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: