Democratic socialists vs. traditional Catholics: Guess who gets better news coverage?

Every profession has a national convention. Bankers, plumbers and even electricians hold them. Journalists have several each year (I have attended some in the past), as do journalism college professors (I have attended those as well). Earlier this month, The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication — a mix of both professions — held their annual conference in Toronto.

That begs the question of when is a national convention worthy of news coverage?

The answer goes to the heart of journalism, potential bias and why reporters and editors choose to cover an event over another. It’s a no-brainer when the gathering is the Republican or Democratic National Conventions held every four years. After all, that’s where each party officially nominates a presidential candidate. It’s where speeches are delivered and news is made.

What’s the bar for coverage when it comes to lesser-known gatherings? Two very distinct conventions earlier this month may shed some light on who is worth covering these days and why.  

The Democratic Socialists of America held their convention last week in Atlanta. By coincidence, the Knights of Columbus held their annual convention in Minneapolis. Readers of this space should find it to be no coincidence whatsoever that the Democratic socialists received plenty — and perhaps more favorable — coverage compared to a Catholic group.

Most can infer who the Democratic socialists are. They have gained lots of influence in the Democratic party and broader political debate since Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016. Many of the group’s anti-capitalist policy positions have gained traction among those running for president in 2020.  

The New York Times wrote about the gathering in an August 6 feature. This is how the piece opens:

Three years ago, the Democratic Socialists of America had 5,000 members. Just another booth at the campus activities fair, another three-initialed group an uncle might mention over lunch.

Today, dues-paying D.S.A. members exceed 56,000. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star of American politics, is one. So are a couple of dozen local elected officials across the country. Senator Bernie Sanders, a current presidential candidate, is not, but he may as well be: He identifies as a democratic socialist and enjoys a totemic status with the group’s members.

Mr. Sanders’s popularity during his unsuccessful 2016 run for the Democratic presidential nomination helped swell D.S.A.’s ranks. But a very different figure is primarily responsible for the group’s staggering growth: President Trump, who recently associated “radical socialism” with the “destruction of the American dream.” In fact, the majority of current D.S.A. members signed up in the last two years.

“Trump scared a lot of people,” said Maria Svart, the national director, in an interview. “So they joined.”

The inference here is that this is a group — once considered on the political fringes— that has gained lots of members and momentum since Donald Trump’s victory nearly three years ago. The article appeared to celebrate socialism, even running a photo of a woman with a Karl Marx tattoo.

To be fair, not all the coverage was good. It should be noted, however, that the negative press came from right-leaning news outlets, such as Fox News, which focused on a video clip from the convention where delegates argued over the use of gender pronouns. It was meant to poke fun at them and the group’s misplaced priorities.

Overall, the mainstream news coverage was favorable. The Times wrote about the group as being part of the growing anti-Trump movement, highlighting that they currently have 56,000 members, a number that appears in the second paragraph.

How does that compare to the Times coverage of the Knights of Columbus gathering? That’s a trick question. The paper didn’t write about the Minneapolis confab.

There may be a reason for this. Depending on who you ask, the Knights of Columbus are either a Catholic charitable organization or a right-wing hate group.

The latter was something Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris said about the group this past December while the Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed the candidacy of Brian Buescher, a lawyer nominated by Trump to sit on the U.S. District Court in Nebraska. The Knights of Columbus, you see, are staunchly anti-abortion and support religious liberty. Those are positions they also share with politicians who are politically conservative.

While the Knights of Columbus gathering got plenty of attention from Catholic media (including live coverage from EWTN on its cable TV and YouTube channels), mainstream coverage was either non-existent or unfavorable.

A good example is this story from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which didn’t have to travel far to cover and write this piece. This is how it opened:

The white-feathered hats, red capes and ceremonial swords are history. As of July, Knights of Columbus leaders are donning blue blazers, white shirts, berets and sashes.

Likewise, the once-ubiquitous Knights of Columbus social halls have been shutting their doors as the Catholic men’s organization offers online memberships and a tighter focus on family and church activities.

