Media decides, then reports

By Mary Ann Walsh director of media relations, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Generally I don’t battle those buying ink … Continued

By Mary Ann Walsh
director of media relations, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Generally I don’t battle those buying ink by the barrel. However, recent coverage of the Catholic Church by mainstream media makes me wonder what has happened to the Fourth and Fifth Estates.

Maybe it’s that cutbacks have decimated newsrooms of knowledge and experience. Maybe it’s the competition inherent in a 24/7 news cycle that makes some stories too good to check. Maybe it’s the current incivility it America where decency gets short shrift.

Some quarters of the media in the past few weeks seem to have a difficulty in getting stories right and fair. Fact-checkers and skeptical editors may have gone the way of dinosaurs. Some media appear to cite people for inflammability and absurdity, not knowledge. At times it seems that bias abounds, libel runs freely, and scrutiny lies by the side of the road.

Example: The Washington Post ran an opinion piece on Palm Sunday by Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, whose claim to fame in the U.S. previously was for a Saturday Night Live performance 18 years ago when she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II. As the Washington Post’s theologian at the start of Holy Week, she declared that “all good Catholics … should avoid Mass.” The Web site of the same newspaper ran a vitriolic blog entry by atheist Richard Dawkins. The British scientist called the Catholic Church an “evil, corrupt organization” and a “rotten edifice” and spewed more of his anti-Catholic screed in, of all places, the On Faith section of the Washington Post-Newsweek blog. Neither Sinead O’Connor nor Richard Dawkins, while free with their opinions, seems an expert on Catholicism. They’re simply well-known. Given that editorial criterion, readers might worry that if cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer were still alive, the Post would hire him as a food critic.

MSNBC libeled the pope in Holy Week with a Web site headline – Pope describes touching boys: I went too far – which has since been removed. The headline was intended to grab attention – it did – but had not a shred of substantiation in the story it headed. Fellow media outlets, who rightly cry indignantly when they see plagiarism among their brethren, gave MSNBC a pass on the libel. MSNBC dropped the headline and apologized after the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights made noise.

A main source for many media these days seems to be plaintiffs’ attorneys, who distribute old material they’ve “found” in the discovery process. Plaintiffs’ lawyers speak of “secret” documents, more properly called “confidential,” and offer their own interpretation of the materials as well as church motivation in drafting them. Media with a frightening naiveté report on these materials as if the plaintiffs’ lawyers constitute a new Oracle of Delphi. On Wednesday of Holy Week AP reported as “breaking news,” a 1963 letter “obtained by the Associated Press” about pedophilia that was sent to Pope Paul VI by Father Gerald Fitzgerald, who headed a now-closed treatment center in New Mexico. What took AP so long? Father Fitzgerald’s letters were reported in The New York Times a year ago. The story didn’t take hold then, but with nothing better to use to keep their story going, plaintiffs’ attorneys recycled the documents and AP thought it had the scoop of the year.

There’s a lot to be reported on child sexual abuse. It’s a sin and a crime and more prevalent in society than anyone ever dreamed before the 21st century. Some organizations, such as the Catholic Church in the United States, have made massive efforts to deal with it. People are learning how to spot abusers. The Catholic Church has educated more than two million people to do so. Children are learning how to protect themselves. The Catholic Church has educated more than five million children in this regard. There are lots of stories there. But such stories take time to report and plaintiffs’ attorneys make no money promoting them. And that, at least for now, isn’t news.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh is a Sister of Mercy of the Americas and director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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  • usapdx

    The bottom line is that the RCC administraters must be asked three questions. 1. WHAT DID THEY KNOW? 2. WHEN DID THEY KNOW? 3. WHAT DID THEY DO WITH WHAT THEY KNEW?

  • YEAL9

    What the major media outlets failed to note:Brad Hirschfield: When Priests And Rabbis Commit Sexual AbuseMar 29, 2010 ………/when-priests-and-rabbis-c_b_516386.html “The words used by Pope Benedict and others in responding to the Church’s ever-deepening sexual abuse crises reflect a sickness that is not unique to the Catholic community. In fact, that sickness creeps into all religious communities of which I know, and leaves a trail of victims in its wake every time. I refer to the way in which religious leaders and the communities which they lead wear the mantle of victimhood to cover their naked moral failings.”

  • areyousaying

    Catholics do nothing but dig themselves deeper as they cruelly rub salt into the victims wounds with their arrogance, fear and desperation to protect their Pope at all costs.

  • Secular

    Catholic bashing!!!! Ms. Walsh your hurt feelings are misplaced, they should be directed against your church’s hierarchy. Why should this, two bit ex Nazi sympathizer, followed by a church bureaucrat turned chief bureaucrat be offered any kind of honorific adulations. Just call this accused after-the-fact-co-conspirator of pedophilia plain Mr. Ratzinger, by his given name. As any accused he is offered benefit of being considered innocent until proven guilt and nothing beyond that. For being offered such privilege he better open up the books of the RCC and every sub-ordinate entity in other countries as demanded by the public at large and the law enforcement in the respective countries. Then and only then will, this onslaught on RCC, be suspended for the time being, awaiting the discoveries made in the enquiry. I am so tired of these bigots leaping and playing the victim card. Mr. Natzinger is no different than any other common criminally accused defendant, and he is behaving like run of the mill defendant by hurling all kinds of accusations against others and imploring his fans like you to join him.

