George Conger

Digging between the lines in UK media responses to the testimony of Archbishop Viganò

Digging between the lines in UK media responses to the testimony of Archbishop Viganò

The flight from reporting to opinion and advocacy journalism is on full display in the first day reports from the British secular press of the Viganò affair. Like their American counterparts, leading mainstream news outlets are portraying the revelations of coverup and abuse in political left/right terms.

While none have gone farther over the edge than the New York Times’ article: “Vatican Power Struggle Bursts Into Open as Conservatives Pounce," journalists at the Guardian and the BBC have spent more time denigrating the accuser, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, than in reporting on the content of his “testimony." Conservative and centrist papers like The Times and Daily Mail focused instead on the misconduct of Pope Francis and Vatican insiders alleged by the former papal nuncio to the United States.

The British and American media responses to the publication of Viganò’s testimony in four conservative American and Catholic religion outlets confirm the December 2016 thesis put forward by Francis X. Rocca in the Wall Street Journal. In the lede to his article entitled: “How Pope Francis became the leader of the global left," Rocca wrote: 

When Pope Francis delivers his Christmas message this weekend, he will do so not just as the head of the Catholic Church but as the improbable standard-bearer for many progressives around the world.

In 2016 Rocca argued:

With conservative and nationalist forces on the rise in many places and with figures such as U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande on their way out, many on the left -- from socialists in Latin America to environmentalists in Europe -- are looking to the 80-year-old pontiff for leadership. … Pope Francis has taken bold positions on a variety of issues, including migration, climate change, economic equality and the rights of indigenous peoples. 

Reading the first day reports from Britain in the BBC and the Guardian leaves one with the impression that they will stand by their man -- Pope Francis.

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How not to cover a YouTube story: Seeing isn't believing in the Greek baby baptism

How not to cover a YouTube story: Seeing isn't believing in the Greek baby baptism

The Internet furore over the violent baptism of a Greek Orthodox baby has seeped into the mainstream press.

The story in itself is amusing, but it also provides a teaching moment on how not to do journalism.

The difficulty is how to report on YouTube videos. Is seeing believing? How do you report accurately and fairly on a video that cannot be authenticated?

On my Facebook and Twitter feed I received a post linking to a video of an extraordinary baptism. Within a few days the story made its way into The Sun, The Daily Mail, The MirrorNews Corp., and other television and press outlets. 

The British tabloid The Sun, which was reprinted in News Corp.’s Australian and New Zealand papers, had this story, opening like this: 

A GREEK orthodox bishop has come under fire after appearing to baptize a tiny tot a little bit too vigorously. In the footage that has appeared online the man of the cloth repeatedly dunks the naked baby into the baptismal font.

The tot is rapidly dunked three times into the water before being handed back to his unperturbed parents. According to reports the footage was taken in Ayia Napa, Cyprus, at a Greek Orthodox church.

With the church, baptisms are usually done ‘forcefully’ which is seen as a solution to the declining birth rate. Many online commentators have criticised the bishop’s rather rough approach.

The article closes with a summary of comments and criticisms of what viewers saw in the film. The Daily Mail ran a condensed version of the story, omitting the word “Greek” from the text as well as the extraordinary assertion that aggressive dunking results in a population boom. The Mirror kept the cleric Greek Orthodox and promoted him to archbishop.

What nobody appears to have done is ask the Greek Orthodox Church about this baptism.

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News test: Try to figure out what The New York Times thinks about abortion vote in Ireland

News test: Try to figure out what The New York Times thinks about abortion vote in Ireland

Innuendo, bias and half-truths make a mess of a report in the New York Times on next month’s abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland. Though over 1200 words-long, the March 27, 2018 story entitled “As Irish Abortion Vote Nears, Fears of Foreign Influence Rise” is nearly incoherent. A great many words are used to say rather little rather badly.

What exactly is the Times trying to say in what is supposed to be a hard-news feature?

That it is wrong that money from foreign anti-abortion activists is being spent to influence the vote? That religious sentiment, thank goodness, is now a minor factor in the debate? That fell consultancy groups are manipulating the simple-minded to vote against relaxing the republic’s abortion laws? That there is a vast right-wing conspiracy™ at work seeking to deprive women of control over their bodies?

These assertions all appear, but are either unsubstantiated, or knocked down by facts cited elsewhere in the article. The way this reads indicates that there must have been an editor with an agenda at work.

Bits that would give a logical flow are missing, while buzzwords are pushed to the forefront of the story that plays to the Times’ core readership. The National Rifle Association, the Trump Administration, the Republican National Committee, Cambridge Analytica and the Vote Leave campaign in Britain (gasp!) appear as villains. An ur-reader of the New York Times will be expected to clutch their pearls and faint with shock at the goings on in Ireland, or explode with righteous indignation.

The lede opens magazine style -- offering a vignette that illustrates the arguments that will be raised further into the story.

