All the anonymous Vatican voices in the Gray Lady

All the anonymous Vatican voices in the Gray Lady March 8, 2013

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:

Their focus on communication and good governance is in many ways an acknowledgment of the deficiencies of Pope Benedict XVI, who flew off in a helicopter to an unexpected retirement last week after a rocky eight-year tenure. But it is also a sign of the nostalgia for Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, a magnetic presence who commanded the spotlight on trips around the world and even as he lay dying.

On Benedict’s watch, the church lost sway in Europe, the United States and even Latin America. The central bureaucracy in Rome, the Curia, fell more deeply into dysfunction and even corruption. Cardinals from several countries commented this week that they were seriously troubled by recent reports in the Italian news media about a secret dossier that was given to the departing Benedict and was said to contain explosive evidence of sexual and financial blackmail. The confidential dossier is supposed to be shown to the next pope.

Now, look at the factual statements in these two paragraphs and then look for attribution clauses that point readers toward on-the-record sources for these statements of fact, or opinions. Once again, we have cardinals commenting, but do readers ever get to read these comments or learn which cardinals made them?

Keep reading.

Regular Times readers will not be surprised when the now retired Cardinal Edward Egan of New York shows up, on the record. He is too old to vote.

Readers will also not be surprised when a Vatican spokesman shows up, offering a few quotes.

Then it is back to serious business, which means to steady drumbeat of references such as:

Several cardinals have also said …

Several cardinals have also emphasized …

Many of those mentioned as papabile are said to have …


But several of those prelates are known to be short on charisma or presence. Cardinals Erdo and Ouellet are said by associates and former students to be more comfortable reading from a prepared text than speaking spontaneously in front of crowds or giving interviews.

And so forth and so on. You get the idea.

This steady stream of anonymous and unattributed information is clearly in someone’s interest. Do these supposedly authoritative Vatican voices not want their names to be used in the Times? Do Times editors know that, if sources were quoted by name, readers could recognize patterns that suggest agendas and points of view? When considering the advice offered by the Times self-study panel, why is it necessary for this story to contain so much material without clear attributions?

I mean, readers were told that the cardinals have been talking and speaking, before the Vatican blackout. If the voices of the cardinals provide so much crucial information for this news report, then why not quote them by name? Or is this actually a work of editorial analysis?


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33 responses to “All the anonymous Vatican voices in the Gray Lady”

  1. To be taken with a pinch of salt …
    I was trying to “reconstruct” a red hat wearing Deepthroat by the comments. But after qualifiying the JPII years as a “golden era” (of some kind), it became as obvious as a Full Beton Monster SIze Warehouse: it’s either a:) A talkative non voting Cardinal with some age derived memory problem, and of no interest or b) One of the Cardinals of JPII era. There are only three of them of voting age, and one of these has positively NOT enjoied their best years under B XVI. And the rest of the coments would suit him perfectly fine. But if he is talking to the NYT now, he has become totally nuts and a danger for himself and the Church -more than usual-
    More seriously. I honestly believe NYT has NO first level source, Probably not even second (secretary to a Cardinal) or third level (real vatican bureucrat). If the reporters are not making the comments totally up; they come from the “usual suspects”, which probably know more or less the same as me of what the Electors think.
    Under there is proof of the contrary, it’s a real low for the Godbeat at the NYT

    • I meant only three US national cardinals consecrated by JPII still with voting rights. Sorry

    • Just because I happen to have *just* been teaching a section of Strunk and White to my students:

      •”…which probably know more or less the same as me…”

  2. Nobody reads the NYT to find out what is happening in Rome.

    This article totally ignores why the American Cardinals quit giving interviews. The huge story is Sr Mary Ann Walsh’s media relations outfit who are in Rome to help US media cover the events. She was so successful that other than US media were clamoring to also attend. Imagine that, two Cardinals sitting for a Q&A on-the-record about issues and how events were going to unfold. The Italian gossip-mongers, who make their living from scoops leaked by insiders to their favorite reporters, freaked out and had the show shut down. The Americans are getting blamed for the leaks but nothing they said in public violated any confidentiality rules.
    Here’s the USCCB blog run by Sr Mary Ann Walsh. Scroll back to see what happened.

