Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Church of the 'Times': A Dissent

Created 04/28/2010 - 12:07pm
By Kenneth L. Woodward

The New York Times isn’t fair. In its all-hands-on-deck drive to implicate the pope in diocesan cover-ups of abusive priests, the Times has relied on a steady stream of documents unearthed or supplied by Jeff Anderson, the nation’s most aggressive litigator on behalf of clergy-abuse victims. Fairness dictates that the Times give Anderson at least a co-byline.

After all, it was really Anderson who “broke” the story on March 25 about Fr. Lawrence Murphy and his abuse of two hundred deaf children a half-century ago in Wisconsin. Reporter Laurie Goodstein says her article emerged from her own “inquiries,” but the piece was based on Anderson documents. Indeed, in its ongoing exercise in J’accuse journalism, the Times has adopted as its own Anderson’s construal of what took place. Anderson is a persuasive fellow: back in 2002 he claimed that he had already won more than $60 million in settlements from the church. But the really big money is in Rome, which is why Anderson is trying to haul the Vatican into U.S. federal court. The Times did not mention this in its story, of course, but if the paper can show malfeasance on the part of the pope, Anderson may get his biggest payday yet.

It’s hard for a newspaper to climb in bed with a man like Anderson without making his cause its own. Does this mean that the Times is anti-Catholic? New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan thinks it is—he said so last October in response to an earlier series of stories on clergy abuse. Whatever one thinks of Dolan’s accusation, clearly the Times considers sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests more newsworthy than abuse committed by other groups. An April 13 verdict against the Boy Scouts of America, which has struggled with the child-sexual-abuse issue for a century, did not merit page-1, above-the-fold treatment but rather a single paragraph deep inside the paper. A longer April 15 story about a Brown University student credibly accused of raping another student, an incident the university did not report to the police and arguably “covered up” at the request of powerful figures in the Brown community, appeared on page 18.

No question, the Times’s worldview is secularist and secularizing, and as such it rivals the Catholic worldview. But that is not unusual with newspapers. What makes the Times unique—and what any Catholic bishop ought to understand—is that it is not just the nation’s self-appointed newspaper of record. It is, to paraphrase Chesterton, an institution with the soul of a church. And the church it most resembles in size, organization, internal culture, and international reach is the Roman Catholic Church.

Like the Church of Rome, the Times is a global organization. Even in these reduced economic times, the newspaper’s international network of news bureaus rivals the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. The difference is that Times bureau chiefs are better paid and, in most capitals, more influential. A report from a papal nuncio ends up in a Vatican dossier, but a report from a Times correspondent is published around the world, often with immediate repercussions. With the advent of the Internet, stories from the Times can become other outlets’ news in an ever-ramifying process of global cycling and recycling. That, of course, is exactly what happened with the Times piece on Fr. Murphy, the deceased Wisconsin child molester. The pope speaks twice a year urbi et orbi (to the city and to the world), but the Times does that every day.

Again like the Church of Rome, the Times exercises a powerful magisterium or teaching authority through its editorial board. There is no issue, local or global, on which these (usually anonymous) writers do not pronounce with a papal-like editorial “we.” Like the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the editorial board is there to defend received truth as well as advance the paper’s political, social, and cultural agendas. One can no more imagine a Times editorial opposing any form of abortion—to take just one of that magisterium’s articles of faith—than imagine a papal encyclical in favor.

The Times, of course, does not claim to speak infallibly in its judgments on current events. (Neither does the pope.) But to the truly orthodox believers in the Times, its editorials carry the burden of liberal holy writ. As the paper’s first and most acute public editor, Daniel Okrent, once put it, the editorial page is “so thoroughly saturated in liberal theology that when it occasionally strays from that point of view the shocked yelps from the left overwhelm even the ceaseless rumble of disapproval from the right.” Okrent’s now famous column was published in 2004 under the headline “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” and I will cite Okrent more than once because he, too, reached repeatedly for religious metaphors to describe the ambient culture of the paper.

The Times also has its evangelists. They appear daily as the paper’s columnists. Like the church, the Times historically has promoted its evangelists from within the same institutional culture. This assures a uniformity of assumptions only the Vatican and Fox News can trump. Even when the editors reach outside the corporate fold, as they must for columnists of even mildly conservative persuasion, they do not look for adamantine conservatives like George Will to match the heavy-breathing liberalism of Frank Rich and Paul Krugman. Culturally, conservatives David Brooks and once-a-week columnist Ross Douthat inhabit the same world as their liberal colleagues, though it must be said that Brooks and Douthat are the only Times columnists I can recall who welcome an expansive role for religion in public life.

