is saying and doing — some of it is accurate but other portions of it are fantasy and they’re pushing the fantasy part.

  • fredx2

    Great point on the use of the word “some”
    The fact is, some do, and some don’t.
    But the Times, as usual, reports only the “somes” that support its underlying effort to undercut more traditional churchmen, and puff up their opponents.
    The overall message of the piece is that Dolan is losing out, is less popular with the Vatican, etc etc. This is the “narrative” the liberal Catholics WANT to be true.
    And yet, even this reporter is forced to admit:
    1) That his term is over as head of the USCCB. Of course, then his symbolic leadership has passed to a new person. So of course he will be a bit less visible in Rome and in the leadership of American Catholics.
    2) There is no evidence presented whatsoever that he is out of favor, or that the “earth has shifted” under him. But, they want to present him as losing power, so they do.
    It’s the media “Narrative Building” again. Which simply means, take the facts, spin them in the way that the NYT wants to spin them, and then present as truth.

  • Julia B

    The StL Post Dispatch doesn’t even bother to hide that it is parroting the NYT article. Are newspapers turning into aggregators? Or do they all get the same “talking points” from somewhere?
    http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/divine-dispatches/cardinal-timothy-dolan-adjusts-to-pope-francis-reign/article_eefb5e31-7a42-58f4-b722-f1e40e1ff86a.html


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