Prejudiced journalism 'diminishes public life,' warns Archbishop Chaput

ppchaput010708 Archbishop Charles Chaput

Delivering the featured address at a religion news writers conference in Denver on Friday, Archbishop Charles Chaput commented on what he believes to be the new secular “orthodoxy” within American media and warned that slanted journalism “can diminish our public life.”

On Sept. 24, the Denver prelate made his remarks as keynote speaker at the 61st annual Religion Newswriters Association conference at the city's Westin Tabor center downtown.

Opening his speech, Archbishop Chaput underscored that a  “free press is part of the American identity, and also one of its best institutions. I respect that. I value what journalists do for the same reason I value the importance of religious faith in American life – both in the private home and in the public square.”

In that regard, he added, the “kind of journalism that tracks our religious life is so important because it’s the profession where two of our defining freedoms meet.”

“A responsible press, and a faith shaped by the God of charity and justice, share two things in common: a concern for human dignity, and an interest in truth,” the prelate noted. “Freedom means that our choices matter.  It also means that our mistakes have consequences.”

Archbishop Chaput then referred to famed 20th century author George Orwell and how his controversial work titled “Animal Farm” – which critiqued the Soviet regime in Russia in the mid 1900s – was initially suppressed from publication.

“Six decades later, this essay still has value,” he continued, “And here’s why:  Most arguments for press freedom deal with the media’s need for independence from state censorship and propaganda. That makes sense. But Orwell focused on something very different – a kind of undermining of free thought and expression unique to modern democratic societies.”

“Nobody demanded the media’s fawning coverage of the Soviet Union,” the archbishop recalled. “Nobody required the falsification of facts, or the ugly attacks on critics of Stalin, or the covering-up of unpleasant truths. Nobody forced journalists and editors to do these things. They freely chose to do them.”

“The news media of the day were staffed by decent men and women,” he clarified. “They felt they were on the side of social progress. They thought the Soviet Union, whatever its flaws, was fighting for human progress too. So they ignored unhappy details and hard questions about the reality of Soviet life.”

This dynamic “created what Orwell saw as a new form of religious orthodoxy,” said Archbishop Chaput. “That orthodoxy shaped the boundaries of permissible thought and expression. And Orwell warned that this unspoken tendency toward group-think would threaten the press in democratic societies well into the future.”

Orwell’s observations “capture the way many people feel today toward the news media and coverage of religion news,” he went on. “In practice – at least in the eyes of ordinary people I hear from every week – a new body of ideas seems to shape the limits of acceptable thought in American public life.”

“This new orthodoxy seems to influence the selection of religious news and how that news gets presented.  It seems to frame which opinions are appropriate and which ones won’t be heard. And it seems to guide the historical narrative that media present to their audiences,” the archbishop emphasized. “At its core, it has a set of assumptions about the nature of human life, the purpose of government, and the proper role of religion in the lives of individuals and in society that veers away from past American habits of thought.”

The Denver prelate noted that this “new thinking seems to presume a society much more secular and much less religious than anything in America’s past or warranted by present facts; a society where people are free to worship and believe whatever they want, so long as they don’t intrude their religious idiosyncrasies on government, the economy, or culture.”

While “I do know reporters and editors whom I admire, and whose fairness and skill I commend,” said the archbishop, “I think the deficiencies in today’s coverage of religion are too real to ignore.”

The “Christian story now told in mainstream media” depicts the faith as “a backward social force and a menace to the liberty of their fellow citizens.”

“One of the worst habits many Catholics had at the start of the clergy sex abuse crisis, including many bishops, was to minimize a very grave problem,” he said. “But news media show many of the same patterns of denial, vanity, obstinacy and institutional defensiveness in dealing with criticism of their own failures.”

“Freedom of the press clearly includes the right to question the actions and motives of religious figures and institutions,” Archbishop Chaput noted. “But freedom doesn’t excuse prejudice or poor handling of serious material, especially people’s religious convictions. What’s new today is the seeming collusion – or at least an active sympathy – between some media organizations and journalists, and political and sexual agendas hostile to traditional Christian beliefs.”

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“When this happens,” he underscored, “the results are bad for everybody.”

“It’s no accident that freedom of religion and freedom of the press are both named – in that order – in the First Amendment. The country’s founders believed that protecting these two freedoms would be vital to the American experiment,” the archbishop said. “They saw that a self-governing people needs truthful information and sensible opinion from sources other than the state. They also believed that morality grounded in religious belief is fundamental to forming virtuous people able to govern themselves.”

“Knowledge professionals have their own kind of orthodoxy,” he added. “They place a high premium on their own skill and autonomy. This has consequences. It predisposes them to be uncomfortable with, and even hostile toward, any claims of revealed truth, religious institutions, traditions, doctrines and authority.”

“The point I want to leave you with is this:  Journalism is a 'knowledge profession.' But like any other profession, the work of journalism doesn't necessarily translate into self-knowledge or self-criticism.  And any lasting service to the common good demands both. Journalism has its own unstated orthodoxies.  It has its own prejudices.  And when they go unacknowledged and uncorrected – as they too often seem to do – they can diminish our public life.” 

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