Tag Archives: Catholic Church

For John Allen, a smart, unconventional debut

Today marks the Boston Globe print debut of John Allen, the longtime Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter who was recently hired by the Globe to beef up its coverage of the Catholic Church.

The piece — a news analysis that was posted online Wednesday — examines a United Nations report on the church’s pedophile-clergy crisis and finds it wanting. The problem, Allen writes, is that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child threw in gratuitous criticism of the church’s stands on abortion rights, same-sex marriage and birth control. Allen explains:

Not only are those bits of advice most unlikely to be adopted, they may actually strengthen the hand of those still in denial in the church about the enormity of the abuse scandals by allowing them to style the UN report as an all-too-familiar secular criticism driven by politics.

That could overshadow the fact that there are, in truth, many child protection recommendations in the report that the church’s own reform wing has long championed.

Overall: smart, authoritative and unconventional. Like many, I am accustomed to reading (and agreeing with) criticism of the Catholic Church’s stands on cultural issues. So I found it refreshing and unusual to read a piece arguing that, sometimes, such criticism can be counterproductive.

Marty Baron leaves Globe for Washington Post

Marty Baron

Weeks of rumors and speculation came to an end a little while ago with the announcement that Boston Globe editor Marty Baron will replace Marcus Brauchli as executive editor of the Washington Post. The Huffington Post has memos from Baron, Brauchli and Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.

This is a very smart move for the Post and for Baron, who’ll have the opportunity to rebuild a faded brand. Not that long ago, the New York Times and the Post were invariably mentioned in the same breath. There’s still a lot of great journalism in the Post, but the paper these days lags well behind the Times.

Brauchli, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal, got off to a rocky start at the Post. In 2009 he and then-new publisher Weymouth got embroiled in very bad idea: to put together paid “salons” featuring Post journalists, corporate executives and White House officials. As I wrote in the Guardian, there was evidence that Brauchli knew more about the salons than he was letting on.

I take Weymouth’s decision to replace Brauchli with Baron — and Baron’s decision to accept the offer — as a sign that she’s grown in the job and was able to assure Baron of it.

Baron arrived at the Globe in July 2001 to replace the retiring Matt Storin. (Here’s what I wrote about the transition for the Boston Phoenix.) Baron was executive editor of the Miami Herald before coming to the Globe, but he also had extensive experience at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Many observers believed his stint in Boston would be relatively short, and indeed he was considered for a top job at the Times less than two years later.

Instead, Baron ended up staying in Boston for more than 11 years, winning six Pulitzers, including the public service award in 2003 for the Globe’s coverage of the Catholic pedophile-priest scandal. He has been a solid, steady presence — a journalist with high standards who made his mark at a time when the newspaper business, including the Globe, was steadily shrinking. He also gets digital.

Last February, at an event honoring him as the recipient of the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award, Baron told journalists they should stand up against the fear and intimidation to which they have been subjected. You’ll find the full text of his speech here, but here’s an excerpt:

In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.

What’s good news for the Post is less than good news for the Globe. A new editor after 11 years of Baron would not necessarily be a bad thing, as every institution can benefit from change. But at this point it’s unclear who the candidates might be, and whether the next editor will come from inside or outside the Globe. And whoever gets picked will have a tough act to follow.

Baron will be a successor to the legendary Ben Bradlee and all that represents — the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and a boatload of Pulitzers. I think he was an inspired choice, and I wish him the best.

More: Peter Kadzis of The Phoenix has a must-read blog post on Baron’s departure. Great quote from an unnamed source: “On an existential level, I wonder if Marty gives a shit. He’s like a character out of Camus.”

The Globe’s pedophile-priest exposé heads to the big screen

The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé of the Catholic pedophile-priest scandal and Cardinal Bernard Law’s role in covering it up could be coming to a multiplex near you.

According to Variety, among those involved are director Tom McCarthy, whose credits include “The Station Agent” and “Win Win,” and writer Josh Singer, known for his work on “The West Wing.” McCarthy reportedly has been working on the project in secret for the past year.

“This is a story that feels like it has to be told,” McCarthy said in an interview with the Globe’s Doug Most. “It’s such a great reminder of how essential investigative journalism is today.”

The news prompted a few tweets from the Globe newsroom and beyond yesterday as staffers and former staffers speculated over which actors will play the editors and reporters who produced the ground-breaking stories.

And here’s your almost completely irrelevant link of the day: In 2003 I interviewed McCarthy (and actor Peter Dinklage) about “The Station Agent,” a romantic comedy whose leading man is a dwarf.

Brown’s reasons for rejecting debate make no sense

Tom Brokaw

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

What we were talking about, in case U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s diversionary tactics led you astray, was a televised debate, held before a neutral audience, to be moderated by Tom Brokaw. Everything else is baloney.

As you no doubt already know, Brown made two demands that had to be met before he would agree to a debate with his Democratic rival, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.

The first was that Vicki Kennedy, president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which would sponsor the debate, refrain from endorsing a candidate for “the duration of the Senate race.”