At the Times, the public editor’s job is to examine the paper’s news stories for evidence of biased reporting and unwarranted narrative assumptions. (Would that Rome had ombudsmen—and ombudswomen—to represent voices not heard at the Vatican.) On this point, Okrent’s essay was forthright: it is one thing to provide a “congenial home” for like-minded readers, he observed, “and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear.” On social issues like “gay rights, gun control, abortion, and environmental regulation, among others,” Okrent wrote, “...if you think the Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.” And there was this: “If you are among the groups the Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.”

Indeed, even read with eyes wide open, the Times is remarkable for what it systematically leaves out. In its annual Christmas list of the year’s most notable books, there is no category for religion, much less theology. A reader of the paper’s regular education coverage, not to mention its quarterly “Education Life” supplement, would never know that the New York Archdiocese runs one of the largest parochial school systems in the world. Or that the Lutherans, the Seventh-day Adventists, and Orthodox Jews also educate thousands of kids throughout the metropolitan area. In the secularist and secularizing world of the Times, only public schools and New York’s elite prep and nursery schools are worthy of the reader’s attention.

Every institution creates its own sheltering culture. The Holy See is larger, more complex, and much older than the Times, and the Roman curia is inherently more diverse than the newsroom of the Times, despite the latter’s periodic bouts of mandated diversity training. But as anyone who has covered the Vatican can tell you, its institutional culture is also inherently traditional, conservative, and self-protective. It is, after all, the last functioning Renaissance court.

As U.S. newspapers go, the Times is also a venerable institution and its hierarchy of editors, deputy and assistant editors, and copyeditors is a match for the Roman curia. The paper has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896. To those who devote their lives to it, the Times has become “a place that will shelter you the rest of your life,” as Arthur Gelb wrote in his detailed memoir, City Room. I know what he means: Newsweek in the nearly four decades I worked there was also a sheltering institution. Moreover, with reporting flowing in from our worldwide news bureaus, we in New York felt as if we were operating at the throbbing center of the known and knowable universe. Given its exponentially larger work force, not to mention hourly input from the Internet, this illusion is all the more powerful at the Times. A journalist could spend a lifetime in its newsroom without encountering a dissenter from the institutional ideology.

Every journalistic operation generates its own newsroom culture. By that I mean an implicit set of assumptions about what cultural norms and attitudes the newspaper, magazine, etc. should reflect in its collective editorial outlook. As in the church, these norms are passed down from the top, becoming part of the air the composite Timesman breathes. For example, religion was well and routinely covered by Time magazine, because co-founder Henry Luce, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, considered the subject of major cultural importance. Religion was important at Newsweek because the magazine imitated Time’s template. Why is it then, that the devout of any religion should find the newsroom culture of the Times (Okrent again) “a strange and forbidding world”?

For that we have to look at the family dynasty that made the Times the nation’s establishment newspaper. After seven years of researching the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, biographers Susan E. Tifft and her husband Alex S. Jones concluded that “it has become increasingly apparent that the family’s self-image as Jews has profoundly shaped the paper.” The story that Tifft and Jones tell in their extraordinary family biography The Trust is a narrative of social assimilation by the paper’s publishing clan, a determination not to espouse Jewish causes in its newspaper, and the family’s progressive ambivalence toward religion of any kind.

Much of this attitude was an understandable reaction to the pervasive and unapologetic anti-Semitism that characterized American culture at least until after World War II. And even today, of course, there is much criticism of the Times that smacks of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, especially when it comes to the newspaper’s coverage of the Middle East. Still, the paper’s institutional suspicion of traditional religions, especially when they assert themselves in public affairs, makes Orthodox Jews as well as conservative Evangelicals and Catholics feel like barbarians at the gates. The most telling comment Tifft and Jones elicited in this regard was from the current publisher, Arthur Ochs “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. He described his personal faith this way: “I have the Times. That’s my religion. That’s what I believe in, and it’s a hell of a thing to hold on to.”

I have to think a lot of people who write for the Times do too. Perhaps this is why some Catholic editorial columnists (names on request) cite the paper’s questionable reporting on the church as if it were revealed truth. It’s a nice example of how belief in the Times makes any other form of religious identification merely private and provisional when measured by the one true faith. Writing as a columnist, the affable Bill Keller once described himself as a “collapsed” Catholic. The adjective is new to me and I gather it describes how the weight of the Times as church collapsed his faith in the church of his earlier commitment.

As executive editor, Keller is now responsible for front-paging journalistically questionable stories that attempt but never quite manage to make the pope personally complicit in the clergy-abuse scandal. He apparently thinks that Jeff Anderson has handed over the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Pentagon Papers.

No, I am not suggesting that the scandal is merely media-driven, as some at the Vatican have argued. There would be no stories if there had been no history of abuses and cover-ups in the first place. But I am saying that the Times has created its own version of the scandal as if they had discovered something new. They haven’t. Until they do, I remain a dissenter in the pews of the Church of the New York Times.

This originally appeared in Commonweal Magazine

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