Such are the changes unfolding with the Knights of Columbus, which held its annual convention in Minneapolis this week. More than 3,000 people from a dozen countries attended, offering a rare look at the group’s global reach, its efforts to invigorate its often-stodgy image, and new charity projects that include humanitarian aid for refugees on the southern U.S. border.

The tone of this story is decisively negative, a far cry from what the group’s leadership was saying during EWTN’s coverage, which I watched. Is the Star-Tribune correct in portraying this as an out-of-step group?

Not at all if you look at the group’s own global membership of 1.9 million — 41,000 alone in Minnesota, as the story points out.

The news feature also includes these paragraphs further down:

Attracting more and younger members is a priority. Following research and focus groups, the group made several changes to attract new faces, including ditching the feathered-hat uniform and offering online memberships that let men join without going through a long initiation process.

“Young people like myself don’t want to get dressed up in a cape and feathered chapeau,” said Jeremy Hadash, a 32-year-old member from Mounds View.

But the rituals still attract some, leaders said, and the organization will need to both modernize and maintain its rituals moving forward.

That pomp and ceremony was evident at the mass that opened the convention. The massive meeting hall at the Minneapolis Convention Center looked like a cathedral, thanks to billboard-sized images of stained-glass windows projected across walls in the room.

As trumpets sounded, a solemn procession emerged from the back. Following a large crucifix, dozens of knights, 75 robed bishops and nearly 120 priests filed to the altar on the front stage. St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda led the liturgy.

“How beautifully you have transformed this space into a cathedral,” Hebda said, looking over the scene.

The mass was a reminder that this is a Catholic-only organization. Members must be at least 18, practicing Catholics, and follow in the footsteps of the group’s founder, the Rev. Michael McGivney, a Connecticut priest who supported needy families.

That focus on families has long been a hallmark of the group, but it may have gotten diluted in the past. Marc Peters, the Minnesota state deputy for the knights, has been a knight 30 years and has watched the organizational shift.

In other words, this is a group that excludes others — “Catholic-only organization” — and is made up of “stodgy” (their words) old-timers (that term is mine) who embrace ancient doctrines and tradition. Oh no!

That the Knights of Columbus took the time to also honor Kendrick Castillo, the student killed this past May in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting in Colorado, didn’t get a mention in the story or get a separate feature says a lot, too. It’s also worth noting a further religion angle to that story in that the shooter was an anti-Christian.

As the Knights of Columbus convention highlights, not getting any coverage can also be a telling sign of either media bias or reporters being out of step with religious communities.

The local CBS affiliate, WCCO in Minneapolis, for example, chose to do a piece about Castillo for its broadcast and website. The web story featured this key piece:

Kendrick planned to join the Catholic fraternal organization after graduation. He embodied their values of giving and caring and faith — and ultimately he saved others’ lives, dying a hero.

Thousands of Knights from around the world stood to embrace John and Maria Castillo, parents of Kendrick. They voted to posthumously name the teen a member of the Knights of Columbus, alongside his dad.

“He was a giver and that’s what the Knights are, the Knights are givers,” John Castillo said.

He calls his son his “best friend,” and a young man who had strong character.

“He was an emotional kid that cared about people’s feelings and he always wanted to fix people. That was the love of our son,” John Castillo said.

Kendrick protected his many friends at school last May during a school shooting.

“His heroic act was a defining moment,” John Castillo said.

Kendrick rushed the shooter when he opened fire inside a dark classroom while students were watching a movie.

The Kendrick feature seemed like an opportunity missed by both national newspapers as well as state-wide ones. That the ceremony took place just two days after a pair of weekend mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton gave reporters a “news peg” — journalism parlance for the reason why a story is being covered at this particular time.  

The Kendrick commemoration, and the Knights of Columbus convention in general, deserved more news coverage than it ultimately received. The group may need to consider endorsing Bernie for president if these comrades want more positive attention in the future.

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