    The Italian take on why the Americans were told to shut up:

    John Allen’s article on how the American Cardinals have become straight-talking folk heroes – a possible game changer on how the conclave might turn out.

  3. I could have written the entire article just by combing the web and reading analysts such as John Allen. This is not journalism. This is junior high book report writing.

  4. Question: we are encouraged to provide links to verify our comments about the media. But when I do that, I always get these notices that mycomments is awaiting moderation. I’m sure I didn’t use any bad words – or I don’t think I did. Is it the multiple links? I thought that was supposed to be a good thing to provide.

  5. Julia. I think it’s the multiple links. I used two the other day and ended up in moderation.

  6. tmatt, I think your post here is interesting and raises several important points. However, your introduction is unnecessary editorializing that is extremely off-putting. Why on Earth do you divide “liberal” and “traditional” Catholics in that way? Yes, the NYT has been demonstrated to be slanted in favor of the views of doctrinally liberal Catholics, but that certainly doesn’t mean that only that group of Catholics is curious about the NYT’s analysis in terms of who will or should be the next Pope.

    More importantly, it doesn’t mean that the only Catholics that would care about the shoddy work done here are those who are doctrinally traditional. The implication is either that the only people who care about excessive anonymity and non-attribution are those that have a bone to pick with the source of the article, or that such concerns are unimportant to liberals in general. Neither is true, and both are serious accusations to make. The widespread shift towards anonymity of high-level sources is a major problem that people with a wide range of views are concerned about – even when they might agree with the larger points being made.

  7. I’m going to say something nice about “The New York Times” in this context, which is that if standard Vatican protocol is being followed, they can’t attribute quotes because they haven’t got any names willing to be mentioned in print.

    It’s more likely to be more ‘insiders’ (probably not the cardinals themselves, but a clerical worker who overheard a monsignor talking to his visiting cousin about how the monsignor’s friend who works for Cardinal Z told him the inside scoop) drip-feeding scraps of rumour, speculation and bits of information to the press who have – as other commenters pointed out – all been put under a media black-out now that none of the cardinals are supposed to give “official” interviews or talk to the press at all.

    John Thavis has a new book out about how the Vatican news corps works 🙂

  8. i am judging this less harshly, at least with respect to anonymity. These are after all preconclave Cardinals we are talking about. I would expect reporters could get very little genuinely interesting stuff from an individual Cardinal on the record.

    A bigger issue, I would think, is cherry picking of the Cardinals’ comments. I suspect from the piece that only a certain subset of the interviews’ material made it into the piece. For example, I can think of many Cardinals who would describe Benedict’s pontificate with many other adjectives before “rocky”.

  9. Cardinals are not politicians, in fact, per curriculum they should be a lot MORE professional …
    And rule nr 1 for the “metier”: You give -reluctanctly- interviews to hostile media (is part of your bussiness), but you don’t leak to them -which usually only gives benefits to the media and never to you- unless you plan to destroy someone (else) in your own ranks.
    I very much doubt that many Cardinals care for what NYT, WP or LAT think about the election; but someone labeled as endorsed by the “liberal/secular” media has a 100% chance to being vetoed
    You must be a bit of a machiavelist, but it is the ONLY reason I can think of a Deepthroat with a Galero,

  10. It has been popular these past 8 years to compare – unfavorably – Benedict with John Paul II. But I remember coverage of JPII and the story has changed.

    Off-typic, but perhaps I’ll be forgiven: a reporter on NBC Nightly News just said that on Tuesday, we begin “the race to 77”. That’s the number taken to elect, if you don’t get it. As a Catholic, I’ve been having great fun with the media carnival around this transition. I’ll miss it. 🙂

    • FW Ken, at least we have the media exploding-heads when the new pope is selected. ZOMG, he’s not going to bring in gay married divorced transgender single-parent women priests the week after Easter? Will the Catholic Church ever progress out of the Middle Ages?


      • Just in case you thought I was joking about the preferred next pope:

        “When Roman Catholic Cardinals select a new pope early next week, they should select a pontiff who embraces legalized abortion, ordination of women to the priesthood and affirmation of homosexual and transgender persons, according to a coalition of liberal Catholic dissident groups.”

