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Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Conflict of interest at the National Catholic Reporter?

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Nov 10, 2005

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Back in April of last year, NCR editor Tom Roberts said good-bye to reporter Chuck Colbert:

At that time, we talked about the situation and Colbert understood that becoming a public activist on the gay marriage issue would prohibit him from reporting on our pages.

Roberts was acknowledging Colbert's falling afoul of the so-called "Rosenthal Rule" -- a canon of journalistic self-discipline (named after the former NYT editor who gave it pithy expression) -- according to which a newsman known to be an active partisan for some cause has thereby forfeited his claim to objectivity and is barred from reporting on that same cause.

How did Colbert cross the line? Overtly, by planting himself in a parish to which he did not belong and disrupting its Mass in order to protest a video opposing gay marriage. Roberts admitted that Colbert "lives in a committed relationship with another man," and conceded the obvious conflict of interest:

Colbert's decision to move from dispassionate observer to passionate advocate is not the first or the last time in the annals of journalism that such a move will take place. We will miss his reporting in our pages.

"We will miss his reporting in our pages." Sound like a definitive farewell? It does to me also. But Colbert has returned to the NCR with news reports in the issues of October 7 and November 10, reporting -- not commenting -- on the fiasco that attended the dismissal of Boston's Father Walter Cuenin.

No one can pretend that Colbert's interest in Cuenin is purely reportorial. Cuenin is notoriously one of Boston's most gay-friendly priests and his parish was a center of resistance to the anti-gay-marriage amendment. An editor in the Rosenthal mold wouldn't let Colbert within spitting distance of this story. Was Roberts justified in reversing his own decision? Consider the following paragraph from Colbert's October 7 report:

Parishioner and pastoral council member Larry Kessler said the allegations [against pastor Walter Cuenin] are "a ruse in my mind and the minds of many." The car and stipend are "smoke screens," Kessler said, adding that archdiocese wants "to get Walter out of the pulpit" in part because "he encourages people to think" and "O'Malley wants sheep."

Kessler is identified by Colbert simply as a "parishioner and pastoral council member." From that ID an NCR reader would be justified in conjuring up a picture of Kessler as a typical specimen of the breed, your ordinary Catholic guy with a wife and mortgage and couple kids in the parish school, who happens to think his pastor is getting a raw deal from the Chancery. But Colbert knows full well that Kessler is one of Boston's highest profile gay activists and an outspoken proponent of gay marriage, and yet he is silent about Kessler's role in his article. This is equivalent to interviewing "Catholic laywoman" Frances Kissling on Fr. Robert Drinan and -- oops! -- omitting to mention that she founded Catholics for a Free Choice.

In April 2004, Roberts defensively insisted "Colbert has not written for NCR since the issue of March 19, not since he made the decision to cross the line between reporter and activist" -- your words, Mr. Roberts, not mine. So I put it to you: what has changed in the meantime?

Clearly not Colbert. The NCR's own Abuse Tracker regularly provides links that demonstrate the contrary. Or is the Rosenthal Rule -- the notion of conflict of interest itself -- one of those obsolete norms that encode homophobia and that, in the service of its own agenda, the NCR is prepared to dispense with?

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