  • areyousaying

    “People are learning how to spot abusers. The Catholic Church has educated more than two million people to do so”So what? What good is it if they report this to the diocese or a Catholic DA or police department and it is covered up?Do not report your suspicions of priest predators to the diocese, a local Catholic DA or a police department with Catholic lieutenants, captains and/or chief.Call the FBI or the US Attorney’s office and report this as a Federal civil rights violation.It’s time we put Sister Mary Ann and her Church on notice that criminal molestation of children and the obstruction of justice that follows is not longer an “internal matter” of the church. Enough is enough and it’s time we take a stand on behalf of past, current and future victims.

  • areyousaying

    “A main source for many media these days seems to be plaintiffs’ attorneys, who distribute old material they’ve “found” in the discovery process.”Well let’s see here. The Church first scapegoated the media but that did not silence them. Then they scapegoated the victims, comparing them to the Nazis who killed the Jews. Then they tried liberals. Now sweet Sister Mary Ann is scapegoating the legal process and lawyers from the victims. When all this fails they bring out their jowly bellicose Donohue like some kind of rabid hound released on anyone who who has the audacity to be outraged at “Christ’s Church”What’s next? The President of Our Lady of the Lollipop Guild telling us that all their “hebephiles” were really set up by “liberal” “gold digging” “jew hating” munckin attorneys who are really adults even though they look like they’re 15 joined together in a vast pro-choice gay activist conspiracy to destroy Ratzinger?No need to worry about others. He’s destroying himself.

  • TomKumar

    What about the sexual abuse of children TODAY?Thank God— the Catholic Church HAS CLEANED UP HER ACT! There is no religion, no institution in this country who is doing as much as the Catholic Church to prevent the sexual abuse of children.The media are frauds—they do NOT care about protecting children. They want to destroy the Church— so do many of the people who are commenting here.Sister Mary Ann– you hit a home run with this article! Thank you and God bless you!

  • SarahTX2

    This sounds like the kind of repartee that might take place around a dinner table in a rectory. And it should have stayed there. Many have wondered how the Catholic Church could possibly do a worse job handling the media. And now we see why, in America at least. Ms. Walsh should be fashioning her resignation letter acknowledging the absolute failure of media relations which she directs. The funniest part of this column is when she downs Sinead O’Connor and Richard Dawkins and then in all sincerity references the Catholic League. This is her media relations? I’m guessing she may be doing the job for free as many nuns have done in the past. Otherwise, almost anyone with a college degree could do a better job. As for teaching the 5 million children how to fend off the predator priests, sorry, you’ve got that backwards. Get rid of the predator priests, and stop teaching children about perversion. An absolutely hideous column. Thanks, Washington Post, for illuminating us as to why the public relations and media relations of the Catholic Church are such a disaster.

  • gbullough

    Here we go again. It’s the media.It’s not the priest and religious who abused children and vulnerable adults.It’s not the bishops and religious superiors who covered it up and moved them around.It’s the media.Nice try at diversion, Ms. Walsh.What about the hundreds and thousands of stories in the media which just cover the facts, and get them right?Let’s not forget, very few of those facts would have come to light had the media not dug them out.If the Church wants “Truth,” perhaps it should start telling it, rather than hiding it. Try and get an assignment record of a deceased priest these days… it’s like pulling teeth. Or how about Bishop Lori, going all the way to the Supreme Court to keep Cardinal Egan’s depositions secret? The Church hides the truth, then castigates the media when they don’t quite get things right.Do you know who’s REALLY anti-Catholic? It’s the priest who molests a trusting, innocent Catholic kid. It’s the bishop who sent him to a trusting community, full in the knowledge of his history of abuse.

  • desertKTV1

    I freely admit that I am bigoted against child molesters and their supporters.

  • areyousaying

    If you Catholics want to handle “hebephile” priests internally, would you please, at least, make sure they keep their hands off non-Catholic kids?

  • YEAL9

    At this point I would be happy if they made priests, rabbis, preachers, imams, evangelicals, catholics, protestants, atheists, secularists, pagans, humanists and/or bloggers swear on a stack of religious books they would keep their hands off kids.

  • JRHoch

    The media failed us badly in 2000, when reporters distorted Al Gore’s claims about his role in helping forward internet access & jeered about his lack of charisma, and covered up for George W. Bush’s affiliation with the worst elements of the right wing, and then failed us again when they refused to report on methods of vote suppression, computer fraud, and the real composition of the mobs that stopped precincts from recounting. They repeated this performance in 2004 in failing to report many of the stories about the administration’s malfeasance and in saying next to nothing about the swiftboat liars. Now in 2010, the same press is whipping up the oldest of American bigotries in the same manner that Judith Miller on the Times and Michael Kelly on the Post did when they were stirring up the new American bigotry about Muslims, but the people who may have objected previously are now on the bandwagon, indifferent to the mountain of evidence that the same low journalistic standards are being applied to their sources as were applied to Ahmed Chalabi and Curveball & to the members of the Bush administration. Ever since the absurdity of the Clinton impeachment procedings, the mainstream press has not done the job they tried to do in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. People who’ve cried foul before (as I did all through the past decade) ought to be crying foul now. But few are.

  • rcchuntrn

    Criticizing the media for shoddy and irresponsible reporting on the story of the sex abuse crisis in the Church is not the same as blaming the media for the crisis itself. The fact is, the reporting on this story has been shoddy, irresponsible and, in some cases, libelous, raising legitimate questions about fairness and motive on the part of the media. Theses questions are not given serious consideration because those who raise them are being dismissed as blaming the media.

  • thomasmc1957

    The Pope isn’t sorry he protected the wicked, he’s only sorry he got CAUGHT protecting the wicked!

  • thomasmc1957

    Typical. Every time the Church is caught protecting pervert priests, it tries to change the subject by blaming everyone else.The Church has lost ALL credibility.