On the firing of John Burger from the National Catholic Register

There’s a controversy brewing in the Catholic blogosphere over the firing of John Burger by the National Catholic Register, now owned by EWTN, ostensibly for his interview with a popular priest and popular EWTN host  Fr. Benedict Groeschel and wondering whether any from the conservative side of the Catholic blogosphere will speak up.

I dunno whether I qualify as “on the conservative side” since many in the Catholic blogosphere may consider me a sell-out since I also write for the Catholic mainstream media.  However, I consider myself conservative, both theologically and liturgically, and I have experience in the non-religious mainstream media as well.  And I blog.   So I will share some observations.

First, here are some excerpts of the controversy, (to which I give a hat tip to my friend and colleague over at Salt and Light TV Kris Dmytrenko):

First Rod Dreher writes:

Several readers have e-mailed to say that John Burger, the veteran National Catholic Register writer and editor who conducted that controversial interview with Fr. Benedict Groeschel (it’s been removed from the site; story about the controversy here) was fired by the EWTN-owned newspaper because of it. I confirmed with Mr. Burger that he was let go because of the incident, but he did not wish to comment further.

This is disgraceful on the Register‘s part, just disgraceful. I hope somebody in Catholic media with a job to offer will contact John Burger and talk to him. In 2002, when the Register was owned by the Legionaries of Christ cult, I was at a Catholic media seminar in suburban Washington. The event had been planned before the sex scandal broke, but by the time we all got there, that’s all anybody wanted to talk about. The LC priest who was then the publisher of the Register spoke on a panel, and praised his own newspaper for not dirtying its hands by reporting these scurrilous stories about clerical sex abuse. During the Q&A, I stood to challenge him, saying that this isn’t journalism at all, but a form of propaganda. As I recall, he did not really know how to respond. He must have assumed that because everybody in the room was a conservative Catholic, we would agree with him.

I had hoped that after the Register left LC hands and went to EWTN’s, that unprofessional mentality would depart as well. Apparently not. I don’t know John Burger, but this situation strikes me as EWTN scapegoating the messenger for the message. From what I can tell, Burger was sacked for not editing out comments from Groeschel that later proved embarrassing — in other words, for not protecting Groeschel from himself.

-snip-

Why didn’t the Register staff notice anything amiss in this? My guess is that it was because Benedict Groeschel is a towering figure among Catholic conservatives. If he says something, it’s not questioned. Until he was forcibly retired from the EWTN airwaves in the wake of this gaffe, Groeschel was the highest-profile on-air personality on the Catholic cabler. One can easily see how a conservative Catholic publication owned by the network that made a Catholic media star of Benedict Groeschel would be naturally inclined to be uncritical of anything he said. Besides, as we have seen (e.g., here and here), Groeschel has held that same line on the abuse scandal for many years. He simply forgot to speak in guarded tones, and his interviewer didn’t realize his job was not to report what Fr. Groeschel actually said, but to make him look good. In other words, he forgot that EWTN didn’t really want him to be a journalist, but rather a publicist in disguise.

In response to Dreher’s post, TMatt over at Patheos’ Get Religion blog posts the following:

Years and years ago, when I was leaving college, I had a job interview with a major church-related wire service. I went into the interview knowing that I urgently needed to ask this editor one question: “Is the work you do journalism or public relations?”

We came back from lunch and started talking. One of the first things the editor asked me was, “Do you think what we do is journalism or public relations?”

I responded by telling him that I had come to town to ask him precisely that question. He smiled and said, “Well, I asked you first.”

Needless to say, I was silent for a while. I knew that, in effect, my answer would represent a kind of turning point in my work, potentially closing a symbolic door.

“I think that you think the work you do is journalism,” I said, “but the people who sign your paycheck think that it’s public relations.”

Precisely, he said. Could I live with that?

I said, “No.”

So click here to read all of Dreher’s post entitled, “Shooting The Messenger,” about the latest sad, even tragic twist in the story of The National Catholic Register and its now infamous interview with Father Benedict Groeschel. Click here for a previous GetReligion post on coverage of this story.

First of all, I think I met John Burger—perhaps at the 2008 Eucharistic Congress.  I would be most happy to interview him and get his side of the story should he wish to talk with me.

I would not jump to Dreher’s conclusions and his “mind-reading”  that Burger or others at the Register did not notice anything amiss in the priest’s remarks.  We conservatives are not so stereotypically unquestioning as he seems to suggest or so stupid as he seems to imply when it comes to issues of sexual abuse by clerics.  Burger may have printed the comments because they were news, not because he tacitly agreed with what was being said.

If that is the case and he is paying the price for that, this is indeed a sad day in journalism.

Having worked in both religious and non-religious media, one’s journalistic independence is never absolute.   There were things I could never have covered let alone done a story on when I worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  When you write for a publication that is owned by someone, you do have to bring your story selection, tone and style in line with what your editors want and what the mission of the particular news outlet is.   And you have to decide whether you can live within these parameters or not.  I can write stories galore but if my editors won’t print them, then I’ll soon be looking for work elsewhere.  That’s life.

