All the anonymous Vatican voices in the Gray Lady

At this point in the conclave process, I'm sure that millions of liberal Catholics are carefully watching The New York Times daily coverage to see what the world's most powerful newspaper has to say about who will be, and who should be, the next occupant of the Throne of St. Peter. At the same time, I would imagine that traditional Catholics, as defined by doctrine rather than politics, are parsing the daily Times coverage from Rome with another agenda altogether. At this point, it is really interesting to pay close attention to who is, and who is not, continuing to talk to the representatives of the Great Gray Lady.

That's a very interesting question, at the moment.

Why? Because it's almost impossible right now to know who is providing information to the Times, if you expect to learn that kind of information by reading the attribution clauses in the newspaper's own stories.

This steady use of anonymous sources should trouble supporters of the newspaper's credibility -- especially those of us who were encouraged, back in 2005, when we read the New York Times Company self study called "Preserving Our Readers' Trust" (.pdf text is here). It included quite a bit of material urging Times editors to minimize the use of anonymous sources. The review panel offered three recommendations:

* Reporters must be more aggressive in pressing sources to put information and quotations on the record, especially sources who strongly desire to get their viewpoint into the paper.

* Editors must be more energetic in pressing reporters to get that information on the record. They must also recognize that persuading reticent sources to put their names behind sensitive disclosures is not easy; it may slow the reporting.

* When anonymity is unavoidable, reporters and editors must be more diligent in describing sources more fully. The basics include how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information and why they are entitled to anonymity.

Now, with these worthy Times standards in mind, read through the news story that ran under the headline, "Pope Wanted. Must Possess Magnetic Charm. And Grit." It opens like this:

ROME -- No candidate for pope can have it all. But the cardinals who will elect the next pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church seem to be looking for someone who combines the charisma of Pope John Paul II with the grit of what one Vatican analyst called, only slightly tongue in cheek, “Pope Rambo I.”

While it is too early to talk of front-runners, hints to the characteristics sought in a future pontiff can be discerned from the utterances of the cardinals who have spent the past week in meetings at the Vatican. Before Wednesday, when they stopped giving interviews, the cardinals frequently cited attributes the church now needs: a compelling communicator who wins souls through both his words and his holy bearing, and a fearless sheriff who can tackle the disarray and scandal in the Vatican.

Now, while the word "seems" is always a bit edgy in a lede, the key is that this material assures readers that they will be hearing information based on the "utterances of the cardinals" who are gathered at the Vatican. That would be a good thing -- lots of direct quotes from specific cardinals.

Now, let's look for that kind of authoritative material in the story. Let's keep reading, because the next two paragraphs state the thesis:

Their focus on communication and good governance is in many ways an acknowledgment of the deficiencies of Pope Benedict XVI, who flew off in a helicopter to an unexpected retirement last week after a rocky eight-year tenure. But it is also a sign of the nostalgia for Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, a magnetic presence who commanded the spotlight on trips around the world and even as he lay dying.

On Benedict’s watch, the church lost sway in Europe, the United States and even Latin America. The central bureaucracy in Rome, the Curia, fell more deeply into dysfunction and even corruption. Cardinals from several countries commented this week that they were seriously troubled by recent reports in the Italian news media about a secret dossier that was given to the departing Benedict and was said to contain explosive evidence of sexual and financial blackmail. The confidential dossier is supposed to be shown to the next pope.

Now, look at the factual statements in these two paragraphs and then look for attribution clauses that point readers toward on-the-record sources for these statements of fact, or opinions. Once again, we have cardinals commenting, but do readers ever get to read these comments or learn which cardinals made them?

Keep reading.

Regular Times readers will not be surprised when the now retired Cardinal Edward Egan of New York shows up, on the record. He is too old to vote.

Readers will also not be surprised when a Vatican spokesman shows up, offering a few quotes.

Then it is back to serious business, which means to steady drumbeat of references such as:

Several cardinals have also said ...

Several cardinals have also emphasized ...

Many of those mentioned as papabile are said to have ...


But several of those prelates are known to be short on charisma or presence. Cardinals Erdo and Ouellet are said by associates and former students to be more comfortable reading from a prepared text than speaking spontaneously in front of crowds or giving interviews.

And so forth and so on. You get the idea.

This steady stream of anonymous and unattributed information is clearly in someone's interest. Do these supposedly authoritative Vatican voices not want their names to be used in the Times? Do Times editors know that, if sources were quoted by name, readers could recognize patterns that suggest agendas and points of view? When considering the advice offered by the Times self-study panel, why is it necessary for this story to contain so much material without clear attributions?

I mean, readers were told that the cardinals have been talking and speaking, before the Vatican blackout. If the voices of the cardinals provide so much crucial information for this news report, then why not quote them by name? Or is this actually a work of editorial analysis?


Please respect our Commenting Policy