Readers have asked for further comment from me on President Barack Obama’s “round robin” with religious editors and reporters. I have to say I learned a number of things that day–mostly about journalism. First, my respect for bread and butter journalists, like CNS’s Pat Zapor, grew. In the time it took me to lunch with her boss, Tony Spence, (on another matter) and ride home to N.Y., she had posted three superb pieces. One dealt with the question I had posed about the G-8 and the world’s poor and she promises another Monday on another topic my first blog touched on, the president’s admiration for the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
Secondly, competition to break a story is as strong in Catholic journalism as elsewhere. My confrere and predecessor Tom Reese was on the West Coast unable to attend the meeting. But the White House appears to have copied him on the transcript, and he beat us all breaking the story on Newsweek’s religion blog–with a Washington dateline! (Don’t believe everything you read.)
Thirdly, the determination of some on the right who, in the president’s words, “keep on anticipating the worst from us” received vivid proof in our meeting. (MSW, please note.) Fr. Owen Kearns, L.C., publisher and editor in chief of The National Catholic Register, wanted to press the president on the anti-Catholicism in his administration. Citing a line in the president’s Cairo address about hiding hostility to religion behind the pretense of liberalism, Father Kearns asked whether the administration didn’t harbor anti-Catholic sentiment. The president asked for specifics, and Fr. Kearns identified Joshua Du Bois, the director of the White House Office for Faith-based and Neighborhood Initiatives, as an offender. Rev. DuBois, Fr. Kearns alleged had called the pope “a discredited leader.” Kearns added that the president had backed him up.
The Rev. DuBois, sitting directly behind Father Kearns, denied the accusation and identified the offender as Harry Knox, an outside advisor to the office, who is the religious liaison for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian organization. It was the first the president had heard of the incident, and he had never backed up such an offending statement.
Journalists should know that if you are going to call an official out to his face you ought to have your facts straight. But nothing can deter the Catholic right’s idee fixe that Barack Obama is bound and determined to do the worst he can by the pro-life agenda, even when their position is shown up as empty prejudice as it was that morning.
Finally, there are a couple of headlines that grab reader’s attention. “The Top Ten” of anything, and giving a grade. Michael Sean Winters, though he didn’t participate in the round robin and, as far as I know, didn’t have access to the full transcript, gave the president a ‘B’. It is not exactly clear to me why. But, I am sure it grabbed readers’ eyes. Our meeting wasn’t a philosophy seminar, as MSW seemed to understand. Was it simply because the president couldn’t grant everything we Catholics would ask on the abortion question? That seems inappropriate for journalists to expect from any politician.
There were only two questions related to abortion. One on the conscience clause and one on the committee searching for common ground. The president’s response to the first was in the affirmative, but the specific policy is still under review, and in the case of the committee, though it has been corresponding and holding conference calls, its first meeting will only take place sometime soon. On both counts, it seems we will have to wait to see how the president and his team score on a Catholic test.
The weakness in the meeting, it seemed to me, was on our side. Only two journalists’ questions dealt with the president’s meeting with the pope and the broader international agenda they anticipate discussing–the reason the White House had brought us there. We Catholic journalists were preoccupied, I am afraid, with American Catholic politics. We couldn’t see beyond the eastern seaboard, it seemed. Perhaps the appearance Tuesday of Pope Benedict’s new social encyclical will open our eyes to the global responsibilities both pope and president want us to address.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.