News media failing to fulfill its role in our democracy, Archbishop Chaput warns

ppchaput010708 Archbishop Charles Chaput

At a Wednesday evening gathering of the Catholic business group Legatus, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver analyzed the influence of the media upon American Catholics. The news media, he said, has the important role in our democracy of protecting truth and pursuing reason, but it is failing to deliver.

"America’s news media have enormous opinion-shaping power," Chaput explained. "Therefore it’s vital for Catholics to understand how the media work, and especially how they work on us."

"The media’s power to shape public thought is why it’s so vital for the rest of us to understand their human element."

Instead of some impersonal organization, Catholics need to realize that the men and women who report the news bring their own cultural and political views, economic pressures and social ambitions to their reporting and editorial decisions, the Denver archbishop said.

"When we don’t recognize the personal chemistry of the men and women who bring us our news … then we fail the media by holding them to too low a standard. We also –and much more importantly—fail ourselves by neglecting to think and act as intelligent citizens."

But the media also has "an obligation to the public," Archbishop Chaput stated, "a duty to illuminate public discourse by presenting the facts of a story in a full and truthful context, regardless of the intellectual fashions of the moment."

While he noted that while "many of the reporters I talk with try to be diligent and fair," the prelate lamented, "too many news professionals don’t live up to this standard. And some, quite candidly, don’t seem to try."

There are many contributing factors to this failure, the archbishop noted, citing the "constant churn" of breaking news events created by the internet and cable news networks, the victory of visual over print media and the upsurge in tabloid-style news coverage.

The deluge of information, he said, has led to a difficulty in discerning what really matters from what doesn't. At the same time, the weakening of the longstanding American tradition of using print media to discuss the truth and matters of national importance has led to a loss of the intellectual discipline required to absorb printed thoughts.

"Visual and electronic media, today’s dominant media, need a certain kind of content. They thrive on brevity, speed, change, urgency, variety and feelings," he observed. "But thinking requires the opposite. Thinking takes time. It needs silence and the methodical skills of logic."

"Today’s advances in technology have increased the sources of human information that the average layperson can access. That’s a good thing. But they’ve also undermined the intellectual discipline that we once had when our main tools of communication were books or print publications."

"This is not a good development. In fact, it’s a very dangerous thing in a democracy, which is a form of government that demands intellectual and moral maturity from its citizens to survive," Chaput told the Catholic business leaders.

More than just focusing on important issues, the Archbishop of Denver said, the media need to "focus on them with a right spirit. In other words, journalists need to remember their profession’s proper role in America’s public order."

This role can be understood as presenting the public with reason and truth, he said, drawing on the writing of President Thomas Jefferson. In other words, the archbishop said that the media's role involves the natural law.

Turning to Fr. John Courtney Murray's thought, Chaput explained that the Jesuit "argued that the natural law – the idea that human nature is hardwired with universal, basic understandings of right and wrong – gave all Americans a common language for their democracy, regardless of their creed."

"But today our knowledge classes – the people who shape our universities, think tanks, mass media and political party leaderships -- no longer believe in the natural law. In fact, they’re often very fuzzy about what those two words – 'human nature' –even mean. They also tend to distrust religion in general and Christianity in particular. And that has consequences," Chaput stated.

"That brings us to my key point about the press," the archbishop said.

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"Given the huge role Christian faith has always played, and still plays, in American life, any conversation about important public issues in our country that attempts to exclude religion will be incomplete. Yet it seems that, when it comes to religion, journalists and the people they cover are very different creatures. A 2005 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that 40 percent of Americans attend church services once a week or more -- but only 17 percent of press professionals do."

"The idea that this deep difference in religious practice doesn’t flavor our press coverage would be too strange to take seriously. In a sense, we are what we believe."

In the face of the media's failure to give a voice to the truth religion offers, Archbishop Chaput urged the audience of Catholic business professionals to "refuse to be stupid."

"We can decline to be sandbagged by our news establishment into thinking that marriage for homosexual partners is inevitable or an obligation of social justice; or that Islam and Christianity lead to pretty much the same conclusions about freedom, society and the nature of the human person; or that the abortion issue is somehow 'settled' when thousands of unborn children continue to be legally killed everyday," he said.

As he brought his address to a close, Archbishop Chaput called for Catholics to let their public moral witness "on abortion and every other vital social issue" be formed "not by the nightly news, but by learning and living an authentic Catholic faith."

Archbishop Chaput's full address to Legatus can be read at

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