There are ways of doing this with integrity.  You find your ways to be true to yourself and produce material that your news outlet expects.   Sometimes you will get in trouble with those who own the news establishment—say a politician who complains to the CBC for example or someone who threatens to sue.    Or in the case of Catholic papers, a bishop or bishops might complain, but in my experience that is rare.

If you have done your job properly, your editors will defend you.  Most bishops do keep an arm’s length relationship with the newspapers they own, but I think the editors tend to understand the bishop would not be happy with editorials promoting women priests, for example.  Though there does seem to be quite a range of editorial opinion that is often more of a liberal bent in Catholic mainstream newspapers.

That said, there is truth in this exchange in TMatt’s post:

“I think that you think the work you do is journalism,” I said, “but the people who sign your paycheck think that it’s public relations.”

When I signed on to write for Catholic papers, I was not even Catholic, but hired, I believe, on the strength of my journalistic credentials.   Because I was not a member of the Catholic Church at the time, I tried very hard to write through the lens of the Magisterium of the Church as much as I was able to understand it.   That is, the teachings of the Church provided my lens for objectivity, but not an excuse to ignore facts or troubling stories about the Church.  I was not trying to substitute my opinions for Church doctrine or pursue interviews or stories with people who were always challenging it or trying to tear down the Church as an institution.  The mainstream media can have that beat.

Also, I detest “gotcha” journalism and I do not try to lure bishops or politicians into saying something that I can pounce on with a juicy, sensational story.

People misspeak.  They say stupid things that if they reconsider they would not say because of how they come across and would be interpreted in ways they did not intend.  If I were interviewing Fr. Groeshel and he said something about how priests in the midst of a nervous breakdown being seduced by minors, I would have immediately known how explosive this would be, how he was doing a classic “blame the victim” routine.  There is a certain orthodoxy or political correctness that insists minors are never to blame for their sexual abuse.  I agree.

Yes.  When there is an adult in the room, especially a priest who is a spiritual father, the child or  teenager is never to blame.

However, it is also true children who have been abused can come across as sexually precocious and seemingly seductive—sadly this is a mark of abuse and priests should understand that and not re-abuse an already previously violated child.   And as far as a priest is concerned, nervous breakdown or no, having sex with a minor, or even an adult is wrong, wrong, wrong not matter how seductively the person behaves, right down to outright propositioning or sliding into the priest’s bed.  I agree with that.  But I also believe that we should be able to talk about circumstances that may help us get into a priest’s head or to look at any explanatory factors (like a nervous breakdown, booze, or an incident where a teenager really does initiate sexual activity  —which does not shift the blame or lift the burden of responsibility from the person who is supposed to be the adult and the spiritual father in the room).  Maybe that is what Fr. Groeshel was trying to do in a ham-fisted way.   He made a serious gaffe.  He said something really stupid and simply wrong from the big picture of what we know now with the best evidence about sexual abuse and its effects on victims.   But does he deserve to be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail and have everything he has ever said and done reduced to this sad moment?   I have never heard him speak, never watched his program, so I don’t know.  You tell me.

I hate political correctness even when I agree with the politically correct doctrine in this case.

This is all sad, but interesting, I must say.

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5 Responses to On the firing of John Burger from the National Catholic Register

  1. EPMS says:

    We note that Mr Nicholls has been told that he overstepped his mandate when he reported that his Parish Administrator and others would soon be starting a preordination course. The whole topic has now been purged from his Sodality website. The Church has a long history of pre-emptive censorship and has never displayed much commitment to a free market in ideas or information generally, let alone in publications with “Catholic” in the title. One could make arguments on both sides.

  2. Pingback: On the firing of John Burger from the National Catholic Register | Catholic Canada

  3. As I have mentioned before, I work full-time in the High-Security Prison Estate and a large number of prisoners are sex-offenders. Fr Groeschel’s remarks reveal an unacceptable blindness to the responsibility of the abuser.
    To dismiss the messenger for reporting the message is stunning.
    On this side of the Atlantic, the Catholic press don’t shy from reporting the Church’s failings – the newspapers have earned the grudging admiration of many of the prison staff for their openness. The truth is the only way forward.

  4. peschken says:

    The reality is that, for the most part, so called journalism today, both in the secular media and Christian media, is agenda driven propaganda. It’s not just reporting, it’s selective reporting (what to say and what to leave out). In that respect most Christians and Non Believers are very much alike.

    • Rev22:17 says:

      peschken,

      You wrote: The reality is that, for the most part, so called journalism today, both in the secular media and Christian media, is agenda driven propaganda. It’s not just reporting, it’s selective reporting (what to say and what to leave out). In that respect most Christians and Non Believers are very much alike.

      “Advertisements contain the only truth to be found in any newspaper.” — Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the American Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States.

      Plus ça change…

      Significantly, when the socialists attempted to take over western Europe in the last century, they first infiltrated and gained control of (1) the educational institutions, (2) the labor unions, and (3) the major media. This gave them complete control of the flow of information to the peoples, and thus the ability to control public opinion and, with public opinion, the outcome of elections.

      Norm.

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