Under the Glass places both the secular and religious media’s coverage of the Church and other issues of importance under a magnifying glass to uncover what is hidden between the lines.
January 13, 2009

Lessons from Michael Sean Winters on how NOT to blog

Blogging has become viral in the Catholic world and Catholic blogging today offers a fair reflection of how lively, complex and even conflictive the Catholic landscape is in the U.S. The Catholic blogosphere includes a wide range of positions and characters, from smart, groundbreaking mavericks to old institutions from the print media that have discovered blogging as a way to stay up-to-date and attract a new audience.

Michael Sean Winters is the main blogger of the Jesuit-run America Magazine. One of his recent posts, mentioning a story from Catholic News Agency, provides a magnificent teaching moment that just could not be passed over by Under the Glass.

Winters’ original posting is here, followed by the lessons he delivers:

Yesterday, a friend sent me a copy of "The Wanderer" from December 4 of last year. My posting here suggesting that Doug Kmiec be named the next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican had made the front page. I am deeply honored.

First lesson: Never take it personally, especially when you have been proven wrong. By going back to an old discussion without anything more than just spinning, you don’t look like an analyst, but like someone who has been waiting to get even. That’s a no-no for reasonable blogging.

The article quoted from my post and then from an article (to which I am unable to link) that ran in the Catholic News Agency (CNA) which is not to be confused with the Catholic News Service (CNS).

Second lesson: If you can’t link, don’t blog. Otherwise, how can readers check the original story you are commenting on and know whether you are not making it say what it does not? The original CNA story Mr. Winters did not want to link to can be read here: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=14437

CNS is a news agency dedicated to reporting about the Church but CNA appears to have more of an ideological agenda. Their reports are free from some of the vitriol one finds in "The Wanderer" but not from the bias. CNA toes a conservative line at all times and on all stories.

Third lesson: Don’t accuse others of "ideological agenda" or throw at them loaded adjectives such as "conservative," especially when you kindly describe yourself as "left-of-center" instead of the opposite to "conservative," which would be "liberal." Besides, using the tired "conservative-liberal" polarization makes you look more retro than a tie-dye t-shirt.

And never, never use absolutistic phrases such as "at all times and on all stories" that can be so easily disproved.

What struck me about both the CNA and "TheWanderer" stories was the attribution of quotes to an "an official from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State" who spoke to CNA on the condition of anonymity. The official said that Cardinal James Stafford and Archbishop Raymond Burke, both American prelates working in the curia, considered Kmiec "a traitor" and that his appointment could not happen without upsetting Carl Anderson from the Knights of Columbus.

Where I come from, calling a fellow Catholic "a traitor" evidences a lack of charity, to say nothing of ignorance of canon law: "Traitor" is not a canonical term, is it? I have never met Archbishop Burke, but Cardinal Stafford is a lovely and kind man, and I have a hard time imagining him calling anyone but Benedict Arnold a traitor. The same goes for Mr. Anderson. More to the point, this anonymous official purports to be speaking for them, but why should we believe that he has any authorization to do so?

Forth lesson: Do not make interpretations that the original text can’t hold. At no point in the story does the source claim to be speaking on behalf of Cardinal Stafford or Archbishop Burke. He is using his own descriptor –"traitor"- to transmit the prelates’ well-known disappointment about Kmiec’s support for Obama. "Traitor" a canonical term? Who said it was? Not the source, for sure. Canon law has nothing to do with his comment. The source did say something Winters’ readers would not find without access to the original story: "Those who [Winters’] article refers so disrespectfully as 'extremists on the right,' or 'the far right political fringe,' are the serious, loyal Catholics [the Vatican] precisely takes into account, because they are the ones who are there when the Church needs them."

There is an old saying: Those who know, don’t talk and those who talk, don’t know. This is not always true or Vatican reporters would be out of a job. But, I was under the impression that Vatican officials make an oath not to speak to the press about their work. Why then are these oh, so Catholic news outlets helping someone to violate his oath?

Fifth lesson: Apply your own principles, that is, if you don’t know, don’t talk. Don’t venture into fields that are not of your domain. If you don’t know how the Vatican operates, inform yourself properly or avoid writing all together. Vatican officials do not make any oath not to speak to the press. They make an oath not to reveal information that, by its nature or by the definition of their superiors, is secret.

Not knowing the distinction between revealing a secret and talking anonymously may lead you to unjustly accuse fellow Catholics of wrong-doing.

Worst yet, it can offer further proof of what George Weigel wrote in March 2008: "By combining low-grade sourcing, a faux-authoritative voice, and leftist political spin in equally impressive measures, Michael Sean Winters and the editors of the Washington Post’s ‘Outlook’ section have won the pole position in this year’s chase for the coveted Father Richard McBrien Prize in Really Inept Vaticanology (named for the Notre Dame theologian who memorably announced that Joseph Ratzinger couldn’t possibly be elected pope, less than 24 hours before Ratzinger was elected)."

You can read the rest of Weigel’s article here.

As to the merits of the argument, there is a tautology in the objections this anonymous Vatican official raises. If supporting Barack Obama is enough to get one labeled a traitor, and an appointment denied, it is difficult to see whom Obama could appoint.

Sixth lesson: Don’t unleash an argument that can easily fire back at you. Barack Obama can appoint anyone he wants. Just not the one Catholic that is perceived, justly or not, to have sold his convictions to support the man that Cardinal Stafford recently described as "aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic", and who according to the same Cardinal, campaigned "on an extremist anti-life platform."

"You can quote me on that."

Seventh lesson: This is not the best way to finish a shaky post on a blog. You may sound smart and ironic for a few seconds… but you could actually end up getting what you ask for.

Alejandro Bermudez

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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