Monday, March 29, 2010

'Pope not intimidated by petty gossip' is a media fabrication

The allegations about Pope Benedict XVI's handling of sexual abuse cases, discussed below, have produced astonishing press misrepresentations which have traversed the world. There is a building narrative about the "intransigent pontiff indifferent to abuse claims."

This false narrative needs to be halted both by those who care about the Catholic Church and by those who care about the credibility of the press.

The latest grave problem focuses on the Pope's supposed remarks about intimidation and petty gossip.

The problem apparently originates in coverage of Pope Benedict's Palm Sunday address. A Reuters piece written by Phil Pullella and linked by Drudge, titled Pope signals won't be intimidated by abuse critics,

Pullella's slant begins on the third paragraph:

"While he did not directly mention the scandal involving sexual abuse of children by priests, parts of his sermon could be applicable to the crisis he and the Roman Catholic Church are facing,"

That "could be" then becomes a basis for a load of inflammatory speculation as the Reuters writer presents himself as a reliable interpreter of these "signals."

His next paragraph reads:

"The pontiff said faith in God helps lead one 'toward the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.'"

The implication, of course, is that the Pope thinks the abuse allegations are "petty gossip" used to "intimidate" him. This is the hook most major media, including Reuters, used to attract readers and spin the story.

But looking at the whole address gives a much different picture.

Unsurprisingly, the Pope's comments are about Jesus Christ. The source for the quote about intimidation and gossip is at the close of the third paragraph:

But this external rout is above all an image of the interior movement of existence, which occurs in the following of Christ: It is an ascent to the true height of being human. Man can choose an easy path and avoid all toil. He can also descend to what is lower. He can sink into lies and dishonesty. Jesus goes ahead of us, and he goes up to what is above. He leads us to what is great, pure, he leads us to the healthy air of the heights: to life according to truth; to the courage that does not let itself be intimidated by the gossip* of dominant opinions; to the patience that stands up for and supports the other. He leads us to availability to the suffering, to the abandoned; to the loyalty that stands with the other even when the situation makes it difficult.

Without taking the grossest journalistic license, these comments are clearly not specific to the headlines of the day. The reporter made the common error (and trick) of treating the leading media narrative as the narrative at the forefront of his subject's mind.

Now bad headline writers, including the Drudge Report, think Pope Benedict dismissed the NY Times report as "petty gossip" intended to intimidate.*

This malpractice is a despicable form of misrepresentation.

But it gets worse. Now media outlets are asking those poor victims of sexual abuse how they feel about the Pope's comments, as spun by Reuters.

NBC News said the phrase "stunned" Boston victim Gary Bergeron, who responded:

"'Intimidation' is what we felt decades ago, as we started coming forward.’Petty Gossip' is what our claims were called."

So thanks to the media, a victim of sexual abuse now suspects the Pope is uncaring and intransigent because of a phrase that didn't even address the issue.

The papal curia has the public relations sense of a brick. It can be self-serving for them to see these reports as an organized (or unorganized) smear campaign.

But at this point, it's getting easier to agree with that diagnosis.

Media manipulation in this case won't help expose and correct genuine wrongdoings. Indeed, it will only confirm the curia's perception of a hostile and inaccurate press.

The media's own inaccuracy in reporting Pope Benedict's remarks is confirming their reputation as purveyors of "idle gossip." What an ironic twist!

* It is questionable whether the Pope even meant "gossip." Other accounts translated "gossip" as "chatter," which makes more sense to me. The Italian, "chiacchiericcio," derives from the root verb I learned to use in phrases such as "to chat on the internet."

1 comment:

Tyler said...

Good stuff, thanks for your work.