When Is News Not News? When It's Made Up
Last week, I called attention to what appeared to me an extraordinarily biased report over at the Catholic News Agency (CNA) regarding the bishops’ meeting in St. Petersburg. The report contained quotes from what the report said was Cardinal George’s speech to the bishops at a closed-door meeting. I wondered about the use of such quotation marks from a speech one was not present to hear, but figured they had gotten a leaked copy of the text. The CNA report claimed Cardinal George made disparaging remarks about Sr. Carol Keehan and the Catholic Health Association, lumping them with "other so-called Catholic groups." It said that CHA met with three bishops of an ad hoc committee on health care, but that the meeting yielded "the same disappointing results." The report said that Cardinal George had warned his brother bishops that CHA was in danger of creating a "parallel magisterium."
Needless to say, Raymond Arroyo led his EWTN program on Friday night with the CNA story. Mr. Arroyo never passes on an opportunity to slam Sr. Carol and, to hear him tell it, the CNA story was a fifth Gospel. It also got picked by various crank sites in the RC blogosphere. You could almost hear and see the bobble-heads nodding at once, "Bad Sr. Carol." As the American Papist wrote, "These are very strong words and Cardinal George would not express them lightly."
It is true that Cardinal George would not express such words lightly. But, the problem lay elsewhere: Cardinal George did not express those words at all. At the USCCB’s media blog, they posted an article by Helen Osman, a member of the USCCB staff who, unlike the unidentified CNA reporter, was in the room when Cardinal George addressed the group. She identified the three supposed quotes in the CNA story above that were never said. Indeed, she went back to check the tape of the meeting to be sure. Osman labeled the quotes "fabricated," which is arguably the most damning condemnation in the journalistic world.
The USCCB may not always be pleased with my arguments regarding the health care debate, but at least they know that we at America magazine do not fabricate stories. Surely, Archbishop Chaput, in whose archdiocese CNA is located, will launch some kind of investigation into what amounts to not only false witness but also false advertising. Conservative Catholics like to accuse progressive Catholic voices of being "so-called Catholics." The American Papist labels progressive Catholic groups "catholyk," which reminds me of a particularly obnoxious high school girl who would change the spellings of words and put smiley faces over a lower-case "I" or turn the "o" in the word "love" into a heart. But, in this instance, the Catholic News Agency has amply warranted being labeled a "so-called news agency." I leave the issue of their Catholicity to their confessors.
CNA’s complete fabrication of a story should not obscure us from remembering the important thing to come from the bishops’ meeting in St. Petersburg. It is abundantly clear that Sr. Carol is not persona non grata. It is abundantly clear that the bishops and Sr. Carol are committed to repairing whatever breach in their relationship grew out of their disagreement over the final health care bill. As Cardinal George told NCR’s John Allen, a reporter who does not fabricate quotes, both CHA and the bishops are committed to "reshap[ing] the relationship in dialogue together." Cardinal George added, "We're dealing with people of good will, so dialogue should be possible." I do not expect Mr. Arroyo will lead with that quote next week, nor shall I hold my breathe waiting for CNA and the rightwing Catholic blogosphere to admit their errors. But, really, what do they say to themselves when they are caught just making stuff up? How do their well-formed Catholic consciences respond when they are caught with their journalistic pants down? The inevitable question wells up: Have you no shame?
Michael Sean Winters