Last Friday, September 24, the archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput, gave a talk to a conference of the Religion Newswriters Association. Called “Religion, Journalism, and the New American Orthodoxy,” it was an intelligent and sophisticated analysis—and really, quite uncontroversial in its conclusion, although you wouldn't know that from the response of the religion reporters who were present.
He pointed out, for instance, that a “new orthodoxy” appears to influence “the selection of religious news and how that news gets presented. It seems to frame which opinions are appropriate and which ones won’t be heard. And it seems to guide the historical narrative that media present to their audiences.” The trouble is that this new orthodoxy “seems to presume a society much more secular and much less religious than anything in America’s past or anything warranted by present facts.”
Drawing on such sociological work as Christian Smith’s The Secular Revolution, Chaput pointed out that, whether they start out intending it or not, all “knowledge professionals” are herded into this orthodoxy. Journalists of every stripe are counted among the knowledge professionals, and, obviously, this includes religion reporters—the journalists who cover religious events, figures, and trends. Which means that religion reporters must, in ordinary fairness and self-awareness, force themselves to “master and respect” their material. “Know yourself and your prejudices,” Chaput advised the assembled reporters.
It’s true, he concluded, that “one of the worst habits many Catholics had at the start of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, including many bishops, was to minimize a very grave problem.” But when we examine that fact, we might notice that “news media show many of the same patterns of denial, vanity, obstinacy, and institutional defensiveness in dealing with criticism of their own failures.”
All of which only promoted Beliefnet to sneer, “it’s pretty white of Chaput to include ‘many bishops’ on his side of the comparison.” Pretty white of Chaput. Pretty white of Chaput. This, for an archbishop who is a registered member of the Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans.
It’s a good bet, however, that the tone of this sneer by Mark Silk, the Beliefnet author, was set not by the talk itself but by what happened in the question-and-answer period that followed it.
As GetReligion described the scene:
During the question and answer period, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times asked him why he didn’t return her phone call when Archbishop Jose Gomez was chosen as Los Angeles archbishop. Chaput said that Times reporter David Kirkpatrick misquoted him during John Kerry’s presidential campaign, and he said that he has recordings to prove it. “It’s the New York Times’ editorial policy that I’m interpreting,” Chaput said. “I made a judgment based on experience.”
Goodstein said she did not know Chaput was boycotting the Times. He challenged Goodstein’s more recent coverage of the Catholic Church. “You treated Pope Benedict badly in the latest series about him,” he said.
Cathy Grossman of USA Today challenged him, asking if a boycott over one reporter was fair. “We don’t boycott everyone, just the New York Times,” he said.
Well, among the religious reporters, that was enough to start a firestorm. Boycott the New York Times, will you? And not even bother to tell the New York Times you were doing it?
Archbishop Chaput’s talk had a number of interesting elements: the excursion into George Orwell’s career, the embrace of freedom of the press while asserting freedom of religion, the analysis of secularism as a system of thought.
But leave all that aside and think, for a moment, just about his description of knowledge professionals and the ways in which they are lured into a sense of perfect entitlement and superior correctness. One could hardly ask for a better example than the Beliefnet column mocking Chaput as lily-white. Or than a reporter from the New York Times thinking it entirely reasonable, in a public question-and-answer period, to demand an answer to why her phone calls weren’t returned.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.