Exaggerating news to hold viewer attention is a disturbing trend on TV cable news. A TSW reader weighs in on Catholic scandal in the news.
I thought “My New Year’s Resolution About Gossip” might spark some debate about the difference between news and nuisance. We live in communities, after all, and we are not islands unto ourselves. It’s good to be concerned about your neighbor, and even to know of your neighbor’s woes and struggles. Not all talk about others is gossip. Most of us know the difference, and, of course, most of us have also crossed the line between the two. I’m no exception. I do very little talking about others, but since my New Year’s resolution, I’m more aware of what I say and why.
We also all know the difference between news and nuisance. Greg Erlandson, publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, knows the difference, too, and it prompted him to add cable news to his list of things to avoid in 2011 (OSV, “New Years Resolutions,” January 2). He clearly considered at least some of what passes for news on 24-hour cable news channels to be more akin to nuisance when he wrote:
“The talking heads seem engaged in an anger and anxiety arms race, playing on ignorance and fears to get the best ratings.”
Greg Erlandson resolved to find “more rational and less incendiary ways” to be informed of the news. A couple of OSV readers reacted in letters to the editor. Dave Maxwell of Adrian, Michigan wrote that for him, “FOX News and The Wall Street Journal are the only reliable and balanced sources for the daily news.” It seems that a lot of people agree. I’m not writing an advertisement for Fox News or The WSJ, but both news outlets are pulling in the highest ratings these days. I suspect there’s a good reason for that, but it may also cause other news outlets to compete for ratings, sometimes by appealing to our basest nature.
In some previous posts – like “The Exile of Father Dominic Menna” – I’ve written with exasperation about the blurring of news and nuisance in The Boston Globe and The New York Times. I’m not alone in that feeling. In the last six months of 2010, The Boston Globe’s circulation dropped nearly 16 percent while its owner, The New York Times, had a 5.5 percent decline. Both papers, once at the pinnacle of their field, spun this news fact by stating that their rate of decline has slowed slightly compared to previous years. I can relate to that. It’s like saying that I’m losing my hair more slowly this year than last year. The operative word is still “losing.”
The Globe and the Times point to decline in the newspaper industry itself. But The Wall Street Journal was the sole major U.S. newspaper with an increased circulation in each of the last several years while other papers decline. It is now, as it has been for several years, the largest newspaper in the U.S.
It’s interesting that Fox News and the WSJ are both owned by News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. I find the news coverage of both to have a similar, even tone. I’m not going to go so far as to say that Fox News is always as “fair and balanced” as it claims, but I find less hype there, and more of an air of responsibility for how news is covered. I don’t listen to it with a constant feeling that someone’s trying to sell me something; trying to steer me toward a particular viewpoint. I detest the feeling of being “handled” while watching or reading the news.
OUR WINDOW ON THE WORLD
Last year in “Jack Bauer Lost The Unit on Caprica,” I wrote of how television in prison saves taxpayers an enormous amount of money. Prisoners here can purchase a small flat-screen television from the prison commissary, and their commissary profits pay for basic cable.
Television in this prison costs taxpayers nothing, but overcrowded prisons around the country would have to double their staffs without it. In prison, TV is a window to the outside world, though it’s a one-way window. Prisoners listen to the media, but the media rarely listens to them.
You might be surprised by what prisoners spend their time watching on television. Crime shows, legal thrillers, and police dramas are at the very bottom of the popularity list. And contrary to popular opinion, prisoners never root for the bad guys. There are a few programs that I watch, but I’m picky. The drama I live in during each day in prison is tedious, and watching more of it on television is not something I look forward to. Every now and then The Wall Street Journal will list the top rated TV shows, and usually I’ve never seen, or even heard of most of them. Like many in prison, I am a cable news junkie. So despite Greg Erlandson’s New Year’s resolution editorial, I haven’t yet turned off the news.
NEWS THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
But I’ve been a lot more aware of what passes for news and accuracy on the news channels. I have a recent example. On its face, it might seem a small thing to make a big deal about, but it’s just the tip of an iceberg. In November, TSW reader Dorothy Stein commented on my post, “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” Dorothy is one of a number of non-Catholics who have been reading These Stone Walls, and I think she has something very important to say. It would be best to simply repeat her entire comment. Here it is:
“Fidelity is the only proper response to what is happening in religion and in the news media, but I would add to it ‘truth.’ I have always admired people of faith who refuse to let falsehoods float free in the media. Catholics should not allow their faith to be demeaned, and their Church to be denigrated, simply because it suits someone else’s agenda. Here is an egregious case in point: a few nights ago while watching CNN News, I listened to a discussion led by commentator Anderson Cooper. His guest was John Walsh of ‘America’s Most Wanted.’ Mr. Walsh made a statement on camera as follows: ‘100,000 victims of priests were denied an audience with the Pope to tell him about how their lives have been shattered.’
This was patently untrue, and efforts to point that out to CNN went without response. The truth is that on October 31, sixty people protested near the Vatican in Rome. Sixty, not 100,000 though one can see how easy it is to confuse such numbers. Of the 60, approximately 30 claimed to have been victimized by Catholic priests in decades past. The others were activists using the spotlight for some other agenda. The protesters were outnumbered by reporters two to one, and the Vatican attempted to meet with them, but it seemed they were only interested in a media event. For the news media to later say that there were 100,000 people there is a gross distortion and an example of using the media as a weapon against the Church. Catholics should not stand for it. Father Gordon MacRae was right on target in his assessment of this gross double standard.”
