Vigano vs. mainstream press? Trying to find bright line between 'news' and 'commentary'

It's an old question, one that your GetReligionistas have had to ask many times over the past 15 years.

Read the following material and ask this question: Is this hard-news writing or editorial commentary? The context -- #DUH -- is that blunt letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. He is the former Vatican ambassador to the United States from 2011-2016 who has accused Pope Francis of taking part in earlier efforts to protect and rehabilitate the fallen Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. 

The headline proclaims: "The Sex-Abuse Scandal Has Come for Pope Francis."

... (T)he pope’s defenders have characterized the letter as a smear against Francis, in part because of Viganò’s past clashes with the pope. The letter reflects the simmering discontent of conservative clergy in Rome, who dislike Francis’s inclination towards reform.

This piece was published by The Atlantic and, thus, it should be read as news analysis. Nevertheless, it helps to pause and consider the meaning of the word "reform," as opposed to "change." If you turn to a typical online dictionary you will find something like this:

reform ... noun

1. the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc.

Thus, Francis is -- on issues such as divorce and many matters of moral theology -- viewed as someone who is working to right what is wrong, to attack those who are corrupt. The use of this term presupposes that Francis is the hero, doctrinally speaking, and his opponents are the corrupt opponents of what is right, good and holy. You get the picture.

Now, what about this language from the Washington Post? News or analysis?

DUBLIN -- Pope Francis has long faced criticism from traditionalists -- a group that includes academics as well as cardinals -- who say the church is too willingly following the whims of the anything-goes modern age. 
Much of the dissent has remained within the Vatican walls, as Francis’s opponents worked to stonewall reforms. 

Is this news or analysis, in the context of a daily newspaper? Well, there is no "analysis" or "commentary" label on it.

How about this language at The New York Times, under this headline: "Vatican Power Struggle Bursts Into Open as Conservatives Pounce."

ROME -- Since the start of his papacy, Francis has infuriated Catholic traditionalists as he tries to nurture a more welcoming church and shift it away from culture war issues, whether abortion or homosexuality. “Who am I to judge?” the pope famously said, when asked about gay priests.

In defense of Pope Francis, that is a simplistic, shallow take on what he said. But the content of his actual remarks no longer matter, do they?  

A few lines latter, there is this:

With the letter -- released in the middle of the pope’s visit to Ireland -- an ideologically motivated opposition has weaponized the church’s sex abuse crisis to threaten not only Francis’ agenda but his entire papacy.

Once again, where is the "analysis" label?

What about this language, drawn from a crucial summary of "facts" in another New York Times story: "Letter Accusing Pope Leaves U.S. Catholics in Conflict."

Conservative American Catholics have been among the most vocal opponents of Francis’ agenda since he came into power in 2013. They have resisted his efforts to bring back into the fold those Catholics who have fallen away from the church because they are divorced and remarried, or are gay or lesbian, or are secular nonbelievers. They have also been opposed to Francis’ political priorities of protecting immigrants and refugees, questioning corporate capitalism and stemming climate change.
After several years of a progressive alliance between Pope Francis and the Obama White House on issues including the détente with Cuba, climate change, and the Iran nuclear deal, conservative Catholics have praised a new agenda in President Trump’s Washington, which has returned largely to culture war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.



Who are these "conservative Catholics"? I know some who may differ with Francis on one or two of these items, but hardly anyone who fits this spectacular pound-the-straw-man description. I know many who are pleased with one or two things that Donald Trump has done, but remain appalled that a man of his character occupies the White House.

Oh, back to the main question: Is this Times passage news or analysis?

Once again, there is no "analysis," "commentary" or "spew-coffee editorializing" flag on this story.

What is going on here? 

Well, what is NOT going on here is an attempt to find out if Vigano has stashed away copies of documents that back many of his highly specific claims. Also, as his letter notes, the original documents are in the Vatican's main U.S. office and locked away in key locations in Rome. Will the defenders of Francis (and McCarrick?) produce original copies of documents that refute Vigano?

For journalists, these questions must be asked again and again.

However, will the editors who signed off on the editorial language cited in the previous stories act like professionals and seek these documents?

Meanwhile, at the conservative website LifeSite News, there is an interesting report in which Vigano addresses claims by his enemies that he crushed an independent investigation into sexual misconduct by Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

By all means, read the story and note its editorial stance. However, what journalists will -- or should -- care about is that Vigano produced photocopies of documents (the URLs work), when making his defense. You can also see the documents in this post by Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher.

Documents, documents, documents!

As I have been saying since this story broke: Vigano was in the right place to see and hear what he is claiming to have seen and heard.

But the mainstream press will not, and should not, take his word on charges this serious. The issue is whether he has copies of key documents to back him up.


Please respect our Commenting Policy