DUBLIN -- As Ireland prepares to vote in May on a referendum on whether to repeal its ban on abortion, anti-abortion campaigners can be seen rallying most weekdays on the streets of Dublin, outside Parliament, and at universities, news media buildings and the offices of human rights groups.

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Biased journalism for the sake of truth -- TASS on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Biased journalism for the sake of truth -- TASS on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
Slowly [under Stalin] we had come to believe . . . that there are two kinds of truth. If there is a truth of a higher order than objective truth, if the criterion of truth is political expediency, then even a lie can be 'true' ...
-- Bếkế ếs Szabadsaq (3 October 1956), quoted in translation by Michael Polanyi, 'Beyond Nihilism', Encounter (March 1960), p. 42

So wrote the Hungarian poet Miklós Gimes in describing intellectual life behind the Iron Curtain. Though people and ideologies have changed since he penned these words in 1956, the contest between truth and political expediency has not -- though the field of battle has expanded westwards. The “Fake News” controversies animating the US and Europe present the same questions as did the truths of Soviet agitprop. Does anyone remember Dan Rather and the fake but accurate stories about President George W. Bush?

The Russian media scene presents a sobering picture for those who hold to theories of the inevitable progress of mankind. (Should we now say peoplekind?) Though the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a decade of a press freedoms in Russia under Boris Yeltsin, with Vladimir Putin the situation has tightened. The state does not pervade all aspects of intellectual life. But where its interests are concerned -- dissent is not tolerated.

The change in Russian reporting has been most notable in TASS. Officially known as the Russian News Agency TASS (Информационное агентство России ТАСС), TASS is the fourth largest news agency in the world, after Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse. TASS is owned by the Russian Federal government and has 70 bureaus in Russia and 68 bureaus overseas, and its journalists publish 350 to 600 stories everyday.

The initials TASS come from its name in Soviet times, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (Телеграфное агентство Советского Союза). In 1992 President Yeltsin changed its name to the Information Telegraph Agency of Russia -- TASS (ITAR-TASS), but President Vladimir Putin dropped the “Telegraph” in the title, changing it to IAR-TASS, or more commonly TASS.

Gimes, who would be hanged in 1958 by the Communist regime for his part in the Budapest uprising, likely would recognize the games played in an article published last week on the split between the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate).

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Assumptions instead of voices and facts: Anti-Catholic bias in The Guardian?

Assumptions instead of voices and facts: Anti-Catholic bias in The Guardian?

Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

-- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859) Book 3, Chapter 15.

The tom-toms announcing the death of Chief Wahoo, the logo of the Cleveland Indians, may not immediately bring to mind the arts carrying aristocrats to their deaths in Revolutionary France, but for Dickens the creek of the tumbrils’ wheels hurrying to the guillotine sounded, as do the drums from Cleveland, the death of an old way of life.

The mob must be satisfied with their choice of victim. Be it a king or a smiling, cartoon Indian warrior. Vox populi, vox dei. The voice of the people is the voice of God.

In principle I have no objection to the smashing of idols in a good ideological rant. But it is somewhat trying to see these rants presented as journalism.

The newspaper of Britain’s chattering classes, The Guardian, never ceases taking a hammer to the Catholic Church. As an Anglican I don’t mind a good kick in the Vatican’s shins from time to time, but when fairness, balance and context are replaced by conventional wisdom and bigotry, even a good Protestant like me can feel aggrieved.

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What we've got here is failure to communicate -- debates about Cardinal Marx and gay blessings

What we've got here is failure to communicate -- debates about Cardinal Marx and gay blessings

Our review of the US press coverage of claims that Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, the president of the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz (DBK), had given his permission to clergy to bless same-sex unions has sparked rigorous debate on social media.

Criticism of the article “Let your Ja's be Yes” has taken two general lines -- discussion of the underlying issues and discussion of our criticism of the Daily Caller -- the U.S. publication singled out in the review.

Please note that the question of whether Cardinal Marx should, nor should not, endorse same-sex blessings is outside the parameters of this site -- we focus on journalism. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves?) the Roman poet Juvenal asked in his Satires (VI, lines 347–348). This website seeks to answer this question as it pertains to the coverage of religion in the secular press.

The criticism of our reporting can be summarized in a tweet from reader Samuel Johnson, who challenged our translation of the German-language interview. He stated that our review was “a very problematic criticism, because the writer of the Crux published CNA authored piece, Anian Christoph Wimmer, is a native German speaker who also writes for CNA's German website. This is not a case of an English-speaking reporter misunderstanding.”

I responded by noting the critique was of the Daily Caller, not CNA. To which, Mr. Johnson responded:

The problem is that you write in criticizing the Daily Caller, "If we listen to the Marx interview then through German ears, rather than through the filter of English print, the story is turned on its head." But evidently, listening through German ears doesn't necessarily turn the story on its head, since after all Wimmer listened with German ears and heard a, "Yes."

