I’ve just made up a rule for reading news: The confidence a writer places in an article is inversely proportional to the number of times he/she uses "some." Such words often substitute for actual findings. I know, because I occasionally did it myself as a reporter. But I'm not sure I used it six times in one story, as did a New York Times article on Cardinal Timothy Dolan and his place in the Catholic power structure.
The story's basic assessment is that Cardinal Timothy Dolan was Pope Benedict XVI's American culture warrior, fighting trends like abortion and same-sex marriage. Benedict was also fine with Dolan's upper-middle-class lifestyle, and with Dolan delegating archdiocesan matters to his vicars instead of handling them himself.
But with a new pope in town, Dolan -- well, isn’t on the outs, exactly; he's just out of step with the newer, humbler, more pastoral church of Pope Francis. So says the Times.
But to make that case, the arguments get pretty, well, argumentative.
In the last years that Benedict XVI served as pope, Cardinal Dolan, 64, was America’s top bishop as the president of the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops. Ever the genial guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, he led the charge against the Obama administration’s efforts to require some religious employers to cover birth control for employees. Some church experts say he was also the go-to cardinal for many in the Vatican when they wanted to know what was going on in the American church.
See that? Even that nut paragraph, as journalists call it, uses the "some" qualifier. Here are others:
Some see the influence of Cardinal Dolan, once considered a possible candidate for pope himself, waning in the era of the new pontiff.
But some priests said a silver lining of Cardinal Dolan’s lowered profile would be a more hands-on approach toward running the diocese.
And those are just the examples that aren’t backed up with quotes or anecdotes. Three or four other "somes" are followed with attribution or quotes -- a little better, but still more opinion than fact.
Not all of those "somes" are supported, either. Like that last example, predicting Dolan would take a "more hands-on approach toward running the diocese." After that is a priest saying: “Those of us in the parishes, we don’t work closely with the archbishop on a day-to-day basis.” Complaints are not evidence.
I also have an issue with the Times trying to maintain that cherished media narrative: the break between Francis and his papal predecessors. The article, for instance, holds up Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston as a Francis kind of guy. Well, O'Malley was used extensively by Pope John Paul II as a fixer in scandal-plagued dioceses, including Falls River, Palm Beach and Boston itself. And who made O'Malley a cardinal? Benedict.
The Times also highlights Francis' choice of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, "widely considered a moderate," to replace the more conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke on the Congregation of Bishops, the Vatican committee that selects new bishops. But as my May 14 story notes, Wuerl's influence at the Vatican is hard to measure because of his quieter style and carefully parsed public statements.
This paragraph may be one of the reasons that this article is tentative:
Cardinal Dolan is still on several important Vatican committees, and in the United States, remains the preferred bishop to speak on television. He is a master communicator, pithy and gregarious. But the buzz that followed him into the conclave to select Francis as pope in March 2013 — that he himself could be a papal candidate — has dissipated.
So Dolan is still influential, but his star has faded because he is no longer considered a papal candidate? Well, gee. At the 2013 conclave, 115 cardinals voted, and 114 of them weren’t elected -- including O'Malley, who was considered a papabile that year, too.
No, the problem is more like trying to read a situation that has no handy measurement, and gets no confirmation from official sources. Closest is:
It’s not that he’s out of favor or irrelevant,” said John Allen, who wrote a book with Cardinal Dolan and now reports for The Boston Globe. “But both in terms of who Rome listens to in the American church, and setting priorities for the American church, I think there’s no question that Tim Dolan is no longer the prime mover in that regard.”
Allen is a veteran Vatican reporter, and I respect his opinions. But if the Times asked him why he thinks Dolan has lost pull, the article doesn't say.
There’s nothing wrong with admitting that not everyone agrees, and that there's more than one way to look at a situation. But overusing qualifiers can start to look like a cloak for guesses or opinions. "Some" times, a newspaper should use another word: commentary.
Photo: Archbishop Timothy Dolan in a 2009 file photo. Uploaded by Gugganij to Wikimedia (CC By 2.0).