The second was that the debate be carried only by local media outlets and not by “out-of-state cable networks with a reputation for political advocacy” — clear reference to the liberal outlet MSNBC, which had been mentioned as a possibility.

Both demands were ridiculous because they were irrelevant. But when Vicki Kennedy rejected the first of those demands, that was enough for Brown to say no.

(At this point I suppose I should include a non-disclosure: I’m not related to those Kennedys.)

Brown might have been able to make a reasonable case for asking Vicki Kennedy not to endorse until after the debate. But demanding that she refrain for “the duration” was just silly. If the media consortium that includes the Boston Globe schedules a debate, will Brown insist that the Globe not endorse? And what will Brown say if the Boston Herald, as is its wont, puts together its own debate? Surely he won’t ask the paper to withhold its all-but-certain Brown endorsement.

As for MSNBC, the debate organizers could prevent the channel from carrying it live. Afterwards, though, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and company would be free to show clips and comment on them whether they had carried the full debate or not. The fair-use provision of the copyright law guarantees that — not to mention the First Amendment.

And why did I say the debate would be held before a neutral audience? Because you can be sure the Brown and Warren campaigns would insist on equal numbers of partisans in the audience. So the Kennedy Institute’s sponsorship isn’t an issue, either.

I know some observers have questioned Brokaw’s alleged liberal bias. But since that hasn’t been raised by the Brown campaign, we have to assume he had no problem with Brokaw as moderator. When Brokaw moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, he seemed mainly interested in making sure neither candidate exceeded his allotted time. Liberal or not, Brokaw has earned his status as a fair-minded journalist who can be trusted not to throw the debate to either candidate.

It’s also hard to figure why Brown suddenly has a problem with Vicki Kennedy or the Kennedy Institute, given that he took part in a debate with Martha Coakley two years ago that was co-sponsored by the institute without setting any preconditions. As Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis points out, it was only a year ago that Brown couldn’t say enough good things about the late Ted Kennedy’s widow.

Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks Brown’s demands were “reasonable,” and he gives the senator credit for sticking to them. Yet Lehigh doesn’t tell us what Brown could possibly gain by failing to take part.

As my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on political debates, puts it, “They’re making such an ­effort to portray Brown as someone with bipartisan credentials who can work with Democrats, and yet here’s this relatively mild example of cooperating with a Democrat, and they’re balking at it.”

Boston Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein wonders if Brown is trying to curry favor with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has had its own issues with Vicki Kennedy.

Who knows what Brown and his advisers are thinking? Their political astuteness is generally beyond question. Maybe this will prove to be a smart move. Right now, though, it looks like a rare misstep, especially curious given that Brown initially made the Warren campaign look flat-footed with his rapid acceptance of several debate invitations.

My own bias is in favor of as many debates as possible, regardless of the venue. For instance, I don’t understand why Warren won’t say yes to WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host Dan Rea, who is conservative but is as fair as they come.

The candidates really don’t have anything better to do. How would we prefer they spend their time? Making television ads? Attending fundraisers? Of course not. They should spend as much time as possible side by side, talking about the issues. It’s not always the most edifying experience, but it’s better than any conceivable alternatives.

Photo (cc) by Michael Kwan and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Birth control and the Church: The missing context

Even a card-carrying secular humanist like me couldn’t help but be troubled that the Obama administration was ordering the Catholic Church to provide birth-control coverage to its employees despite Catholic doctrine prohibiting the practice. My angst only grew last week, when liberal commentator Mark Shields voiced his objections to the policy on the “PBS NewsHour.”

As it turns out, the controversy has much to do with the media’s all-too-characteristic inability to do their homework and provide context.

Which is why you need to read Julie Rovner’s NPR report in which she discovers that the federal government has been requiring religious organizations to cover birth control since 2000. The rule, as is the case with the Obama administration’s approach, applies to non-religious institutions run by religious organizations, such as hospitals and universities.

The only difference is that under the 2000 rule, birth-control coverage was subject to the normal insurance co-pay. Under the current federal health-care law, contraception must be provided free of charge. But it’s the coverage itself that’s the issue, not whether there’s a co-pay.

Referring to the Obama rule, Sarah Lipton-Lubet of the ACLU tells Rovner, “[A]s a legal matter, a constitutional matter, it’s completely unremarkable.”

What’s hard to understand is why the White House didn’t make sure everyone knew there was little that was new about the policy. But it is the news media’s job to provide context and analysis. In this case, and in all too many cases, they have failed miserably.

Photo (cc) by Ceridwen and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Abortion, health care and the media

John Boehner

While driving to work yesterday, I heard House Republican leader John Boehner on NPR, claiming — as he has on any number of occasions — that the health-care-reform bill now being considered by the House would allow for “taxpayer-funded abortions.”

Based on the best available evidence, what Boehner said was not true. That he and other health-bill opponents keep getting away with it exposes a flaw in the news media that goes back at least to the days of Joseph McCarthy. That is, journalists regularly report the words of powerful figures, but only rarely challenge them on the facts. It’s just one of the reasons that President Obama’s quest for near-universal health care is hanging by a thread, and could still be defeated.

