New barbarians at the New York Times

Claims of hostile coverage of the Catholic Church by the New York Times will come as no surprise to GetReligion readers. Yet an unfavorable critique of the church is not always a sign of animus. When the press exposes cant, corruption and incompetence it is doing its job -- no matter the field of inquiry. And then there is bad reporting. A New York Times article entitled "Quiet for Years, Italian Church Blasts Behavior of the Nation’s Political Elite" falls under the later category. The article begins with an assertion, builds upon an assumption, and adopts a supercilious tone towards its subject. On a lesser level I find the syntax and sentence structure odd -- as if it were written in Italian and then translated into English. There is nothing wrong with that in principle, but when the odd use of language distracts from the story this becomes a problem.

The subject of the piece was a speech by the president of the Italian Episcopal Conference that criticized corrupt politicians. Here is the opening:

Over the last several years, the Roman Catholic Church in Italy has largely looked the other way as reports emerged of sex and corruption scandals among the country’s political elite, many of them centered on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But a recent published account of a party at Mr. Berlusconi’s home, where one female guest was said to have performed a striptease dressed as a nun, might have been more than the church could stand.

Note how the verbs and adverbs are deployed to assert the Catholic Church has kept quiet in the face of government corruption, that it has "largely looked the other way." This assertion is then linked to the assumption the church finally "might" have taken notice after a scabrous episode at the home of the prime minister.

A start like this spells trouble and portends an advocacy journalism piece. The reader knows someone or something is going to get the chop -- Catholic Church cupidity, Berlusconi's vulgarity, Italy's opera buffa political culture -- we don't know who quite yet, but the mixing of assumptions and innuendo at the outset classifies what sort of story this will be.

The story continues:

This week the church lashed out, issuing its strongest reprimands yet of Italy’s ruling class, deploring “behavior that not only goes counter to public decorum but is intrinsically sad and hollow.” ... Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, told his fellow bishops on Monday. On Tuesday, he called for an “upright lifestyle,” saying that the country needed a “correction of habits and lifestyles” to help it emerge from a “culture of nothingness.”

Though Cardinal Bagnasco did not single out Mr. Berlusconi ... the cardinal spoke of “licentious conduct and improper relationships that damage society.” And he blasted a governing class preoccupied with itself while Italian citizens struggled to make ends meet.

Here we have the meat of the story: Italian bishop criticizes government officials. But is there anything offered to substantiate the Times' argument that these criticisms came after a period of church silence, or were motivated by the nun act at the PM's house? No.

A report on the same speech by the Corriere Della Sera contradicts the Times opening assertion, stating that in his speech, the cardinal refers to the bishops' past criticisms of misconduct:

NOT THE FIRST TIME -- Referring to the inaugural speeches in September 2009 and last January, Cardinal Bagnasco said “this is not the first time that we have had to point this out. Anyone who chooses political militancy should be aware of the temperance, sobriety, discipline and honour that it entails, as our constitution points out”. He noted that “in recent weeks, calls have come from various corners for us to make pronouncements” although in his view “in the past years the responsible voice of the Church’s magisterium has called for, and calls for, life horizons that are good, free of pansexualism and unencumbered by amoral relativism."

Quotes from commentators are then offered (though no spokesman for the Italian Bishops' Conference is heard) that flesh out the editorial voice taken in the opening paragraphs of church sloth and government corruption. The Times' omnipotent voice appears once again, supported by quotes from commentators:

Italians are beginning to understand the fallout from the euro zone debt crisis, with the government having passed a series of austerity measures in the past two months that will trim public services and pensions, as well as result in higher taxes. However, additional pledges to cut government costs and reduce the number of elective positions in Parliament and elsewhere have yet to be enacted, further fueling public disaffection with the ruling class.

"Ruling class"? How's that for a loaded term.

Yes, there's more. Can't have a Catholic story without the pedophiles -- even when the article concedes this scandal has nothing to do with the issues under discussion. The story closes with:

The pedophile sex scandals that have so stained the church in recent years have been largely absent in Italy, and no one has accused the church of withholding criticism because of embarrassment over the behavior of its priests.

Critics like Mario Staderini, a member of the Radical Party who has been fighting to eliminate fiscal privileges for the church, say that the church has treaded lightly in past years to avoid alienating a center-right government that has continued to offer tax breaks for church-owned properties and commercial activities, while supporting Catholic schools and Vatican positions on questions like common-law marriage, living wills and some forms of assisted fertility. All of those practices are illegal in Italy.

But Father Sciortino of Famiglia Cristiana [a Catholic weekly] said that the church had become disenchanted with the government more recently over its inability to deliver on a number of promises to support programs that help families.

“These things haven’t happened,” he said, chiding Catholic politicians for allowing allegiance to political parties to take precedence over their religious beliefs. “They remained quiet, or worse, they justified the prime minister’s indefensible behavior,” he said.

I hope you got that one. Church in bed with corrupt government to protect its interests. But now things are so bad the church cannot stomach it any more.

As I have noted in past posts, a journalist formed in the American school seeks set to aside his own views and present a story on its own terms, to establish what the facts are and let the facts dictate the story. This story does the opposite and begins by positing an opinion, and then plumps down facts to substantiate its argument.

This is not a news story but an opinion piece or a work of analysis, at best. The assertions made at the top of the story are not substantiated, the principals are not asked to explain their viewpoint, and opinion is offered by commentators that serves to support the editorial line taken by the author. The overall effect of this mélange for me was to induce that sense of nausea that comes whenever a serious subject is treated with the utmost triviality. This piece is so extraordinary the Corriere Della Sera ran an item on its website noting the Times' claims.

W. H. Auden, in The Age of Anxiety wrote:

But the new barbarian is no uncouth Desert-dweller; he does not emerge From fir forests; factories bred him; Corporate companies, college towns Mothered his mind, and many journals Backed his beliefs.

Is the Times guilty of anti-Catholic animus, sloppy reporting, or is it doing its job? Is the Times speaking truth to the power and denouncing the malevolent forces of Church and State conspiring to control Italian life, or is this piece an example of the new barbarism that so disfigures our intellectual lives?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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