  11. “Now, while the word “seems” is always a bit edgy in a lede”

    It seems I can’t take “lede” seriously. I know it is an edgy statement but I had to cut loose.

  12. Here’s a case where an American outlet, ABC, is repeating a report from the Italian media. There is no reason for ABC not to name THEIR sources since they are Italian newspapers. I have to wonder how often this really occurs. Too often for my taste in any event.

    Now that the conclave to elect the next pope will begin Tuesday, a political drama appears to be unfolding behind closed doors at the Vatican, with Italian media reporting that U.S. cardinals are trying to sway the selection process.

    Several Italian newspapers have reported that the U.S. cardinals had been resisting pressure from Italian cardinals to convene the conclave right away. The Italians have more votes and more visibility, so a quick vote is thought to favor them.

    • There’s probably an element of truth to that, but the main reason to press for an early and quick conclave is quite simply the pressure of time.

      Easter is coming. You don’t want all the cardinals stuck in Rome during Holy Week, arguably the busiest week in the church calendar for liturgies. You don’t want to be going into Easter with a sede vacante. So the earlier the conclave gets started (and now we finally have a date), the better.

      There’s really no need (though it’s always fun) to dig for a more sinister reason than that.

  13. The truth is that many Catholics aren’t reading the Times at all. It’s not a good source of information for Catholic news. It’s horribly slanted and just plain wrong most of the time. Why bother?

  14. asshur:
    “Deepthroat with a Galero” What a concept! Minds would explode.

    A lot of this is culture conflict. Among other things the difference between the Roman law worldview and the English/German law worldview.

  15. The New York Times does not know what Catholicism is about. They actually think that the church can change the teachings Jesus passed on to His Church. They are way too liberal to be reliable to cover any Catholic conclave or Catholic event. They stopped being a real newspaper a long time ago.

  16. To be fair, reporters are pretty much forced to use blind quotes in much Vatican coverage, simply because the men who really know what’s going on will rarely say anything revealing with their names attached. However, tmatt is correct that unnamed sources should at least be characterized to help the reader understand the context

    • I agree, Richard, but what newspaper is going to replace “Highly-placed sources say” or “It has been speculated by informed opinion that” with “I heard this from a janitor at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications who found a crumpled-up list when emptying the wastepaper baskets” or “The florist who supplies the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola said her cousin, the sacristan, heard this when he was preparing the chapel for Cardinal George to say Mass and he swears this is true”?


      • Thing is, back when I was going for my MBA, my profs would have had a *fit* if I went “sources say” or “it has been speculated that” without providing some sort of citation (either footnote or APA).

        I actually got away with citing comedian Denis Leary in one of my papers because of it; saying “I agree with _____ in that…” actually sometimes carries more weight than “it is my own opinion that…” depending upon who’s doing the grading.

  17. Dick Ostling is right, of course.

    Lots of people have plenty or reasons not to speak on the record in Rome right now. I know that.

    At the same time, he properly underlined what I stressed in my post — the NYTs guidelines on HANDLING anonymous sources, placing their words into context, giving readers as much info as possible to reveal the agendas behind the anonymity. Key point.

    Also, I stressed that the story mentioned all of the addresses that were given my cardinals and even alluded to the contents. OK, if reporters have them, then quote them. By name.

    • A few months back, I found a book from the 1960s / 1970s known as “Justice USA”. (I think I loaned it out to someone, as I don’t have it handy right now to look up the author.)

      The author’s thesis was that media outlets often corrupt local court proceedings by revealing prejudicial information to the general public before it comes out in trial (and some information that legally cannot even be brought up in trial), thereby tainting and biasing local jury pools. As part of it, the author brought up numerous trials where trials had to be redone or decisions overturned as evidence.

      One of the media activities the author highlighted?

      The same activity you’re highlighting here: using generic “sources say” comments to justify publishing the information in question.

      So this is actually an issue that media watchers have been getting on the media about for a good fifty years or so.

  18. You know how the NYTimes gets away with it? They call it a “Memo from Rome”. All they have to do is create a lovely little category that really gives readers nothing more than a pastiche of the writers’ impressions. If it were categorized under “hard news”, the flak would fly. Whatever it is, it does not appear to reflect the views of faithful Catholics. It’s “group think” news.