Friday, September 21, 2012

Journalism and the Sin of Detraction

An old friend of mine once said she wished she could buy a newspaper.  If she could, she said, she’d publish nothing but good news for a year.  Imagine what a difference it would make if we were surrounded by the positive in the world instead of the negative.

I thought of her when the controversy about Fr. Groeschel erupted some weeks ago.  Now that the controversy over the comments has died down a bit—even as the rhetoric on both sides in the election gears up—I have a few (probably controversial in themselves) reflections on what passes for reporting these days. 

To wit: when you get right down to it, a good deal of it is no more than an institutionalizing of detraction.  Not to mention outright calumny and certainly wholesale gossip.  From my perspective, at least, it has made me think twice about what I choose to read—even in Catholic blogs and on Catholic sites and especially in Internet comboxes. 

Our society has become so polarized and so sensitized and so antagonistic, sometimes selectively so, that I think it behooves Christians to be particularly careful of what we say and what we read.  I believe the old term is to cultivate  inner and outer silence and the virtue of prudence. 

It’s a habit we sorely need.  These days everyone seems to be pushing words, thoughts, and ideas with little thought to what they mean or what they do—simply giving them birth and then denying any responsibility for their often dreadful effects.  It is well to be reminded we will be called to account for every word we speak.  Perhaps also for every word we write, or say to ourselves in the solitude of our minds or seek  out to hear or read as well?

Anyone following the national news even casually knows how quickly the media, aided by a pervasive sense of off-beat self-righteousness, can gin up a controversy out of almost nothing.  When it comes to Christians—especially Catholics—especially priests—that is particularly so.  That there has been a deterioration in journalistic standards seems pretty evident.  Take a look at this article that presents an view of the journalist’s job not even honored much in the breach any longer:  accurately (or justly) quoting informed voices on both sides of an issue to permit a reader to make an intelligent decision in the matter. 

Which brings me to the Groeschel interview.

There is no doubt that Fr. Groeschel said what he said; I assume the reporter can report words accurately.  But reporting is also a skill that involves judgment and, in the case of a Catholic publication, an awareness of the community of faith, the responsibilities of one to another and of the need of all of us for grace.  It is that which I found lacking in the publication of the interview as it was, particularly galling given that it was in National Catholic Register.

Repeat: there is no question Fr. Groeschel said what he said.   But there is a real question about what he was trying to convey and neither the interview itself nor the way in which it was published served to clarify the meaning of the comments.  There is also no question that Fr. Groeschel has worked for many years to help the American Church respond appropriately—in all arenas-- to sex abuse and priestly scandals.  His efforts in counseling and in helping to establish norms, guidelines and procedures that protect children and prevent potential abusers from entering the ranks of clergy are a monument to his dedication to his vocation  as a Franciscan and his profession as psychologist.  His life has been one of self-sacrifice in the service of Jesus, the extent of which most of us will never know and the like of which we cannot even imagine.

All of the latter is now mostly lost to the larger world; what will be remembered is the single, unfortunate comment of an elderly and debilitated man, impaired by an old head injury and stroke, recovering from surgery, made in the course of a wide ranging interview that, as published, did not clarify what he meant, or put it into context.  Perhaps what was needed was a clearer exercise of  judgment to determine whether it was really representative of Father Groschel’s opinion or even needed publication.

I think this is, in part, a result of the “public has a right to know” mentality that pervades the news media—and the J-schools-- these days.  Instead of providing informed voices on both sides, the standard, in practice, at least, now seems incorporate a more sensationalist aspect: Is the person in the public eye? Will it sell papers?  And too often, in the secular media, there are the corollaries: Will it shed negative light on someone in the public eye?  And if it can do both at the same time, so much the better!  The publication of an interview with Father Groeschel certainly had the potential to be a lovely human-interest story for the Catholic community.  Instead, it provided fodder for the secular press to attack the Church all over again when those corollaries came into play.

There’s no question that some scandals need to be aired.  A president who lies under oath rightly makes himself the subject of inquiry as does one who orchestrates a break-in of a rival’s political office.  In no way do I advocate such a closed approach to reporting that cover-ups of necessary information—things people really do need to know to make informed decisions in their lives-- become the rule of the day. 

But the pendulum has swung far, far to the other side, and there seems very little discretion at all in any media—sadly, it seems, even Catholic ones--in reporting damaging information, perhaps for fear of being accused of covering up.  And that is a pity.  If the reporter failed to appreciate that the comment was potentially damaging, that’s even worse.

