Wish-fulfillment journalism


Amy Sullivan is a senior editor at Time. She's remarkably partisan, even by journalistic standards, and sometimes her views can color her writing. But boy is she taking some flak for her recent piece "Priests Spar Over What It Means to Be Catholic." Let's just start with the headline. Considering that what follows is analysis about the views of an archbishop and a cardinal (and not priests), you know that facts aren't going to be the piece's strong suit. The piece purports to compare Rome-based Archbishop Raymond Burke with Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley. But it's really all about how Burke is an extremely unimportant "bull in a china shop" who is embarrassing to the Vatican. Sullivan's story says that Burke's transfer to Rome from St. Louis wasn't a sign of how highly he's valued by the Vatican but something altogether. She says that the move was "widely interpreted" as a way to put distance between Burke and politics in the United States and quotes Trinity College's Mark Silk saying as much. Burke had been actively engaged in abortion politics in St. Louis, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tim Townsend could well explain and he hasn't exactly backed off on the pro-life activism while at the Vatican.

Sullivan says that Burke's new assignment "Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura" -- that would be the chief justice of the Vatican's Supreme Court -- may sound impressive but that O'Malley's minor and expected appointment to the "Pontifical Council for the Family" is a reminder that he's got friends in high places. It's sad that a senior editor of Time magazine could so mess up her analysis, supporting it with one of her trademark anonymous quotes from an American priest saying he's seen Italian bishops "roll their eyes" at him. No, really.

And that's not even the half of it. Sullivan -- either through reportorial negligence or extreme hackery -- doesn't even mention that Burke was just given more responsibility by the Vatican. On Oct. 17 -- three weeks before Sullivan's article ran -- Burke was named to the powerful Congregation for Bishops. National Catholic Reporter John L. Allen says this move, which puts Burke "in a position to put his stamp on the next generation of Catholic bishops all over the world," is major. It's no Pontifical Council for the Family, but hey, Burke has to take what he can get. In fact, Allen's piece (headlined "Burke's influence is set to grow") reads like a direct refutation of Sullivan. Here's the last line:

If anyone suspected that the decision to bring Burke to Rome last year was a way of muzzling him, or limiting his influence in the United States, it certainly doesn't seem to be playing out that way.

Townsend has a very polite knock down of Sullivan's piece, too.

But back to Sullivan's piece in Time. She talks about how the funeral for Sen. Ted Kennedy -- the popular Catholic politician who actively worked in support of abortion rights and was known for carousing and leaving a woman to die in the submerged car he ran off the road -- ignited debate among Catholics. Here's a bit about that:

But it's one thing for partisans and bloggers to disparage a Mass for a dead Senator; it's quite another for a Vatican official to do so. Even some leading conservative Catholics may find they cannot support Burke's latest salvo. When told of the Archbishop's assertion that pro-choice Catholics should not be permitted funeral rites, Princeton professor Robert George was taken aback: "That's a very different, and obviously graver, claim than that with which I would have sympathy. I haven't heard before any bishop say that pro-abortion politicians should not be given a Catholic funeral."

St Peters Square, Rome

Only problem? George says he was quoted selectively and that he had expressed concerns via email about how his comments might be presented. He says Sullivan assured him she would be fair and non-partisan when she wrote the story. He told a pro-life news service that he should not have been so trusting:

Asked for his overall impressions of the TIME article, the renowned U.S. political philosopher and strongly pro-life Catholic was blunt. He stated, "The article strikes me as quite partisan. It is not objective reporting. The author is grinding an axe. Perhaps she honestly believes that this is fair and objective reporting, but my own judgment is that it quite plainly isn't. It represents the kind of partisan presentation that I was worried about when I wrote my message to her of October 2nd."

George says that he had given her additional relevant quotes regarding O'Malley and Burke, including his support of Burke's views on communion for politicians who work to support legalized abortion, his view that Burke's statement on funerals for pro-choice politicians wasn't unreasonable, and his view that O'Malley had made an error of judgment in how he handled the funeral. One other interesting thing is that he says he learned of Burke's position on the Kennedy funeral -- the hook for the story -- from Sullivan. But the host of the dinner speech she sources for the quote says she didn't quite get Burke's statement right.

I'm not even addressing all of the problems in the article, but perhaps if Sullivan's notorious anonymous sources are wrong this much, she should stop relying on them and find some better ones.

Either way, Sullivan's journalism seems more about a desire to fulfill political wishes than reporting the facts or providing decent analysis. Get her a tutorial with John Allen, stat!

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