It is, of course, one of the most famous lines in the classic final scene of Casablanca: "Round up the usual suspects." You'll want to cue the YouTube video at 4:40.
With my Washington Journalism Center students, I always use this quote as a catch phrase for that thing journalists often do when a major story breaks. They contact the people who have already been quoted the most on this topic, the public experts, the loud voices who are quick to return telephone calls and to offer the most outrageous soundbites. They call, in other words, the "usual suspects."
You have to call some of them, especially the ones who actually are experts and that shows in their jobs and titles. But there is no reason to let them take a story over, from top to bottom.
That's what is going on right now with the Notre Dame story. As if that wasn't enough, many in the mainstream are calling up the usual suspects on one subject -- Catholics and politics. They are acting as if this is the only frame that could be wrapped around this very complex story.
In other words, this is a story about a battle between angry Republicans and a popular Democrat and the "usual suspects" are people whose role in this drama fit that template. But is that the only template, or even the most accurate one, for this story? To answer that question you would have to talk to other voices. Thus, you have a Catch 22.
The long headline makes the major point, causing me to laugh out loud when I read it:
The culture wars come to Notre Dame
The controversy over Obama's commencement address has given his critics and abortion foes the chance to take on the popular president over a divisive issue."
The culture wars come to Notre Dame? You mean, they just arrived? You mean that they have not been raging there for a decade or two? Can you say, "Vagina Monologues"? I knew that you could.
Here is one of the better sections of this story:
The controversy has also given Obama's conservative opponents the chance to hammer the popular president on a divisive issue they think he has tried -- successfully so far -- to minimize.
Obama, who will give the commencement address and accept an honorary law doctorate, is a supporter of abortion rights, though he has spoken of the need to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Polls show that a slight but steady majority of Americans thinks abortion should remain legal.
As of Wednesday, 71 Catholic bishops -- including two cardinals -- had denounced the invitation, as have more than 350,000 Catholics who signed an online petition asking Notre Dame to withdraw it. Dueling websites and Facebook groups have sprung up, including one, Notre Dame Response, that urges graduating students to boycott the ceremony.
Note, again, that this is framed as a chance for "Obama's conservative opponents" to hammer him -- in a political sense. That is one way to see the conflict, but only one way. But abortion has been a major issue at Notre Dame long before the election of Obama. At least this passage mentioned the honorary law degree.
Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who is opposed to abortion, turned down Notre Dame's most prestigious award, the Laetare Medal, when she learned the university tried to placate critics by reminding them that she was included in the commencement program too.
That was one of her reasons, of course, but not the main one.
Once again, one has to ask: Where is the all-important reference to the fact that the granting of this honorary law degree clearly violates a 2004 policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? You know, the one that says:
The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.
Now we hit the usual suspects, with a parade of names -- Randall Terry, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, Deal Hudson and, on the other side, Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec (who opines that former Vatican Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon was acting on "what she thinks is the church's teaching" when she declined this year's Laetare Medal because of Notre Dame's decision to defy the U.S. bishops' policy).
Stop and think about this for a second. Think like a reporter. Wouldn't you want to know what the Catholics in authority have to say about this? Where is the local bishop? Where is the leader of Notre Dame right to life fellowship? Where are those famous chaplains who live in the dorms? Where are the priests from the local parishes, the ones with rows of Notre Dame students in the pews?
I mean, it isn't hard to type "Notre Dame Right To Life" into Google and get this page of contact information. Is this official group going to take part in any protests or alternative rites? Which ones?
And what about the mainstream supporters of that Notre Dame Response group? Who are they? Will any of them talk? What are there plans?
We do know that they will be doing a lot of praying. We also know, with a few clicks of a mouse, the text of the official prayer for their rites. Here it is. Does this sound like the protesters you've been reading about so far?
Eternal God, Source of all life, you have created us in your own divine image. By the power of the Holy Spirit, your Son became flesh and revealed to us the sanctity of all human life. Grant, we implore you:
Protect all unborn children; Guide and support all expectant parents; Comfort the aged, the sick, and the dying; Strengthen prisoners, especially those awaiting execution and their victims; And bring peace to our world, torn apart by war, terrorism, and countless other acts of violence against life.
May our Notre Dame community, and the leaders of our nation, bear witness to the seamless culture of life and to value the dignity and worth of every human being, from conception until natural death.
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Now, if you want to read a conservative Catholic manifesto on all of this, click here and read Joseph Bottum's take at First Things. Note that the frame for this essay is an ongoing conflict -- pre-Obama -- between some leaders in Catholic higher education and, ultimately, the Vatican.
It's a totally different way of looking at this story. That does not make it right. But it offers up a completely different set of names, dates, documents and issues. In other words, it does not settle for the usual suspects linked to politics. It assumes that this is a debate between Catholics, not between Republicans and Democrats.