To her great and everlasting credit, the Editor responsible for this article apologized for a lack of oversight but in the end it is too little, too late, for great damage has been done to a good man.  The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal had to issue a statement about the matter.  EWTN (parent company of the National Catholic Register) took Fr. Groschel’s show off the air.  The internet was alive with caustic commentary and a brief look at blogs in the aftermath confirms that the story unleashed all manner of hostility and rush to judgment—not of the reporter, or even of Father Groeschel--but of the Church:

            The interview serves to confirm what horrible people populate the upper echelon of the Catholic Church….

            Yet more proof that it is Catholics leaders who are a danger to morality and children….

And on and on and on.

Guess what?  I have neither the right nor the need to know every utterance of Fr. Benedict Groeschel, or anyone else, whether on the journalistic record or off—even in the interests of a human interest story.  I rely on journalists to exercise good—no, excellent, for they are professionals--judgment when it comes to what gets printed and offered for my review.

And this brings me to the sin of detraction: the unjust publication of an unkind truth to those who have no need of the information, especially when it will serve to reduce the individual in the eyes of those who receive it.  I am particularly outraged by the publication of this interview because, in my eyes, it represent just that: detraction.  Unthinking and unintended perhaps, but detraction just the same.

As a lawyer, I suppose the whole matter turns on the definition of unjust. 

In an environment where these is a heightened sense of outrage over abuse in the Church (but not, apparently in schools, Planned Parenthood clinics, or in Hollywood) perhaps Fr. Groeschel’s comments would be important if and only if they really revealed a blame-the-victim mentality within the Church or even in his own ministry.  But a fair examination of his life and his work would indicate that they did not.   And from the advantage of external hindsight—always risky but all I have—it would seem that reflection on what would happen when the comments, unedited and unexplained, hit the media would pretty quickly tip the balance, in my analysis to the “unjust” side of the scale.

Perhaps it’s time that journalists really, truly stopped to consider the larger context of what they report before hitting the send button.  Perhaps the right to know isn’t always as important as the right to reputation and the need not to destroy common ground to no good end.  Maybe it’s time for a little heightened sensitivity for those who end up in the crosshairs of social commentary simply because they are who they are, regardless of what they say.

I am reminded of a very high profile divorce that occurred in my old Florida hometown.  One spouse of a very prominent local couple publicly accused the other of some particularly egregious—potentially criminal—behavior and the papers ran with it careful to couch it in terms of "alleged" misconduct and reports of "the complaint filed stated that...".  Front page news, it went viral long before the term was commonplace, making the national news in very short order.  For weeks, there was an endless stream of articles and broadcasts “updating” the public on the latest allegations and speculation, for there really were no facts in the matter at all and would not be for a very long time.

No one seemed to consider the potential fallout, which was this:  Both spouses—professionals--suffered in their business reputations and both found their respective practices hard-hit because the community was split into two camps—one supporting the wife, the other the husband.  Friendships suffered, even ended, as gossip and discussion “among friends” became heated.  The children of the marriage were scandalized, placed in the untenable position of having to choose between parents and made fun of at school; both began acting out, one taking to petty crime, the other to promiscuity. An indigent legal-aid clinic that depended on one of the spouses for support had to close because lawyers were reluctant to refer to it and clients reluctant to utilize it because of the allegations that had been so publicly made against its benefactor.  The accused spouse spent well over $200,000 in legal fees, which meant that, had the clinic remained open, there would not have been funds available to support it anyway. The children had to transfer from their private school to a public one and the family home had to be sold as the expenses mounted and incomes declined. 

And at the end of it all, it turned out to be a case of bitter misunderstanding with no wrongdoing at all on the part of the accused.  It turns out the other spouse had been listening to rumors and innuendo too…  The story was never adequately corrected in the public record; what had been a front page headline was followed by an obscure story buried in the local section more than a year later as the criminal charges were dropped and the divorce was finalized.  And the Adversary, the Scatterer, still laughs.

All that damage because it seemed the public has “a right” to be kept informed of a marital dispute that was really none of their business in the first place. Dear wages indeed, and not a cent paid by the journalists who wrote the stories, or the editors that promoted them or the outlets that published them.

When I look at the news, I have begun to wonder why anyone thinks many of the stories—or the details in them—are newsworthy.  Worse yet, I detect—even when I read stories on my favorite outlets or follow some of my favorite bloggers—a sense of acrimony, recrimination and elation in the fault of others that is troubling indeed.