A bit of review. Last year the House and the Senate both passed health-care-reform bills with language aimed at ensuring that the current ban on federal funding of abortions would remain in place. Pro-life activists claim the House language is tougher, but other observers say the two bills would accomplish the same thing. Here is Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in a recent appearance on ABC News’ “This Week”:

The president has said from the outset, we don’t want to change the status quo on abortion funding. Neither the Senate or the House bill has any federal funding for abortion, none. Yes, abortion services are provided, and people will pay out of their own pockets, in both the Senate and the House, but they do it in slightly different ways.

Now, I understand that Sebelius isn’t a neutral analyst. Rep. Bart Stupak, the Democrat who wrote the anti-abortion language that’s in the House bill, says he will oppose the Senate bill, which is under consideration by the House this week. So it’s complicated. Yet there are ample reasons to believe that the concerns Stupak has voiced are wrong, and that, therefore, Boehner and his ilk are exploiting the always-volatile issue of abortion rights for sheer political gain, knowing they can get away with it. Here are three compelling pieces of evidence:

1. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonpartisan Web site PolitiFact.com reports that Stupak is just plain wrong — as in “false” — in claiming that every enrollee in the government health-care exchanges that would be created by the proposal would be required to help fund abortion. In addition, PolitiFact notes that the Senate anti-abortion language was written by Sen. Ben Nelson, who’s pro-life. Finally, PolitiFact looks at a claim that a loophole would allow federally funded community health centers to provide abortions as “highly misleading” and “barely true.”

2. A serious pro-life Democrat, Rep. Dale Kildee, announced yesterday that he will support the Senate language after concluding that it will not lead to taxpayer funding of abortions. “I have listened carefully to both sides, sought counsel from my priest, advice from family, friends and constituents, and I have read the Senate abortion language more than a dozen times,” Kildee, who once studied for the priesthood, told the New York Times. “I am convinced that the Senate language maintains the Hyde Amendment, which states that no federal money can be used for abortion.”

3. A coalition representing more than 50,000 Catholic nuns released a letter yesterday supporting the health-care proposal, including the Senate language, thus contradicting a stand taken by the U.S. Conference of Bishops. Have the nuns suddenly become pro-choice? No, they have not, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We agree that there shouldn’t be any federal funding of abortion,” Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, is quoted as saying. “From our reading of the bill, there isn’t any federal funding of abortion.”

Legalisms aside, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof today predicts that the health-care bill, if it becomes law, will lead to a dramatic decrease in the number of abortions, since research has shown that access to health care correlates with fewer abortions.

Since the health-care debate began a year ago, Obama and the Democrats have done a miserable job of explaining the stakes, and the media have largely engaged in their typically mindless “he said/she said” horse-race coverage. When the media do attempt to tease out the truth (as in this CNN “Fact Check”), the results are often muddled with so much fake even-handedness that news consumers are left not knowing what to think.

Perhaps in examining just this small aspect of the debate, we can detect a larger pattern.

Photo (cc) by republicanconference and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Unwarranted speculation

Speculation, the bane of political journalism, is even more out of place when it comes to covering religion. For instance: a piece by Jeff Israely about the late Ted Kennedy and the Catholic Church, posted on Time.com last Friday and revised as events proved Israely’s sources to be misguided.

Israely reported that, during the summer, President Obama delivered a letter from Kennedy to Pope Benedict XVI, the contents of which were secret, but which likely made the case for a papal blessing. Quoting conservative sources, Israely suggested that such a blessing was unlikely, given Kennedy’s pro-choice stand on abortion rights. Israely wrote:

One veteran official at the Vatican, of U.S. nationality, expressed the view of many conservatives about the Kennedy clan’s rapport with the Catholic Church: “Why would he even write a letter to the Pope? The Kennedys have always been defiantly in opposition to the Roman Catholic magisterium.”

As it turned out, the contents of Kennedy’s letter were revealed at a graveside service, as was the Vatican’s response. According to the Boston Globe:

The Vatican reply came two weeks [after Obama delivered Kennedy's letter]: “His Holiness prays that in the days ahead you may be sustained in faith and hope, and granted the precious grace of joyful surrender to the will of God our merciful Father.”…

The Vatican response was strikingly pastoral in tone, expressing the pope’s “concern and his spiritual closeness’’ to Kennedy, and bestowing on the senator an apostolic blessing from the pope. That the Vatican responded at all is news — conservative bloggers have for days been claiming that the alleged lack of a response was evidence of the Vatican’s antipathy to Kennedy.

Israely also indulged in speculation as to whether Cardinal Seán O’Malley would decline to preside over Kennedy’s funeral because of the late senator’s pro-choice policies. O’Malley didn’t preside — but the prominent role he nevertheless played would seem to prove that bit of speculation wrong as well.

To be sure, Israely wasn’t predicting the future so much as he was reporting the speculation of conservative church officials as to what might happen. But he still managed to leave the mistaken impression that the church would use Kennedy’s death to send a stern message to pro-choice politicians.

(Thanks to Steve Burgard, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern, for helping me think this item through.)