All the anonymous Vatican voices in the Gray Lady

At this point in the conclave process, I’m sure that millions of liberal Catholics are carefully watching The New York Times daily coverage to see what the world’s most powerful newspaper has to say about who will be, and who should be, the next occupant of the Throne of St. Peter.

At the same time, I would imagine that traditional Catholics, as defined by doctrine rather than politics, are parsing the daily Times coverage from Rome with another agenda altogether. At this point, it is really interesting to pay close attention to who is, and who is not, continuing to talk to the representatives of the Great Gray Lady.

That’s a very interesting question, at the moment.

Why? Because it’s almost impossible right now to know who is providing information to the Times, if you expect to learn that kind of information by reading the attribution clauses in the newspaper’s own stories.

This steady use of anonymous sources should trouble supporters of the newspaper’s credibility — especially those of us who were encouraged, back in 2005, when we read the New York Times Company self study called “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” (.pdf text is here). It included quite a bit of material urging Times editors to minimize the use of anonymous sources. The review panel offered three recommendations:

* Reporters must be more aggressive in pressing sources to put information and quotations on the record, especially sources who strongly desire to get their viewpoint into the paper.

* Editors must be more energetic in pressing reporters to get that information on the record. They must also recognize that persuading reticent sources to put their names behind sensitive disclosures is not easy; it may slow the reporting.

* When anonymity is unavoidable, reporters and editors must be more diligent in describing sources more fully. The basics include how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information and why they are entitled to anonymity.

Now, with these worthy Times standards in mind, read through the news story that ran under the headline, “Pope Wanted. Must Possess Magnetic Charm. And Grit.” It opens like this:

ROME – No candidate for pope can have it all. But the cardinals who will elect the next pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church seem to be looking for someone who combines the charisma of Pope John Paul II with the grit of what one Vatican analyst called, only slightly tongue in cheek, “Pope Rambo I.”

While it is too early to talk of front-runners, hints to the characteristics sought in a future pontiff can be discerned from the utterances of the cardinals who have spent the past week in meetings at the Vatican. Before Wednesday, when they stopped giving interviews, the cardinals frequently cited attributes the church now needs: a compelling communicator who wins souls through both his words and his holy bearing, and a fearless sheriff who can tackle the disarray and scandal in the Vatican.

Now, while the word “seems” is always a bit edgy in a lede, the key is that this material assures readers that they will be hearing information based on the “utterances of the cardinals” who are gathered at the Vatican. That would be a good thing — lots of direct quotes from specific cardinals.

Now, let’s look for that kind of authoritative material in the story. Let’s keep reading, because the next two paragraphs state the thesis:

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Stan Musial wore his faith on his sleeve

As news of St. Louis Cardinal great Stan Musial’s death spread, Rocco Palmo tweeted:

As “The Man” goes to his reward, a memorable Dolan quote on receiving the red hat: “The only Cardinal I ever wanted to be was Stan Musial.”

Of course, Musial was not just an amazing baseball player, admired by everyone. He wasn’t just a gentleman with major personal accomplishments, including a marriage that lasted more than 71 years. He was also a devout Catholic. I was curious how the media would handle that aspect of the story.

I’m one of those people who want to know about religious affiliation in every single obituary I read. It’s the thing I want to read first in an encyclopedia entry, too. It’s a very important piece of information for me. But because Musial’s Catholicism was such an important part of his life — from his regular worship to the charities he was involved with — it’s an important part of the picture even for more typical readers who, I assume, don’t quite share my level of interest in religious affiliation.

So it was odd, I thought, that the Associated Press managed a healthy 2,000-word obituary of Musial without mentioning his faith once. The New York Times obit was even longer, but it also neglected to mention this aspect of The Man.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch didn’t devote too much space Musial’s faith, but neither did it neglect it. Here’s how it began:

It is unlikely a professional athlete ever has found it tougher to take off his uniform than Stan Musial. For the 22 years he played in the big leagues, from the time his mother manufactured baseballs for him out of old socks and tape, he loved nothing more than playing baseball.

“For Stan, it was a thrill to come to the ballpark every day,” former teammate Joe Cunningham said. “He loved the game, loved putting on the uniform.”

Yet, few athletes have segued into private life more seamlessly, and perhaps none has embellished his or her legacy more dynamically than Musial.

He has come to represent much more than baseball heritage for St. Louis. He has become a living monument, as identifiable with the city as the Gateway Arch, the Mississippi River or the Cardinals organization itself.

The integrity, humility and decency with which Musial has conducted his public life are virtues that family-friendly St. Louis promotes as its own. Musial doesn’t just represent the best the national pastime has to offer, he represents the best we hope to find in ourselves.

“One thing I have to say,” said Bill Virdon, whose arrival as a Rookie of the Year center fielder in 1955 moved Musial to first base. “He is one of the best people I’ve ever known. He is kind, generous … you could not meet a better person in this world than Stan Musial.”

Toward the end we’re told:

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