Catholic News Service provides vital context that secular media misses. Shutting it down is a mistake.
“Drama is easy,” a woman who had acted on Broadway told me over lunch a few years ago. “Comedy is hard.” When performing a drama, she explained, the actors could expect the same reaction night after night. But with comedy, a joke that bombed on one night might bring the place down the next. With each new audience, the actors needed to figure out how long to wait between lines and how to seamlessly restart a scene after a laugh.
Similarly, I would say, commentary is easy and reporting is hard. I say that as an editor on the editorial page of a city newspaper. There is a reason why investigative reporters are any newspaper’s rock stars. And this is why the U.S. bishops’ decision to shut down Catholic News Service by the end of this year is such a bad thing. CNS, created in 1920, provides vital content to diocesan newspapers and other Catholic publications, including those, like America,that also feature their own original reporting.
Commentary is easy and reporting is hard. There is a reason why investigative reporters are any newspaper’s rock stars.
Reporting takes a peculiar set of gifts, of both personality and mind, developed through training and practice into a special set of skills. They include: a sense of where a story is and exactly what it is; the judgment of whom to talk to and whom to ignore; the willingness to push people to say more than they want to (especially official spokespeople whose job is to spin a story in their employers’ favor); the knowledge of how to probe other sources, including archives and public records; and the ability to organize a story and write it well. These gifts and skills must be applied with energy, patience and rigor, a process that, over time, generates a knowledge of many subjects and a list of reliable sources. All of these skills are best exercised as part of a collegial enterprise.
The journalist’s work, in other words, requires more than the ability to think about things and write about them. Most writers, even most good writers, could not be good reporters. They just don’t have it in them. What they can do with words doesn’t make up for not being able to do what the reporter must do before he or she gets to the words. I have seen some disasters when good writers tried to work as journalists.
Catholic News Service has been, as the editors of Our Sunday Visitor wrote in a recent editorial:
a valuable source of information on issues that affect every Catholic, such as respect for life, immigration, education, culture, racism, government and politics, community violence and Church initiatives, institutions and documents—the list goes on. And [it was] an indispensable source of catechesis—so important especially to those who, in recent decades, may not have received robust or effective formation.
Which is to say: CNS cannot easily be replaced once it is broken up. And this is not just because people with the qualifications I listed above are hard to find, but because CNS and its reporters have something else: loyalty to and love of an institution, in this case the church. (Loyalty, let me note, includes being very critical of the institution when needed.) Creating such an enterprise takes years.
The secular press won’t supply such journalists. Nor will the Protestant religious press. The biggest Catholic publications can’t completely fill the gap, either, because even when they report news, they don’t always have the ability to get their stories out quickly to a national audience, nor the resources to follow up on every story. The National Catholic Reporter comes closest, but it can’t do what CNS has done. A news service is a different kind of operation, one that can do more than other organizations.
In killing CNS, the bishops are removing the only comprehensive and professional source of news the U.S. church has. They are also eliminating a main source of Catholic news for secular newspapers and for Catholic readers who get most of their news about the church from them.
The U.S. church needs an agency to present the important parts of a story that the secular media misses.
CNS is the main source that can tell the church’s story and give the church’s side. I don’t mean that it serves as a public relations agency for the church. But secular and Protestant publications will probably be ignorant of the whole story and may well be hostile toward the church—and this may be understandable, given that many of their journalists only cover the church when it is accused of corruption.
They make different judgments on what is important and significant in the Catholic Church and what is not. They will often misreport stories even when they’re trying to be accurate and fair. One example is the mess that much of the secular press made in trying to explain Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s decision to ban Nancy Pelosi from taking Communion in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. (NPR had to issue a correction after describing the sacrament of Communion as a “symbolic” meal.) They will ignore stories important to Catholics that aren’t news as they understand news.
The U.S. church needs an agency to present the important parts of the story others miss. The bishops’ action was, as I said, baffling. It strikes me also as foolish and a refusal to do two of the main things they, as a group, should be doing: making sure their people know what is happening in the church and why; and giving the rest of the world a reliable and authoritative source for the church’s take on things.
Commentary is easy. The bishops can do that. But reporting is hard, and that the bishops can’t do.