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News Posturing: How the dramatis personae use each other

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 28, 2015

One of the reasons following the news is often so depressing is that so many of the situations that receive publicity are characterized by deep moral flaws. When I spoke about developing a “theology of the news” in a recent Insights Message, I pressed the case that we must “consume” the news through a process of moral and spiritual analysis. The news may be endlessly fascinating, but being a “news junkie” doesn’t cut it.

Now let me push this a little further. Another reason for dissatisfaction is the spectacle of those who attempt to spin the news for their own purposes. For them the goal is not to present an accurate message but to coopt the “story” as a means of self-glorification or gain. Two recent incidents illustrate this abuse of the news.

The coattail effect

A few days ago, US Vice President Joe Biden praised Pope Francis in anticipation of his trip to the United States, but he did so in a way which heaps glory on himself and the Obama Administration. This is typical political stuff, of course. But Biden’s claim that the Pope had sounded a moral call on “some of the most important issues of our time, from inequality to climate change” was obviously a way of praising his own agenda (most probably after a highly selective reading of Laudato Si’).

This, of course, is a classic technique: Prominent figures, especially those with moral credibility, are used by others to enhance their own standing. The very vagueness makes the deception transparent. It is difficult to see how a broad concept like inequality can be one of the most important issues of our day, unless we join the club of those who use the term “inequality” to justify every effort to tinker with the natural law. Punitive inequalities may well require corrective action; but differentiating inequalities are not only inescapable but essential to a healthy society.

The Church makes distinctions; piggy-backers don’t. It may be impossible for those who advocate men marrying men and women marrying women to recognize that distinctions really do matter. But Biden’s real purpose was clear anyway. He went on to imply what he wished his audience to assume, that Pope Francis was on his side, because the Obama Administration had been working hard for Pope Francis’ goals from the beginning. By selectively equating a few of Pope Francis’ concerns with his own agenda, Biden was moved to offer fulsome praise: “Pope Francis has breathed new life into what I believe is the central mission of our faith: Catholic social doctrine.”

But praise of whom? Perhaps only of Joe Biden, Barack Obama and their supporters. Others, if they are thoughtful news-watchers, are left wondering whether Biden has ever read the New Testament. Christian morality has immense social consequences, but an objective student of the Gospel would be hard-pressed to justify the claim that social doctrine is the “central mission” of the Catholic Faith. We must learn to recognize random self-serving assertions when we see them.

On critics and their targets

Now consider the story surrounding recent criticisms of the organizers of the World Meeting of Families. Two Catholic watchdog organizations have reported that at least one member of the WFM leadership team has, in the past, supported political candidates who favor abortion; and that some honorary members of the organizing committee have anti-family political associations.

In response, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has decided that the best defense is a good offense. He has denounced the critics for their lack of interest in “presenting information in any useful way”, and their tendency “to create division, confusion, and conflict within the Church.” Depending on your point of view, you will tend to react with either glee or horror to the Archbishop’s response. But I am willing to stake my reputation on the truth being somewhere in between.

I have long criticized Catholic groups whose stock-in-trade is to dig up dirt and fling it around with little understanding, less context, and no sympathy. I make no judgment of this particular situation, which I have not investigated, but I am very familiar with the pattern. Nobody is ever quite “clean” enough for those who make names for themselves by the liberal practice of public denunciation. The very volume and frequency of their accusations appeals to the disaffected and (to be brutally frank) keeps the donations rolling in.

I do not mean to imply that harsh criticism is never justified; CatholicCulture.org and the people who run it engage in such criticism at times. But organizations which make criticism their staple run a severe spiritual risk, a risk to which they are seldom sensitive. Even as a strategic consideration, their tactics invariably alienate their targets; and they make themselves far too easy to dismiss out of hand by anyone outside the circle of the like-minded. However well-motivated this constant attack-mode may be, the broad perception of such organizations—a perception which is usually at least partly correct—is that they use the sins of others to increase their own prominence.

But that does not justify Archbishop Chaput’s response. Church leaders, after all, have made the Church vulnerable precisely by their sloppy leadership and their frequent refusal to carefully vet their staff, to surround themselves by deeply committed Catholics who strive to live by all of the teachings of the Church. The proper response to criticism is not to score points by denouncing the intelligence and the motives of the accuser. The proper response is to explain why the accusations are either false or irrelevant to the purpose at hand.

Chaput (whose articles and speeches over the years have been among the finest coming from any bishop) does a little of this, pointing out “the need to work with civic society and its representatives on a project like the World Meeting of Families”—the importance, in other words, of drawing in as many willing leaders and participants as possible, so that the entire exercise garners widespread support and becomes a real opportunity for moral and cultural growth. In addition, while offering no specific information, he also insisted that no one on the leadership team supports Planned Parenthood, as had been implied in one public criticism.

But in this case, Archbishop Chaput did what too many bishops have too often done: He publicly shot the messenger, confident that most people find critics annoying. In other words, he sought to bolster his own position by playing it off against the pariah status of the critical groups. “We are not going to spend/waste time arguing with them…. Their reports are not to be taken seriously.”

The Larger Point

The two patterns I have considered here are extraordinarily common. Many people use news developments to add to their own stature, one way or another. These patterns are effective drivers of the modern news cycle, and seldom with enlightening results. They repeatedly trigger and shape the generation of news; in effect, they often turn the news into a publicity machine.

Any so-called “theology of the news”, by which I mean a genuinely Christian perception of reported reality, must include a recognition of such patterns. This is part of how we separate the wheat from the chaff; it is a critical technique for winnowing out the truth.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 29, 2015 12:28 AM ET USA

    Noble thoughts, words and intentions. Sadly, the initiative has been lost. The faithful have suffered from an attenuated episcopacy; in so many places the laity have filled the breach. Families trying to pass on what they received, working to restore all things in Christ (so professes Lepanto). But "Lepanto’s sole intention is to create division, confusion, and conflict within the Church." So much for sensitivity, for inclusiveness, for dialogue. Regardless of "sides", it's striking language.