Hardliners and skeptics on the Godbeat

A week or so ago, Archbishop Charles Chaput gave a speech at a special World Youth Day session for young pilgrims on the theme of religious freedom. Part of the discussion was about media coverage of issues about which the church has a say. Chaput, recently moved from Denver to Philadelphia, is a media-friendly archbishop who isn't afraid to call out what he considers poor journalistic performances. Now with the media largely focused on either the cost of World Youth Day or the protests in Spain during the event, it is perhaps not surprising that the U.S. media didn't take much notice of the speech. If you're interested, you can read it over at First Things, but here's a snippet:

The so-called “Arab Spring” that happened this year has received a good deal of media coverage. But very little of that coverage has mentioned that the turmoil in Muslim countries has also created a very dangerous situation for Christians and other religious minorities across North Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, angry mobs have attacked Christian churches and monasteries, burning them to the ground and murdering the people inside. Christians have fled in large numbers from anti-Christian violence in Iraq, Syria, and Tunisia. In Saudi Arabia, it’s illegal to own a Bible or wear a crucifix. In Pakistan, Christians face frequent discrimination, slander, beatings, and even murder.

Here's another:

We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, or MSNBC for reliable news about religion. These news media simply don’t provide trustworthy information about religious faith—and sometimes they can’t provide it, either because of limited resources or because of their own editorial prejudices. These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth.

And to think he wrote that before Bill Keller's little declaration against conservative Christians!

What I thought was interesting, though, was that the Washington Post didn't cover Chaput's words except to respond to them. It's interesting to note how they responded, which might be summed up as "You're darn right, Chaput, we will crush you." I'm only slightly kidding. Chaput's words were discussed in a new media criticism blog by Erik Wemple:

Hard-liner Archbishop Charles Chaput has never been shy about his views on American mass media. He has a long-standing gripe, for instance, with the New York Times, which he blames for twisting his words in a 2004 story about Catholic bishops working against the presidential candidacy of John Kerry.

I find it hilarious that the Post offers one word to describe Chaput and it's "hard-liner." It's just interesting to note that fidelity to church teachings here is given a negative word.

He critiques some of what Chaput wrote, saying it was overly broad and unspecific and unsupported. Of course, Wemple claims up at the top that he's familiar with Chaput's lengthy discussions of specific problems with various media coverage, so he's just saying this particular speech could have been more specific. Sure, that's a fine criticism. Although one might say the same about calling someone a hard-liner, etc.

He quotes the part where Chaput says that the American media are focused on profits, have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God's truth and responds:

Check, check and check. Chaput’s description is something that editors at the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN and MSNBC would support, if not frame and post as a mission statement. News organizations should have little sympathy for any entity as powerful as the Catholic Church. And are you really going to pound the media for practicing aggressive skepticism?

Suppose Chaput were a government official. Here’s how his remarks would read:

“We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN or MSNBC for reliable news about politics....These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the U.S. government and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward officials on both sides of the aisle.”

Amen.

Interesting. Did you see how he didn't accurately read what Chaput said? Chaput talked about the "Catholic faith." Wemple responds by saying Chaput is correct that the media are aggressively skeptical against the powerful Catholic Church! Do you think Wemple even understands the distinction there?

And about the government example, my own view is that the most powerful bias in the media is toward greater government action. Or at least that's what a casual read of any newspaper on any day might indicate. Now, is there a lot of aggressive skepticism toward politicians? Not as much as I'd like to see. But having said that, I think it's also true the media have quite a bit of sympathy for politics and for government. They seem to completely embrace the idea that politics is a good thing and they very easily see how local, state and federal government might play a role in most any story. They seem to embrace democracy, even if they don't (officially) take sides in a given political contest.

I wish that Wemple, rather than react defensively to Chaput, had thought a bit more about the comparison and whether there's anything to learn from Chaput's words.

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