Paper Trail

National Catholic Reporter at Fiftyby Arthur Jones

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 312p $30

As The National Catholic Reporter marks the 50th anniversary of its founding this October, it’s worth considering how long the odds were against the paper’s success. From the start, the editors had small budgets to finance their big dreams. Despite meager resources, the founders set out to create an independent newspaper that circulated nationally. They focused coverage on a set of self- described progressive issues, hardly the stuff of long-term, mass-market appeal. They based the newspaper in Kansas City, not in the media and advertising centers on the coasts. And yet, N.C.R. has managed over the years to offer not only detailed and at times groundbreaking coverage of the Catholic Church across America, but also strong reporting from the Vatican, Latin America and Asia.

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Arthur Jones, editor of the paper from 1975 to 1980 and editor-at-large afterward, tells this story through the lens of the editors and publishers who captained N.C.R. through both a stormy media market and the controversies of the post-Vatican II church.

Two factors emerge in the book to explain why the paper has managed to continue attracting enough of a readership to survive. One is the quality of the reporting. Jones, who worked at Forbes, notes that many of N.C.R.’s editors and writers over the years have held good positions in major secular news organizations, where they no doubt could have earned more if they so chose. They’re pros.

The second is the staff’s deep commitment to the Catholic Church and, in particular, its teachings on social justice. “The New Testament came easily to the paper’s lay editors,” Jones writes, noting that three had been seminarians, one had been ordained and another is a woman religious. In Jones’s portrayal, the editors’ vision of what the church is and should be is at the core of what amounts to a media ministry rooted in the biblical tradition of prophetic witness.

But what may seem like prophetic witness to N.C.R.’s friends has been viewed by critics as destructive to the church and ideologically biased. As Jones notes, bishops stung by the paper’s hard-hitting reporting and dissenting editorials have twice called for the name “Catholic” to be dropped from the masthead. Within four years of the paper’s 1964 founding, Kansas City’s Bishop Charles Helmsing, initially a friend to N.C.R., condemned it as “a platform for the airing of heretical views on the church and its divinely constituted structure.”

By that time, N.C.R. had already published one of its great scoops: a 1967 article revealing that the Papal Commission on birth control had recommended to Pope Paul VI that he end the church’s ban on artificial contraception. N.C.R. had also run articles calling for women’s ordination to the priesthood and questioning the virgin birth. Helmsing raised the possibility that the writers had automatically excommunicated themselves under canon law. The paper’s founding editor, Robert G. Hoyt, wrote in reply, “We intend to go on being a Catholic paper.”

Hoyt was a former Norbertine seminarian whose approach to journalism—boundless enthusiasm for aggressive reporting and tough-minded opinion pieces advocating social justice and church reform—became part of the paper’s DNA. Throughout the book, Jones provides good portraits of the paper’s leaders, especially editor and publisher Thomas C. Fox, who began his career reporting from Vietnam, where Time’s Saigon bureau chief called him “the best hire I ever made.”

N.C.R. has had many fine moments, and Jones does a good job of putting the paper’s achievements in the context of the changing times. Those who want to walk through the great controversies over U.S. foreign policy, the role of women in the church, economic justice, sexual morality and the power of the papacy as viewed in N.C.R. will enjoy this book. Those who disagree with N.C.R.’s self-described progressive stands would likely be put off, especially since Jones fights some of the old battles anew.

One of the paper’s greatest moments came with a June 7, 1985, story that uncovered the clergy sexual abuse scandal nearly 17 years before the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning January 2002 exposé. Its opening paragraphs were indeed prophetic witness:

In cases throughout the nation, the Catholic Church is facing scandals and being forced to pay millions of dollars in claims to families whose sons have been molested by Catholic priests.

These are serious and damaging matters that have victimized the young and innocent and fueled old suspicions against the Catholic church and a celibate clergy. But a related and broader scandal seemingly rests with the local bishops and a national episcopal leadership that, as yet, has set no policy on how to respond to these cases.

For a long time, N.C.R. was left nearly alone with this explosive story as it continued to probe the issue with little follow-up in the rest of the news media. Jones reports that the story led a priest on the N.C.R. board to urge that Fox be fired, but that no one seconded the motion. He reprints passages from some angry letters to the editor, but more detail on what it was like to be at the cutting edge of this emotionally fraught story would have been useful.

The book would have been stronger if it delved more deeply into criticism of the paper. That’s an important part of any institution’s story. Early on, Jones quotes a 1997 article in which the University of Notre Dame’s R. Scott Appleby wrote that N.C.R. was “vulnerable to criticism [because] it was narrowly theological, biased, and contentious for its own sake, thereby undermining Catholic unity.” Jones excuses himself from this debate because “it requires a detached observer.” But outside criticism seems a rather large topic to sidestep in such a book, and minimizing it risks making the account seem self-congratulatory.

A major internal debate also could have used further consideration. Jones notes that editor Michael Farrell, ousted by the N.C.R. board in 2000, apparently after becoming embroiled in disputes with Fox and Jones about the paper’s direction, wrote a memo seeking to justify his use of softer features to complement the news reports. “If the paper is not more entertaining, not in the tabloid but in the reader-friendly sense, it will be difficult to attract new readers who may not share the 1960s commitment to what is becoming a boring repetition of peace, justice and church reform,” wrote Farrell, a former priest.

Jones dismisses Farrell’s dissent out of hand as “a fine vision, for a magazine.” And yet Farrell’s proposals were in tune with ideas being advanced at many newspapers as they tried to attract younger readers. This was a struggle for the paper’s identity, fought at its highest level—an important part of its story.

As an admirer of N.C.R., I found that this book deepened my appreciation for the paper, starting with the sheer unlikelihood of its longevity. It made me want to know more. In his introduction, Jones makes clear that his book is not intended as a full history of The National Catholic Reporter. Rather, it is “the inside story told by an insider who cares.” And a noteworthy story it is.

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