Friday, February 22, 2008

Of Journalists and Politicians

I admit to a particular pleasure when traveling, that is when I buy a copy of the New York Times with my latte and spread the paper out over the hotel bed and read it while I sip my coffee. I love print, and though I mostly use my internet reader to go at the news on a daily basis, the inky feel on my fingertips is something the Kindle will never deliver. Come to think of it, it may have been Proust who now makes me feel this way about real newspapers.

Then I considered the spiritual bread of life that a newspaper is, still hot and damp from the press in the murky air of the morning in which it is distributed, at break of day, to the housemaids who bring it to their masters with their morning coffee, a miraculous, self-multiplying bread which is at the same time one and ten thousand, which remains the same for each person while penetrating innumerably into every house at once.

I also love the freedom of the press. Those reporters who stalk the story in scary places, the heroes who are sometimes kidnapped or killed, dig up a view of the world that is hidden under the rhetoric of power. The photos and interviews with the people affected by policies tease our conscience to see how our decisions are global in effect in either piling on more burdens or alleviating the many needs in the world.

The New York Times has some outstanding reporting. It has its mix of opinion, depending on your tastes. The New Republic is also a provocative magazine that I subscribe to and read. It offers some great background to stories where the context is lost in the barrage of daily events transmitted across the information channels.

I would have written about John McCain's war philosophy today, but that will wait. The story of the moment is the way the free press, which is a control on power, instead takes political power into its massive hand. Yesterday's piece in The New York Times about McCain's alleged relationship with a lobbyist is a nasty bit of innuendo and gossip, up to now unsubstantiated. Even the title suggests a political attack rather than offering new facts: "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk". The anonymous sources are problematic, offering no explanation for the shield over their accusations.

The story behind the story, as reported by MSNBC, is that The New Republic was about to put out a story on this scandal and the way The New York Times has been sitting on it. I find the timing interesting, because The New Republic brought out a ten-year old story on Ron Paul right before a key primary. The allegations involved unsigned racist comments in some of Paul's newsletters. The reporting cannot be objective if timed either to scoop a story or to influence an election. I'm not sure The New Republic is clean on this one, even if the scandal scoop is framed to be a critique of The New York Times. We'll see. It seems that people do see through sleaze, and the reaction of disgust against this kind of reporting came not only from the conservative talk-show hosts (who are not above salacious gossip themselves) but from the mainstream media as well. Or it seems a good moment to hypocritically distance themselves from such blatant tactics.

Another piece of reporting caught my eye, and that was from John Allen's always excellent column (see also my posts on Allen). John Allen, if you don't know of him, is a veteran Vatican observer. At one time a critic of Cardinal Ratzinger, he has come to be an admirer of the Pope, and a very balanced and interesting writer on Church affairs. In his How the Vatican Works, he also offers helpful insights into the differences between American and Vatican (often European) assumptions. In his latest column, he discussed the upcoming papal visit to America during an election year and how he thought the Holy Father would address our political situation. It will be interesting to see how close Allen comes to the mark.
In my experience of covering the Vatican over the last several years, two notes tend to dominate when officials look across the water at the United States.

First, Vatican officials tend to see the United States as a bulwark against secularism, especially in contrast with contemporary realities in Western Europe. Despite the fact that one can certainly find strong pockets of secularism in America, especially among elites, the reality is that the United States remains a deeply religious culture....

On that score, Benedict and the senior leadership of the Vatican are appreciative of those forces in American society that seem most respectful of religion, and most committed to fostering a robust role for faith-based groups in public affairs. In practical terms in American politics, that often means the Republicans. The fact that Republicans are also more likely to be pro-life obviously also creates a favorable inclination.

At the same time, the Vatican also looks to the United States as the great patron and guarantor of human rights, especially religious freedom, around the world, and on that score the recent foreign policy choices of the American government have caused deep alarm. During my last trip to Rome in late January, a senior Vatican official described a meeting he’d recently attended with ambassadors to the Holy See, many of whom had reported a “rising tide” of anti-American sentiment in their nations based on the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, renditions, and a host of other issues related to the war on terror.

For those reasons, the Vatican is also inclined to favor those forces in American politics most likely to end the war and to pursue a multi-lateral foreign policy that might restore the moral standing of the United States. In practical terms, of course, to some extent that means the Democrats.....

In light of these considerations, I suspect the political subtext of Benedict’s April trip is unlikely to have much to do with the dynamics of the ’08 elections, since the Holy See, in tandem with many American Catholics, regards both parties as flawed. Instead, I suspect Benedict is likely to try an “end-run” around partisan politics, and talk instead about the formation of a Catholic culture in the United States capable of acting as a “leaven” within the existing formations, trying to transform them from the inside out.


Freder1ck said...

When I left the GS Equipe (over a year ago?), I was at the airport with Fr. Jose. First thing he does is buy a NY Times, which he started to read. I was intrigued by this gesture of his, so after his plane left, I got one for myself. What a revelation! Immediately to begin confronting life again after exiting this time of clarity. What boldness he showed me that day!

Suzanne said...

I really love both of you -- Sharon and Frederick -- for the witness you both offer with so much courage and unrelenting patience! I particularly love the window onto the wider world the two of you are continually flinging wide open.