Not long after I broke into the journalism business over 20 years ago did my mother ask me a very interesting question: “Where do you get all that news that ends up in the newspaper?”
It was a question any news consumer should ask. I gave a simple — although in hindsight — a somewhat unhelpful answer.
“It’s complicated,” I replied.
I went on to explain how reporters use interviews, documents, press releases and news conferences to put together the news.
It really isn’t that complicated. Journalists have made it a practice for years to make their jobs sound like (me included) as if they were doing brain surgery. As one editor would always tell me when things got hard at work: “We’re not saving lives here.”
Maybe not, but being a reporter is a massive responsibility. Never has the process of journalism — and what it is that reporters and editors actually do — come under the microscope as it has the past few years. I suppose that’s a result of Donald Trump getting elected president and the allegation that fake news helped him get elected.
Whether it did or not, that’s not the point. What is the point is that citizens — the people we reporters call “readers” — have become more aware of the process. At least they want transparency from news organizations when it comes to how and why we report on stories.
This takes me to my point. As we mark the one-year anniversary of the revelations that exposed the past misdeeds of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the story doesn’t look like it is subsiding anytime soon. In a recent post, I highlighted the importance of the papal news conference and how American media outlets were potentially being manipulated by the Vatican press office. Also, tmatt offered this post on a related topic: “Big journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?”
Like with everything in life (and journalism), it’s complicated.
Longtime Vatican observer John Allen wrote a column for Crux on how those papal news conferences that take place among the seats of aboard the plane taking Pope Francis back to Rome aren’t what they used to be. The piece ruffled some feathers among the Vatican press corps, even triggering a rebuttal piece from Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter. This is how he opened that column:
Taking part in the press conferences Pope Francis holds aboard his flight home after a trip abroad is one of the most stressful and difficult jobs for Vatican correspondents.
After being part of Francis' traveling press pool for 22 visits, I know the pattern pretty well, and take the opportunity here to lay out the process as a response to a recent critique by Crux's John Allen.
We go somewhere with the pontiff for three to four days, and work 16 to 18 hours each day (no joke) — traveling from city to city on bus, plane and helicopter as we send reports back to our editors.
Rushing to file that last story without succumbing to sleep-deprived exhaustion as we head through airport security to board the plane home, we've now got to decide what questions to ask, and who will ask them.
And of course the sometimes vicious lion of ego begins to enter into it, as people realize this may be their only shot to speak to the pope directly, and perhaps give their paper or news outlet some needed publicity.
With respect to John, who used to take more frequent part in these trips, I think we do more than an honorable job.
MeElwee downplayed what he called a “Vatican plot.” Instead, he did a wonderful job explaining the process of how reporters — and exactly which ones — are allowed to ask questions at these news conferences. It’s something, McElwee noted, that has a lot to do with “international courtesy.”
It was an inside look — the sort of column readers yearn for these days — that explains process and news gatherings techniques. Mom, I hope you’re reading.
Catholic, after all, does mean universal. The church is global and there are many issues affecting it — not just McCarrick.
Geography does play a major part, if you’re a journalist, on what you choose to cover. This takes us, as many Vatican-related stories do these days in the United States, back to the McCarrick saga and the revelations put forth by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.
To recap, it was last August when Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to Washington, said he had personally told Pope Francis about penalties imposed on McCarrick, by the pontiff’s predecessor Benedict as far back as 2006. Widely discredited, art first, by many mainstream news outlets, Vigano was hailed a credible whistleblower by Catholic websites on the doctrinal right. The pope has denied these accusations.
Since then, the Vatican has wanted this story to go away — but it just won’t. A recent story by The Washington Post makes that clear. In a fascinating interview (he answered 40 questions via email with journalists at the newspaper), Vigano accused the pope of “blatantly lying” in denying knowledge of the sexual abuse allegations against the now-defrocked cardinal.
“The results of an honest investigation would be disastrous for the current papacy,” Vigano added.
In other words, Vigano doubled down on those initial allegations, and the mainstream press is finally taking notice.
Those damning comments got a lot of pickup on Catholic news sites who find themselves opposed to Francis. Kudos to the Post for going beyond the press conference and speaking getting Vigano, now in hiding, and for reporting out a story that (despite Vatican efforts) continues to have legs.
That story forced Francis to address the issue of nuncios blabbing about him — although he did not name Vigano — during prepared remarks handed to the Vatican ambassadors gathered in Rome for what has become a once every three years meeting between the pontiff and the heads of the Holy See’s diplomatic missions.
Vigano, as a result of his Post interview, sent a letter to LifeSite, a Catholic news website, clarifying why he ever went public with his accusations against his boss.
I trusted that Pope Francis would do things as any pope would have done. I always trusted in him. And then, once I saw that he himself was covering them up, I couldn’t remain quiet.
At around the same time, U.S. Catholic bishops voted on a set of protocols, most notably a national hotline for reporting sexual abuse committed or mishandled by bishops.
We’ve come to expect websites like Crux to do extensive reporting on something like this, but the attention the Post gave to the announcement was another sign the paper has upped its game on the issue of clergy sex abuse on the heels of its Vigano scoop. Its story on the hotline — although it erred in failing to mention McCarrick — did ultimately have a lot to do with “Uncle Ted’s” past misdeeds.
Like in all scandals, the McCarrick-Vigano imbroglio has become a “he said, he said” type of story. Without any real proof — documents or others going on the record to back up the story — it leaves reporters either to do some more digging or place it on the back burner. The aim of good journalism is to trigger change. Even the Catholic church, so immutable over the centuries, has been forced to address this plague. That’s what good journalism can do.
Whenever you have a whistleblower like Vigano, you know you can go back to him and pump him for more information. The well of Vigano information, as seen from this latest interview, may be running a bit dry. It did revive the story for a few days, but new information will need to come out in order for it to return back into the news cycle.
One more thing: Reporters sometimes get bored with a story — my experience is editors feel that way more often — unless it moves the needle significantly. Incremental movement on a story isn’t something that often, as I used to say when I worked as an editor, “deserves a new headline.”
The editor side of my brain, however, doesn’t think we’ve heard the end of the McCarrick-Vigano saga. It is something that has dominated the last year and something that, for better or worse, will follow Francis for the remainder of his papacy.