I saw the same episode of Anderson Cooper on CNN that Dorothy Stein saw, and my initial reaction to John Walsh’s comment was the same as her’s. The difference is that as a Catholic, I am so accustomed to media distortions aimed at the Catholic Church that I have insulated myself to them.
When I saw Dorothy’s comment, I thought her point was worth passing around. Catholics might be so embarrassed and depressed by the “Scandal in the Catholic Church” that exaggeration and inaccuracy in the news are given a free pass. Dorothy Stein says it’s a mistake to passively let gross distortions go by unchecked. I agree. When we leave the seeds of distortion unchallenged, they grow into pernicious weeds. They become “availability bias,” the media phenomenon I wrote of in “Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” People believe the distortions just because they hear them repeated over and over on the news.
This isn’t about Anderson Cooper or John Walsh. As news commentators and analysts, I generally respect them both, though my respect for CNN diminished somewhat when it failed to respond to Dorothy’s message. This is important for the very reason implied in my title. CNN presents itself as “America’s Newsroom,” and accuracy – as well as admitting to inaccuracy – is vital for the integrity of the news we are presented as consumers.
Like Dorothy Stein, I am left to wonder what else has been exaggerated by John Walsh or by CNN to make a point. The very concept of priests and sexual abuse is tragic enough all by itself. It requires no exaggeration to drive the point home. The result of such exaggeration is exactly what I described in my series, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused.” It diminishes the integrity of the news. It diminishes fair treatment. It diminishes justice itself.
DO THE MATH, JOHN!
Some simple math would help clarify the matter for John Walsh and for CNN. It would not have even been possible for “100,000 victims of sexual abuse by priests” to show up at Saint Peter’s Square for the simple reason that they don’t exist. I know it sometimes generates a yawn when cold, hard facts are injected into news coverage of an emotional rant, but consider this: In its sweeping report on sexual abuse claims against priests, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice revealed in 2004 that about 11,000 people accused Catholic priests of abuse over fifty-four years from 1950 to 2004.
That number refers to accusations, not corroborated claims. Most could not be corroborated, and most, especially the 70 percent who waited 20 to 50 years to speak up, were accompanied by expectations of money – lots of money. As Boston attorney Harvey Silverglate wrote in “Fleecing the Shepherd” (Boston Phoenix, Dec. 10-16, 2004):
“There is considerable doubt about the veracity of many of the new claims, quite a few of which were made after it became apparent that the Church was willing to settle sex abuse cases for big bucks.”
This aspect of the point John Walsh sought to make on CNN has been woefully neglected by news outlets, and especially by the cable news channels that seem to compete for viewer interest with lots of hype. We’ve had to rely on writers like David Pierre at The Media Report to provide the balance and perspective that CNN and The New York Times should bring, and could bring, but don’t.
In a terrific article, “Why Catholics Should Care about the News Media Crisis” (This Rock, October 2007) noted Catholic writer and journalist, Russell Shaw, listed some “Tips for the Informed News Consumer.” I summarized them below:
- Get your news from more than one source and more than one medium. Make comparisons about how different news outlets cover stories, including the same story.
- Strictly limit your intake of incendiary talk radio, blogs [but not this one, of course!] and TV interview shows whose hosts bully and humiliate guests.
- Read some serious books about the news business.
- Acquire sound ethical standards for evaluating the media [try "Ethics in Communications" by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication at www.vatican.va ].
- Discuss the news media with others. Consider not only what’s covered, but how.
- Read some intelligent media criticism. [You'll find plenty at www.CatholicLeague.org. Also check out www.newsbusters.org, www.themediareport.com and ].
- Comment on the work of editors and news directors. Let them know when they fall short. [Let's take a cue from Dorothy Stein!]
- Skip media junk. Concentrate on quality news and news commentary.
- This last one is my own: Spend some time at Catalyst Online at the Catholic League site, then give some serious thought to membership. It has made me a very different consumer of the news.
In “The Books of Winter’s Long Night” last week, I mentioned that I’m re-reading Red Rabbit (G.P. Putnam 2002), a Tom Clancy thriller about CIA analyst Jack Ryan trying to expose a KGB plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981. As I wrote last week, Tom Clancy always seems one step ahead of the news! An early chapter in the book describes a meeting between Jack Ryan and Sir Basil Charleston, the fictional director of British intelligence. It takes place circa 1981, and Sir Basil is making a point:
“You know, this CNN news network that just started up on your side of the ocean? It just might change the world. Information has its own way of circulating. Rumors are bad enough. You cannot stop them, and they have a way of acquiring a life of their own.” (Red Rabbit, p. 42).
Editor’s Note: Several of you have expressed a desire to join Fr. MacRae in a Spiritual Communion. He celebrates a private Mass in his prison cell on Sunday evenings between 11 pm and midnight. You’re invited to join in a Holy Hour during that time if you’re able.
Please pray for this priest, and all priests, especially those who are in prison.