Scoops in all of those whispers

The other day, while cruising around online, I noticed that the newspaper that lands in my front yard had once again been scooped on a major religion story in its own backyard. In this case, the news was that Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, at the age of 72, had received a rather symbolic, yet still significant, post in the Roman Catholic hierarchy -- one that usually comes with a red hat and a seat in the College of Cardinals.

I wondered if I should mention this scoop in a GetReligion post, but then decided not to bring it up. After all, the Baltimore Sun misses major religion stories several times a year. This was nothing stunning, in other words.

Plus, the news source that did the scooping was Whispers in the Loggia, the website operated by the omnipresent Rocco Palmo of Philadelphia.

Getting scooped by Palmo is something that mainstream journalists are getting used to and, quite frankly, this was not the most embarrassing case in recent years. I am sure that editors at the Los Angeles Times would agree.

The Sun, of course, had a basic story on the appointment days later -- after the official Vatican announcement. Everyone had the story by then. However, instead of sulking, the Sun editors did something that caught me by surprise. They ran a lengthy A1 feature story about the man who scooped them. It was more than a nice gesture. It was a look at an important religion-beat figure in the Internet era.

By all means, read it all. Those who have followed Palmo's work will already know most of the facts and even some of the anecdotes reported here. Still, this is new stuff for most newspaper readers.

So bravo.

Here is the section of the report that I think will most interest GetReligion readers. Lurking in the background is a very basic question: Palmo is clearly an independent voice, but what kind of journalist is he? Many are not quite sure what to think of his approach to journalism. For example, what about his family's ties to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua?

"People who would never speak to a reporter will talk to Rocco," said John Rivera, a former religion reporter for The Sun who now is director of communications for Catholic Relief Services. "Partly, it's because he clearly loves the church and is writing from the inside. He'll criticize the church, but he's not a critic of it."

That's not to say that Palmo is an apologist for the institution. Far from it. He has spoken out tirelessly against those priests involved in sex scandals, and those accused of protecting the clerics -- including Bevilacqua. ...

Palmo said he tried many times to talk to Bevilacqua about his alleged role in a cover-up. He hasn't seen or spoken to the cardinal since 2007. Bevilacqua was never charged with a crime, and Palmo is aware that he'll probably never know what really happened. So all he can do is to piece together what information he can from court proceedings and from his discussions with abuse survivors.

"He taught me that what's best for the church," Palmo said, "is more important than what's best for any one person."

The crucial concept in that passage, for me, was this one: "He'll criticize the church, but he's not a critic of it."

What does that mean, precisely? Palmo is not a public-relations man, yet he's a practicing Catholic who does not hide his love for his church.

So is he a journalist? Yes. An advocacy journalist? Sort of. But what is he advocating?

Here's the key, for me (and I have not discussed this point with Palmo). I think that what sets Palmo apart is that he considers it controversial when Catholics (left or right) attack -- in word and deed -- the teachings and traditions of the Catholic faith. However, unlike far too many mainstream journalists, he does not consider it controversial (and thus hot news) when Catholics defend the church's teachings.

Palmo is critical of Catholic leaders, in other words. He is not afraid to criticize the institution. However, he is not critical of Catholic traditions and doctrines.

Thus, it's rather interesting to note who protests his work and who praises it.

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