On Catholic Journalism, Obama and Abortion

Readers have asked for further comment from me on President Barack Obama’s “round robin” with religious editors and reporters. I have to say I learned a number of things that day–mostly about journalism. First, my respect for bread and butter journalists, like CNS’s Pat Zapor, grew. In the time it took me to lunch with her boss, Tony Spence, (on another matter) and ride home to N.Y., she had posted three superb pieces. One dealt with the question I had posed about the G-8 and the world’s poor and she promises another Monday on another topic my first blog touched on, the president’s admiration for the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Secondly, competition to break a story is as strong in Catholic journalism as elsewhere. My confrere and predecessor Tom Reese was on the West Coast unable to attend the meeting. But the White House appears to have copied him on the transcript, and he beat us all breaking the story on Newsweek’s religion blog–with a Washington dateline! (Don’t believe everything you read.)


Thirdly, the determination of some on the right who, in the president’s words, “keep on anticipating the worst from us” received vivid proof in our meeting. (MSW, please note.) Fr. Owen Kearns, L.C., publisher and editor in chief of The National Catholic Register, wanted to press the president on the anti-Catholicism in his administration. Citing a line in the president’s Cairo address about hiding hostility to religion behind the pretense of liberalism, Father Kearns asked whether the administration didn’t harbor anti-Catholic sentiment. The president asked for specifics, and Fr. Kearns identified Joshua Du Bois, the director of the White House Office for Faith-based and Neighborhood Initiatives, as an offender. Rev. DuBois, Fr. Kearns alleged had called the pope “a discredited leader.” Kearns added that the president had backed him up.

The Rev. DuBois, sitting directly behind Father Kearns, denied the accusation and identified the offender as Harry Knox, an outside advisor to the office, who is the religious liaison for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian organization. It was the first the president had heard of the incident, and he had never backed up such an offending statement.

Journalists should know that if you are going to call an official out to his face you ought to have your facts straight. But nothing can deter the Catholic right’s idee fixe that Barack Obama is bound and determined to do the worst he can by the pro-life agenda, even when their position is shown up as empty prejudice as it was that morning.

Finally, there are a couple of headlines that grab reader’s attention. “The Top Ten” of anything, and giving a grade. Michael Sean Winters, though he didn’t participate in the round robin and, as far as I know, didn’t have access to the full transcript, gave the president a ‘B’. It is not exactly clear to me why. But, I am sure it grabbed readers’ eyes. Our meeting wasn’t a philosophy seminar, as MSW seemed to understand. Was it simply because the president couldn’t grant everything we Catholics would ask on the abortion question? That seems inappropriate for journalists to expect from any politician.

There were only two questions related to abortion. One on the conscience clause and one on the committee searching for common ground. The president’s response to the first was in the affirmative, but the specific policy is still under review, and in the case of the committee, though it has been corresponding and holding conference calls, its first meeting will only take place sometime soon. On both counts, it seems we will have to wait to see how the president and his team score on a Catholic test.

The weakness in the meeting, it seemed to me, was on our side. Only two journalists’ questions dealt with the president’s meeting with the pope and the broader international agenda they anticipate discussing–the reason the White House had brought us there. We Catholic journalists were preoccupied, I am afraid, with American Catholic politics. We couldn’t see beyond the eastern seaboard, it seemed. Perhaps the appearance Tuesday of Pope Benedict’s new social encyclical will open our eyes to the global responsibilities both pope and president want us to address.

Drew Christiansen, S.J.

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9 years 5 months ago
To John Stangle:  War no longer seems to be an area of concern to liberal Catholics now that Obama is at the helm.  Abortion is not an issue and war is only an issue when there is a Republican President.  It makes one wonder what liberals really believe in.
9 years 5 months ago
Matt, I am not sure whether the group of advisors you refer to is the same one President Obama, referred to in the round robin. That group, which continues to provide spiritual counsel to him, included, he said, some Catholics. Perhaps someone at CNS who covers the White House more regularly would have a more precise answer about Catholic advisors. One thing is sure the president knows Catholic social teaching a lot better than many life-long Catholic politicians. He was aware that the pope's new encyclical will appear while he is in Russia, and I am pretty confident he will have read it before he meets Pope Benedict. Drew  
9 years 5 months ago
John, There was no question about militarism. As I pointed out in the last point of this blog, there were only two questions on international matters, one, my own, on the G-* and global poverty and one from the Vatican Radio reporter on Middle East peace. I am incliend to agree wtih you that the media, including the Catholic media, is in a "fuss bubble.", that was the point I was making. But those who think militarism is the world's only problem may live in a "fuss bubble" of their own. Drew
9 years 5 months ago
Drew, Here's Laurie Goodstein's story from the NYT/Boston Globe, dated March 15, on the formation of a council of a handful of pastors that President Obama expects to turn to for counsel: www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2009/03/15/circle_of_pastors_helps_to_advise_president/ I had to type it out as it would not copy and paste for some reason; hope it's correct. They are all evangelicals, not the much larger inter-faith group that is most often mentioned in discussions of the Obama administration and religion. It seems like this was intended to be a more personal group where the president could engage candidly and seek advice. I'm glad to hear that you think President is conversant on Catholic Social Teaching. That seemed to be the case from the Notre Dame speech, but I wasn't sure if he had a working understanding or if he had merely included some points of Catholic Social Teaching under advice or via research. Glad to here that wasn't the case and he's the real deal.  
9 years 5 months ago
Want my opinion?  Mr obama hypnotized the voters to elect him.  He has hypnotized the media so they justify  anythig he ordains and now he has hypnotized the Roman Catholic media.  His only claim to fame is his "silver tongue" rhetoric.  What is that expression 'speaking with forked tongue"?  He says a lot but really says nothing.  Do you wonder why I say he uses hypnosis when he needs to convince his audience?  I have been a practicing hypnotherapist for many years and know how it works and how effective it is.  You walk into a room with set ideas and perhaps questions you had to ask and you leave doubting yourself andconvinced your ideas were erroneous and wonder why you even wanted to ask the questions.  How wonderful this person(Obama) presented himself .  He played with your  subconscious mind and you thanked him for it.  Honest!!
9 years 5 months ago
"Their position"??  What's your position?  You are an ordained Roman Catholic Priest of the Society of Jesus.  Are you for the sanctity of life from conception until natural death? 
9 years 5 months ago
 Your vignette and the one following is more fussy than informative; what jumped out to me is that no mention is made of the tens of billions of dollars going to the military to conquer Afghanistan and other boondogles. No Catholic interest in these subjects or Catholic kids that end up in these projects? Why did the government just give Oskosh a contract for 2.5 billion for 2,500 armoured vehicles. Is this the stimulus plan or some other plan? Do the editors of NCR, National Catholic Register, and America really live in a fuss bubble? And cancel my subscription to Sunday Visitor and Commonweal too.
9 years 5 months ago
Thanks for the frank account, padre. Reading it, I felt like I was in the room-albeit a room with an awful lot of baggage in it! I have another question for you. Do you sense that President Obama wants to engage the writers and editors of the Catholic press to get a better handle on how both Catholic Americans and Rome understand the issues that were and were not discussed at your meeting? Part of the reason I ask this is that when the president put together a circle of pastors as religious advisers earlier this year, there were no Catholics in the group. If he can't turn to a Catholic in that circle to get a better understanding of topic x or y, is he making up for that by engaging you and Kerns and Reese and Zapor? If so, do you think he will continue to do so?
9 years 5 months ago
Is Harry Knox still advising the Obama Administration?


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