While I am not a native German speaker, I do have some small fluency in languages, and am persuaded I had the better translation. The discussion essentially ended there, as it had become a question of competing truths -- mine versus the translation used in the Daily Caller story.

A new day, however, brought new developments to the story.

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So what did Cardinal Marx say about gay unions? Let your Ja's be Yes

So what did Cardinal Marx say about gay unions? Let your Ja's be Yes

“German Cardinal Endorses Homosexual Heresy” states the headline of a Sunday story in the Daily Caller.

It is a wonderful headline crafted to drive readers to the religion section of the online political news portal. But is it true?

Written by the Daily Caller’s religion reporter, the article appears to deliver on the claims made in headline. The lede states:

A German Catholic cardinal publicly approved heresy Saturday, declaring that priests are permitted to bless homosexual unions despite official church doctrine to the contrary.

Working from Catholic media reports, the article cites Cardinal Reinhard Marx’s words, translated into English, and then places them against the formal teaching of the church to substantiate the charge of heresy.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx said that “there can be no rules” concerning the question of whether a priest can bless a homosexual relationship in the name of God and such a decision should be made on a case by case basis and left up to priests, according to Crux Now. Despite Marx’s assertion that there can be no rules, his approval directly contradicts the Catholic Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality and marriage.

The article offers further quotes from the interview, sourced through the English-language newsite Crux Now, to hammer home the claim of false teaching, and then notes recent statements by two other prominent German Catholic clergy. The article then moves in for the kill with this quote.

When asked to clarify whether he was in fact approving the idea of blessing homosexual couples, Marx simply replied “yes.”

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Lead us not into confusion -- concerning The Lord's Prayer in French

Lead us not into confusion -- concerning The Lord's Prayer in French

Writing the story of the Belgian dockworkers was like eating sand.

 Once upon a time he’d persuaded himself that technical facility was its own reward: a sentence singing hymns to the attainment of coal production norms in the Donets Basin was, nonetheless, a sentence, and could be well rendered. It was the writer’s responsibility in a progressive society to inform and uplift the toiling masses.”

-- Dark Star by Alan Furst (1991)

I have my favorites. Writers whose work I turn to for enjoyment, inspiration and to steal phrases. The American spy-thriller novelist Alan Furst is a craftsman and storyteller whose work with each re-reading offers different insights into the human experience. It is fun, too.

The passage above from Dark Star illuminates the mental processes of reporting. For every exclusive or breaking story, for every fascinating glimpse or profound discussion of life, God, or the world -- come hundreds of other pieces reporting on committee meetings, speeches and conventions. The eating sand imagery is quite real to me, as is the sense of pride and pleasure of mastering a craft.

Technical ability -- things such as cleverness of language or an edgy tone -- are welcome but cannot make a story great. For an article to break free from the pack of mind numbing junk that overwhelms journalism, the writer must have technical facility but also a sense of the background to the subject. Knowing why the story matters moves it beyond being merely amusing.

The Times story of Nov. 17, 2017, entitled: “Revised Lord’s Prayer delivers French from confusion” is technically proficient, but dull. The author recites but he does not report.

The lede states:

God will no longer be asked to do the Devil’s work in a revised version of the Lord’s Prayer that has been adopted by the French Catholic Church.

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Vikings, Islam, fabrics and a dose of magical thinking in The New York Times

Vikings, Islam, fabrics and a dose of magical thinking in The New York Times

Being the New York Times means never having to say you’re sorry.

The Grey Lady was, along with other media outlets, taken in by claims made by a Swedish university professor about Islam and Vikings. The story played into the post-Charlottesville progressive narrative denigrating the alt-Right. White supremacists had championed the Vikings as the progenitors of a superior Nordic race -- but new archaeological evidence showed some Vikings had converted to Islam and brought the faith to Scandinavia.

The problem with the story was that it was not true.

The New York TimesGuardianIndependent and other outlets uncritically ran with it, but the Independent, unlike the Times, followed with a second article walking back the story.

The first day stories followed the pattern set in the Independent’s “Researchers find name of Allah woven into ancient Viking burial fabrics.” It cited a study released by a Swedish professor that claimed in its lede: 

Allah's name has been found embroidered into ancient Viking burial clothes, a discovery researchers in Sweden have described as "staggering".

It doubles down on this “staggering” news to note:

The silk patterns were originally thought to be ordinary Viking Age decoration but, upon re-examination by archaeologist Annika Larsson of Uppsala University, it was revealed that they were a geometric Kufic script. They were found on woven bands as well as items of clothing, in two separate grave sites, suggesting that Viking funeral customs had been influenced by Islam.

In support of her claims, Larsson stated that the silks she examined contained “ancient Arabic script, Kufic characters, invoking both Allah and Ali.” There were, however, some questions still to be answered, she conceded.

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