Two National Catholic Register columnists, Mark Shea and Matthew Archbold, also declared their disbelief after the column's publication. Archbold drew from his own journalism background in declaring the column “horse hockey,” his onetime editor's term for “a source that said exactly what the reporter needed them to say with a flourish of the poet. And who wished to remain anonymous.”
Shea compared the piece to performer Mike Daisey's discredited “Apple Factory” monologue – which was retracted by producers of the public radio program “This American Life,” when Daisey was found to have fictionalized key details about his trip to electronics manufacturing plants in China.
“I don't believe the New York Times,” Shea declared, saying Bruni's “absolutely perfect narrative, tailor-made to reinforce the sensibilities of New York Times readers, sounds more like Mike Daisey.”
“Bruni’s 'anonymous friend' sounds completely bogus,” wrote Rod Dreher. “He is just too perfect an illustration of what a gay secular liberal would want to see from the 'conversion' of a conservative Catholic.” Dreher also noted that the quotations attributed to Bruni's friend “sound like lines taken from a piece of formal op-ed writing.”
Gawker, a site not known for sympathy with religious conservatives, was perhaps hardest on Bruni. John Cook savaged the anecdote of a pro-life protester's abortion – citing eight published instances of nearly identical stories, and calling it “a hoary old tale that pops up on the internet with such frequency that – if I didn't know better – I'd suspect Bruni was laundering a transparently false urban myth.”
After these concerns were raised, CNA sought Bruni's help in contacting the man profiled in “Rethinking His Religion.” The columnist explained that this was not possible.
“For reasons of safety and security, given that he has been an abortion provider and subject to protesters/protest, he didn't/doesn't want to be publicly identified, and spoke with me only because he trusted me not to print or in any way publicize his name, location, etc.,” Bruni wrote in an e-mail. “So I'm afraid I can't help you.”
When told that the man's identity would not be published or otherwise publicized, Bruni responded: “I'll gladly forward your messages to him – in fact, I'll do so the second after I hit 'send' on this – but I doubt that he's going to trust someone he doesn't know.”
Bruni acknowledged that several sources were now seeking to verify his college classmate's story.
“I know and have no reason whatsoever to distrust him,” the columnist told CNA, explaining that others' interest in verifying the account was “less important to me than his safety, his comfort and my keeping my word to him. I'm truly sorry if that frustrates you. Not my intent.”
CNA also contacted the office of the New York Times Public Editor, which describes itself as dealing “specifically with issues of journalistic integrity at The New York Times.”
(Story continues below)
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But Joseph Burgess, an assistant to Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, said his office could not answer questions about the publication of Bruni's column – including questions as to whether the source had been independently verified, or established as credible, by someone other than the columnist himself.
“Since this is a media request and your questions seem to indicate you are looking for specific answers relating to practices in the editorial pages, we're not in a position to speak on behalf of the Times since we operate outside the newsroom,” Burgess stated in an e-mail. He suggested contacting Eileen Murphy, the paper's vice president for corporate communications.
While Murphy responded to CNA's inquiry, she did not give a direct answer to questions about whether Bruni's column had been fact-checked.
Instead, she stated that the piece had been “written in keeping with the high editorial standards of the New York Times,” and was “entirely authentic.”
On the basis of these responses from Burgess and Murphy, it remains unknown whether anyone else at the New York Times ever independently checked Bruni's source or the details of the story.
One reader who was left particularly puzzled by the column is Dawn Peters, a member of Frank Bruni's 1986 graduating class at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.