Archbishop Says Mass Media Today Seems More Hostile to Christian Values

By Anna Maria Basquez
The Pilot
September 29, 2010

DENVER (CNS) -- A new sentiment in the mass media seems more hostile to Christian values, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput told a conference of 150 religion reporters Sept. 24.

He urged the journalists from across the nation and overseas "to understand believers and religious institutions as they understand themselves" and to have humility in their work.

"Freedom of the press clearly includes the right to question the actions and motives of religious figures and institutions," the archbishop told the gathering.

"But freedom doesn't excuse prejudice or poor handling of serious material, especially people's religious convictions," he said. "What's new today is the seeming collusion --or at least an active sympathy -- between some media organizations and journalists, and political and sexual agendas hostile to traditional Christian beliefs."

Archbishop Chaput's talk, "Religion, Journalism and the New American Orthodoxy," was the keynote address at the Religion Newswriters Association 61st annual conference in Denver.

"This new orthodoxy seems to influence the selection of religious news and how that news gets presented," he said. "It seems to frame which opinions are appropriate and which ones won't be heard. And it seems to guide the historical narrative that media present to their audiences.

"This new thinking seems to presume a society much more secular and much less religious than anything in America's past or warranted by present facts," he continued, "a society where people are free to worship and believe whatever they want, so long as they don't intrude their religious idiosyncrasies on government, the economy or culture."

During the question-and-answer period after his talk, Laurie Goodstein, national correspondent for The New York Times, asked the archbishop why he has not been taking her phone calls or granting interviews to her newspaper.

Archbishop Chaput said he made a judgment call based on a prior experience when he was misrepresented by the news organization.

His decision stems from a Times reporter misquoting him during John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004, which was proved by a recording the archdiocese has. The paper claimed the Catholic bishops were trying to derail Kerry's campaign over the Catholic senator's support for legal abortion.

In his speech, Archbishop Chaput also stated that the Times "treated Pope Benedict XVI badly in the latest series of your chronicles (of abuse scandals)."

However, he invited Goodstein to speak with him briefly after the talk. Upon further questioning by Cathy Grossman of USA Today about granting interviews to the Times, Archbishop Chaput said he might be open to speaking to the newspaper again for stories in the future "if I see differences over time."

Highlighting how much he reads newspapers, he said he is "addicted" to reading on his Kindle.

The archbishop fielded a question on how the sex abuse scandals were covered when Denver was a two-newspaper town.

"The Denver Post was generally fair in its coverage, if not in its placement," he said, adding that on past issues of objectivity he felt the now-gone Rocky Mountain News had a more fair approach to the church.

The News published its final edition Feb. 27, 2009. Citing multimillion dollar losses, E.W. Scripps, the paper's owner, decided to shut down the 150-year-old paper when it could not find a buyer.

Describing religion journalists as some of "the most introspective people I have ever known in my life," Archbishop Chaput encouraged religion reporters to gain more understanding, to tend toward self-knowledge and self-criticism, and to be skeptical of social data, which while useful, he said, doesn't determine the future.

"The late media scholar Neil Postman liked to argue that social science isn't really 'science' at all," he noted, "but a disguised form of moral theology."

"The deficiencies in today's coverage of religion are too real to ignore," Archbishop Chaput said. "And they're not simply issues of deadlines and resources. They're also attitudinal; even ideological.

"One of the worst habits many Catholics had at the start of the clergy sex abuse crisis, including many bishops, was to minimize a very grave problem," he said. "But news media show many of the same patterns of denial, vanity, obstinacy and institutional defensiveness in dealing with criticism of their own failures.

"We now commonly see religion coverage that's illiterate about the subject matter, or narrows the scope of facts or sources to fit an unfriendly narrative -- especially when it comes to the Christian faith and its traditional content," he continued. "Coverage of Islam tends to be equally ill-informed and confused on matters of history; but also more respectful and even sympathetic, as in the recent New York mosque controversy.

"Know yourself and your prejudices," he urged the audience. "Acknowledge mistakes, and don't make them a habit. Be as honest with yourself as you want your sources -- me -- to be. Understand believers and their institutions as they understand themselves. And if you do that -- and do it with integrity, fairness and humility-then you'll have the gratitude of the people you cover, and you'll embody the best ideals of your profession."

At the noon luncheon, Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and author of "Beyond a House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored by Washington, Wall Street and the Media Divided," shared his thoughts on Americans and religion.

Anderson said statistics show 84 percent of Americans believe in God, three-fourths of all Americans believe religion is at least somewhat important in their lives and two-thirds of Americans look to religion to help define their morals, while less than one-third look to government.

"It's almost as if we have two Americas," Anderson said, describing the polarized America of politics and the media and the overlooked America where people share a moral consensus.

"There is a moral center in America," he asserted, adding that our nation should look to that center to move the country "beyond a house divided."

Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.