It would be hard to imagine a subject more intriguing to some editors at The New York Times than suggestions that the Darth Vader of the Donald Trump administration -- that would be Stephen K. Bannon -- was somehow working with forces close to the Vatican to undercut Pope Francis.
Thus, there has been quite a bit of online buzz about the rather BuzzFeed like feature (in terms of its sourcing) that Times editors ran under the headline, "Steve Bannon Carries Battles to Another Influential Hub: The Vatican."
Catholic insiders -- on the left and right -- will be able to see more in the thin tea leaves of this piece than I can. I am primarily interested in journalism issues linked to how the piece was reported and presented. The bottom line: It is very rare to see such sweeping, conspiratorial language used in a news feature that -- on its key points of fact -- appears to have one crucial named source, other than quotes from other journalists. Hold that thought.
The intrigue, as you would expect, starts right where it should -- in the overture.
ROME -- When Stephen K. Bannon was still heading Breitbart News, he went to the Vatican to cover the canonization of John Paul II and make some friends. High on his list of people to meet was an archconservative American cardinal, Raymond Burke, who had openly clashed with Pope Francis.
In one of the cardinal’s antechambers, amid religious statues and book-lined walls, Cardinal Burke and Mr. Bannon -- who is now President Trump’s anti-establishment eminence -- bonded over their shared worldview. They saw Islam as threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values, and viewed themselves as unjustly ostracized by out-of-touch political elites.
“When you recognize someone who has sacrificed in order to remain true to his principles and who is fighting the same kind of battles in the cultural arena, in a different section of the battlefield, I’m not surprised there is a meeting of hearts,” said Benjamin Harnwell, a confidant of Cardinal Burke who arranged the 2014 meeting.
Harnwell appears to be the main source for this entire story. He is founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a foundation that -- as the Times piece notes -- is currently displaying prominent images of Bannon, linked to quotations praising Harnwell.
The timing of the meeting is fascinating and, for journalists, a bit problematic. They key is that Bannon is in Rome to attend the canonization rites for Pope John Paul II (who for some reason loses his papal title in the lede) -- which took place on April 27, 2014.
Meanwhile, the much-discussed public clashes between Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis began the following October, during the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The red-flag on that whole affair was a Times piece -- "Pope Demotes U.S. Cardinal Critical of His Reform Agenda" -- that ran on Nov. 8, 2014.
So in what sense was Cardinal Burke already "openly" clashing with Pope Francis at the time of the St. John Paul II rites, months before the conservative cardinals public actions at the synod?
Were there already tensions behind the scenes? That might be the case. But how to readers know that? The dates do not line up.
It is clear -- in this passage and others -- that the Times reporter is serving as a scribe for Harnwell. If there are other sources for these details, they are not named.
This brings us to the crucial thesis statement of the Times piece, the passage in which the newsroom editorial choir belts out The Big Idea. Let's walk through the critical issues linked to sourcing, in this passage:
Just as Mr. Bannon has connected with far-right parties threatening to topple governments throughout Western Europe, he has also made common cause with elements in the Roman Catholic Church who oppose the direction Francis is taking them. Many share Mr. Bannon’s suspicion of Pope Francis as a dangerously misguided, and probably socialist, pontiff.
The key word is "many," as in "many" sources inside the structures of the Catholic Church.
Until now, Francis has marginalized or demoted the traditionalists, notably Cardinal Burke, carrying out an inclusive agenda on migration, climate change and poverty that has made the pope a figure of unmatched global popularity, especially among liberals. Yet in a newly turbulent world, Francis is suddenly a lonelier figure. Where once Francis had a powerful ally in the White House in Barack Obama, now there is Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon, this new president’s ideological guru.
Here is the crucial statement of fact in the piece. Bannon and Trump are working with the opponents of Pope Francis. Who is making that claim or offering evidence to back it?
For many of the pope’s ideological opponents in and around the Vatican, who are fearful of a pontiff they consider outwardly avuncular but internally a ruthless wielder of absolute political power, this angry moment in history is an opportunity to derail what they see as a disastrous papal agenda. And in Mr. Trump, and more directly in Mr. Bannon, some self-described “Rad Trads” -- or radical traditionalists -- see an alternate leader who will stand up for traditional Christian values and against Muslim interlopers.
One searches this amazing passage for any signs of attribution clauses for these claims. There are none. It is interesting that the "many" church sources mentioned earlier have now become "some self-described 'Rad Trads' " who are working with Bannon against the pope.
At this point, it is clear that the Times needs to provide information proving that these Roman Rad Trans exist and that they have had extensive contacts with Trump, through Bannon. We are not talking about journalists and chattering-class folks. We are talking about actual source inside church structures. Right?
So, there is Harnwell. He clearly has ties to Cardinal Burke (identified several times in the Times piece as Mr. Burke, which is kind of interesting). Harnwell clearly has connections to Bannon (click here for text of Bannon's much-discussed lecture, via Internet hook-up, to a 2014 Human Dignity Institute gathering in Rome). It certainly appears that Harnwell spoke freely to the Times team, often stressing that he does not oppose the goals of Pope Francis, but does have questions about the pope's methods and actions.
So there is Harnwell.
What are the other crucial sources for the story? There is a reference to "one influential knight" in the Knights of Malta. Who might this anonymous source be?
At another point, there is a reference to "another person with knowledge of Mr. Bannon’s current outreach" efforts in Rome. Who might this anonymous source be?
As you would expect, the Times does note: "Cardinal Burke and Mr. Bannon declined to comment for this article."
The Times piece does include quotes from other journalists, none of whom qualify as "many" or even "some" sources inside the actual structures of the Catholic church, let alone important offices in Rome.
So there is Harnwell. When push comes to shove, the rest of this very high-profile piece rests on the sweeping claims of unidentified sources.
Is this a good thing? Perhaps we should end with a direct quote from a very on-the-record source about that specific journalism issue. I am referring, once again, to that 2005 self-study conducted by the Times in the wake of an ethics scandal that was rooted, in large part, in concerns about the frequent use of anonymous sources in the pages of the world's most influential newspaper. The title of the study: "Preserving Our Readers' Trust."
Here are the recommendations of that study, concerning the use of anonymous sources.
Let us attend.
I. The executive editor and managing editors should authorize new mechanisms to apply our policy effectively and enforce it energetically. They should instruct department heads to put into place editing procedures to keep unidentified attribution to a minimum. These procedures should support three broad objectives:
-- 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.
II. The policy should be uniform and adhered to across all sections of the paper, honored in features as well as in hard news. It should apply to all our writers, both staff and freelance. The system should include recognition of exemplary staff efforts.
Now, read the crucial passages of this Times piece once again.
Who is speaking? Why are they speaking? How do they know what they know?