Is this news or commentary? Times offers cynical look at Bill O'Reilly gift to needy Bronx parish

Every now and then, the New York Times covers stories about ordinary people in New York City and even life inside ordinary religious communities in New York City.

Whenever this happens, the odds are pretty good that the stories will be high-quality and very interesting -- especially if they don't have anything to do with trendy issues linked to sexuality and hot-button cultural issues that kick things into Kellerism territory. A year or two ago, I was actually worried that we were praising the Times metro desk too much and might get people there into trouble.

This brings me to a feature that ran the other day with this headline: "A Bronx Church’s O’Reilly Factor."

Let me note that this story is part of a series by Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Dwyer that runs under the heading "About New York." Since I read the Gray Lady online -- even when I am in New York City (two-plus months a year) teaching -- I do not know if this series is presented to readers as a column, as a form of commentary. That question will matter later on, so hold that thought.

Anyway, this feature is a perfect example of a reporter finding a valid, people-driven local sidebar to a big story that is currently grabbing headlines from coast to coast. In this case, the big story is the fall of Fox News superstar Bill O'Reilly, in the latest of many waves of sexual harassment accusations during his media career.

On the air, O'Reilly has ocassionally mentioned that he is Catholic, even though his worldview appears to be rooted in a kind of country-club GOP radical individualism. Then there was that timely handshake with Pope Francis. I was shocked and strangely pleased to learn that this is a subject GetReligion readers care nothing about, based on the near silence in response to my appeals for input here: "Our Fox News question remains: Was there any real religion factor in career of Bill O'Reilly?"

But, lo, the Dwyer piece found an interesting O'Reilly connection to a local parish. Here is the overture:

In late morning, a murmur of prayers rose from the front pews of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Bronx, a soft cloud of Spanish words that floated toward the soaring vaults of the nave.
Santa María, Madre de Dios …
At the back of the church, a plaque commemorates scores of donors whose might and money restored the church a half-century ago: Toscanos and Fioritos and Giantasios, a roster of the Italian families who lived in this parish for much of the 20th century, when it became known as the Bronx incarnation -- and by far the most authentic -- of New York’s Little Italies.
Stacked on a table were leaflets inviting people to contribute their thoughts on the restoration of the church for the 100th anniversary in September of its first Mass. The pastor of Mount Carmel, the Rev. Jonathan Morris, says the parish plans to spend $1.6 million on brick-and-mortar repairs, and on expanding its services to a community of immigrants -- many of them Mexican, and quite a few of those living without legal authority to be in the country.

Ah, so there is a Donald Trump-era immigration hook to this, only we are talking about restoring church walls, not building a vast you-know-what on the Mexico border.

What does this have to do with O'Reilly, a frequent supporter of the political gospel according to Trump? 

A rumor has taken hold in the neighborhood that Bill O’Reilly, the recently deposed Fox News host, has contributed an eye-popping portion of the funds needed for the centennial. Father Morris would not discuss any details about the contribution of Mr. O’Reilly or anyone else, but said they had met and become friends at Fox News, where the priest provides occasional religious commentary. Moreover, he said the church had raised only half its budget.
How much did Mr. O’Reilly give? “It was not a million,” said Mark Fabiani, a spokesman for Mr. O’Reilly, “but it was substantial.”

This is where the reporting tends to morph into commentary, with the logical assumption that large gifts to Catholic foundations and causes might put one in a position to seek a brief encounter with the pope. Dwyer notes that "perhaps more intriguing is why Mr. O’Reilly, who was openly critical of Pope Francis for his views on immigration, would want or settle for a fleeting encounter."

It is also interesting to note the Fox man's support for a parish that has long welcomed immigrants -- whatever their legal status. This parish is not a museum. It continues to have major outreach programs for those in need.

All of this is perfectly valid material for a basic, solid, hard-news report. Like I said, most of this story reads like news copy.

But then there are statements like the one at the end, which caught the eye of a GetReligion reader -- who wears a Roman collar -- in Texas.

This is how the story, or column, or feature, or essay, comes to a close. This is the takeaway from this journalistic sermon:

Few large religious or educational institutions shy away from money, whether raised through honest toil, stock manipulation or profitable demagogy, and whether motivated by pure hearts or ones hopeful of redemption. In its founding teachings, the Catholic Church welcomes sinners, which covers just about everyone at some point. Sooner or later, a doctrine of forgiveness comes in handy for all sides.

I would add that repentance is part of the equation in there, somewhere but -- never mind.

Here is the reaction of Father Guillermo Gabriel-Maisonet to that finale.

I find that last line at best, cynical...at worst, insulting.

What's my journalism point here?

At this moment in the Internet age, I think it is safe to say that many -- if not most -- online readers are struggling to figure out when the material they are reading is basic, balanced, accurate news and when it is material baptized in editorial commentary.

If this "story" about Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church is a personal, opinion column, then that last line is edgy, but the reader knows that the source is the person whose name and-or face is at the top of the piece.

But what if the piece is presented in a way that looks like a news story?

What if there is no way to tell the difference? What if you are an ordinary online news reader, or a priest in east Texas, and you read that last worldly wisecrack and think that you are hearing the voice of the great Gray Lady herself? What if you ran into material day after day after day that created similar doubts and confusion?

What is news? What is opinion? And what is opinion that looks like news but parts of it are, in terms of being based on attributed facts, sort of fake to one degree or another? Might this affect how you view the trustworthiness (yes, I refer to the landmark 2005 Times self-study) of the news product that you are consuming as a key element in your life as a citizen?

Just asking, because we are in an age in which we need to be offering readers more clarity -- not confusion -- when it comes to what is news and what is opinion. This is especially true when we are talking about the world's most powerful newspaper.

Photos from the photo website of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.

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