Troubling and sometimes, a real stumbling block to my daily walk in the Christian faith.  After all, if I have been hauled into high dudgeon by a piece of reporting or a scathing blog, or caustic combox rhetoric, it makes it a little difficult for me to remember that my first job is to love the person with whom I am currently so very—and perhaps unnecessarily—angry.

My problem is that I just don’t see how this analysis even enters in any significant way  into the reporting process.  And just as I am troubled at the unfiltered reporting of Fr. Groeschel’s comment in an interview, I am troubled by the exploitation of ugly and angry comments brought to the public view simply for the purpose of ridiculing or marginalizing the some individual in those public crosshairs—even if it’s someone I don’t like or support. 

God knows—and He really does—that I have made more than my share of thoughtless, heated, downright stupid and often unguarded comments that make me look like a first class idiot, some of them quite publicly.  I would hope that those who know me know that I am more than the sum total of those comments and that a single gaffe (or even two or three) doesn’t entirely revise my moral position (and yes, I am trying to remember that is true of heated rhetoric as well).  I would also hope they would have the charity and prudence not to pass them along….

The likelihood of my changing the reporting world is diminishingly small, so I have taken control of what I can control.

First and foremost, I am trying—and I know from experience how hard it is—to control my own tongue.  Too much of what passes for conversation is really gossip.  I’m trying, really trying, to refrain from negative comments, period.  Seems Grandma was right: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at allAnd if you have to disagree, disagree without being disagreeable.  When it comes to discussions rather than conversation, I am making every effort to balance my words.  To discuss issues and ideas rather than people.  It’s hard. (And yes, thank you very much, I am very well aware that I may not have hit the mark all that well in the writing of this particular post.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t a standard to aspire to…)

I don’t listen to the news much any more, and I particularly don’t listen to shows where shouting each other down passes for sophisticated argument.  I find I can live life just fine without knowing about every terrible event everywhere.  In fact, I am probably more useful in studied ignorance of some of these details—time I would spend angry, I can spend in enjoying life, interacting with the people who are actually in front of me, or—here’s a thought—in more prayer and meditation.  A good trade, I think.

When I encounter something that amounts in my mind  to detraction, I make a studied decision whether or not to continue reading or listening.  Sometimes that’s a tough one, especially when one of my favorite bloggers is haranguing on one of my pet peeves.  But detraction is detraction even when I like it and it poisons me just as surely as it injures the other.  For this reason, I’ve almost ceased reading comments on the Internet—it only takes a few inches of combox space before the vitriol comes out. Who needs it?

I’m trying on the old custom of custody of the eyes, especially in the checkout line at the grocery store, where every magazine cover is a studied exercise in gossip.  I have long since ceased reading those magazines; now I am trying to avoid their covers.  Do I really need to know whether Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Windsor get along?  Really?

There’s an old saying that who the Devil cannot make evil, he at least makes busy.  Too much news, especially too much of the wrong kind of “news” makes me too busy: too busy following stories I cannot change and leaving alone those stories around me that I can affect , too busy being outraged to be loving, too busy making arguments in my head even to notice the need around me.

And I am finding that I am still quite able to respond to those things that really do need my attention.  I am on top of the HHS Controversy.  I heard about the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare and I read the opinion.  I know the issues in the upcoming election and am prayerfully considering my response.  (I don’t know who is ahead in the polls nor do I know what outrageous comment has been made by either party in the last 24 hours; nor do I care).  I don’t seem to have missed the fact that people in Haiti need my help recovering from the hurricane, nor have I missed the fact that there is turmoil in the Middle East.  I even know about the new medical services offered at our local hospital. 

I find that the really important news, the real news, finds a way to my ears despite my near-total avoidance of mainstream TV, radio and newspapers.  I find I am not buried under a rock, ignoring the world; I am more engaged than ever because I can focus my energies on and direct my efforts to things that really matter.  And, quite serendipitously,  I find—to my utter delight-- that I am not constantly in a state of outrage over things ultimately beyond my control.  There’s a peace that I have come to love and rely on.  I am beginning to understand in my bones if not my heart of hearts the admonition to let not your hearts be troubled.  I am beginning to realize part of that peace is not to go looking for troubling things….for after all sufficient to the day is the evil thereof….

So I will continue ignoring—studiously—the noise that distracts me from how to engage in love the world around me and trying to figure out—with God’s help—just how I am meant to respond. But I’d sure appreciate it if the media would filter out some of the noise a little more to make my job a little easier.

Especially the noise of detraction. 

1 comment:

  1. Amen. Agree with every word, was only confused with the implication of your first five words: "An old friend of mine...."

    Wasn't aware you had young friends.