My Christmas was odd, and not just because of lockdown. After three weeks launching Let Us Dream, Pope Francis’s remarkable book on the pandemic that I helped him put together, I was quoted in a UK tabloid news site forecasting his impending resignation. I spent Christmas Eve trying to put out the fires of this fake-news story, feeling painfully powerless as it spread across the globe.
After Christmas I found myself chewing over some of the lines in Let Us Dream. In Part One Pope Francis speaks of the corruption of a media “caught up in the post-truth culture” where “facts matter less than impact, seizing narratives as a way to wield power,” in which reporting “rearranges the facts to support ideology for financial gain,” a corruption—he adds—that is “not foreign to certain so-called Catholic media that claim to be saving the Church from itself.”
That last line seemed particularly relevant in the light of the decline into anti-papalism and Trumpism of the US church media behemoth EWTN, as recently summarized by Mike Lewis.
First, my brush with the fake-news industry.
When a Google alert first took me to a story on the website of the Daily Express in mid-December I was busy and hadn’t taken it seriously. It claimed, quoting me, that Francis could resign in 2020.
The quotes appeared to be a re-hash of things I had said in 2014 or 2015, back when Francis said his would be a brief papacy. Asked to comment, I had made several points: that Francis saw Benedict’s resignation as changing the papacy, such that any pope with failing powers would henceforth consider whether it was God’s will for him to stand down; but that this seemed hard to imagine any time soon for Francis. Aging but in fine form, I had said then, the pope had a seven-year ambitious reform plan, and surely wouldn’t think about it until at least 2020, when he might be open to discerning the right time to retire.
So now some cub reporter had dug up this old interview and tried to turn it into a prediction. No one, surely, would take it seriously?
But then, on December 23, the story was altered. I woke to a string of Google alerts in various languages: the story had been picked up, now with a new headline: “‘No doubt’ Pope will resign after Christmas as Francis vowed to ‘follow Benedict.’” The headline was justified by a quote from me now saying, “I don’t think there’s ever been any doubt that he will resign in 2020.”
I had, of course, said no such thing.
Emails and messages were pouring in, some from leading journalists in Rome. They presumed I hadn’t said it, but (bless them) wanted to make sure. That’s what journalists do. They verify.
I fired off tweets making clear this was fake news, that the “definitely” quote was pure fiction and the rest was a distortion of what I had said years ago in a very different context.
One of the challenges of fake news stories is that, in denying them, they can force you to say things you can’t possibly know. “Pope Francis definitely won’t resign in 2020, says papal biographer” would be, in itself, fake news. How could I possibly know that?
So I tweeted messages I had given in dozens of interviews in the weeks since the December 1 release of Let Us Dream: Francis was in good health and full flow, energized by the Covid-19 crisis; this was a crucial moment for the reforms; and next year had plenty going on—including a trip to Iraq in March. And Francis could never contemplate resigning before the sad day he has to lead Benedict’s funeral.
As the story continued to spread—as they say, a lie can go halfway round the world while truth is struggling to put on its boots—I managed to find the journalist’s email address and wrote him firmly: this story is untrue and damaging; my views are the opposite of what it attributed to me; the piece should be removed at once.
His answer that evening made me realize this was no intern, but a “senior special projects reporter.” This was not ever a serious news story, but clickbait. The more people clicked on it, the more revenue the website received from advertisers. Yet they were clicking on it because it appeared to be news. See that? Fake news only succeeds because it is parasitic on the real thing.
Nick Davies first raised the alarm over this in his book Flat-Earth News which showed how the disruptive financial effect of the internet on news-gathering was leading some parts of journalism to descend into “churnalism.” What matters in churnalism is impact; the headline draws readers onto the page while the text keeps their interest for long enough for advertisers to flash offers at them.
The Express reporter said my quotes were from a 2015 interview I gave to Brooklyn diocese TV, and sent me the link. “I can update the article if your views have changed,” he offered. I shot back that nowhere in the quotes did I say, “I don’t think there’s ever been any doubt that he will resign in 2020,” as he had reported. I had said pretty much the opposite: Francis knows he’s in the hands of God, I said, and that none of this is predictable.
At this point he backed down, saying he had not intended to misquote me. He took out the made-up quote, made clear the other quotes were from 2015, and changed the headline to “Francis could resign after Christmas” which is hard to argue with, if “after Christmas” means sometime in the next decade.
Seeing that he wasn’t going to kill the story—why would he? It was generating revenue—I resigned myself to giving him some real quotes which made clear that Francis no longer speaks of his pontificate as being short. The story stayed up, even in its new, bizarre form, without any mention that it had been amended.
What did I learn? The first is that fake news—or post-truth journalism—is not simply fiction, although in this case a quote was invented. It is a liquid narrative, made up of truths and lies and half-truths. As Francis says in Part II of Let Us Dream, the devil does not tempt only with lies. “Often a half-truth, or a truth uprooted from its spiritual foundation, works better, because it makes it harder for people to communicate with each other.”
The second is that post-truth churnalism does not care if a story is true or not; what matters is a profitable narrative. Fake news is a false narrative in the guise of a dispassionate news report, in order to earn from revenue-earning clicks.
Third: in failing to confront it when I first saw it, I allowed it to metastasize. As Francis also says in Fratelli Tutti: “We need to learn how to unmask the various ways that the truth is manipulated, distorted and concealed in public and private discourse.”
Post-truth journalism is not just about narratives for financial profit; it can also be for political or ideological ends. Whole media organizations can degenerate into “an association of individuals united against a perceived common enemy,” as Francis puts in Fratelli Tutti referring to “digital campaigns of hatred and destruction.”
In Let Us Dream, Francis explains that media’s prime duty is to mediate: to conquer our myopia, to open us up to reality. He praises journalists who have done this in the Covid crisis: “The best reporters took us to the margins, showed us what was happening there and made us care.”
But he blasts media pathologies that did the opposite: pandering to their readers and viewers, twisting facts to suit their prejudices and fears, peddling narratives—the coronavirus is little more than the flu, the restrictions are unjust — for their own gain. In this way, says Francis, the media “cease to mediate and become intermediaries, obscuring our view of reality.” Rather than mediate, they interpose and block out.
Take EWTN. Rather than report on Archbishop Viganò’s 2018 campaign of allegations against Pope Francis, it enabled it. And since then, as Paul Moses recently documented in Commonweal, it has surrendered any pretense to care about the truth revealed in the McCarrick report.
But there is another, insidious way in which EWTN poisons the wells of dialogue and communication in the Church. It simply screens out the papacy when the papacy challenges its ideology.
Thus, but for a single blog post by the National Catholic Register’s Rome reporter Edward Pentin on the issue of the book’s authorship, the EWTN empire has wholly ignored Let Us Dream.
So far, a month after publication, there has been not a single mention nor request for an interview about the book from any of its cable channels reaching 310 million households in 145 countries, nor from its 500 radio affiliates.
Although the book has been reported and commented on by Reuters, Associated Press, the BBC, and dozens of other leading global English-speaking media—I won’t even get into reports on the book across the globe in five other languages—there has been not a single story by the EWTN-affiliated Catholic News Agency, which its recently-departed editor gushingly describes as “the very finest group of journalists in the world.”
Let this sink in. The pope produces a major reflection on the Covid crisis, the first papal book of its kind in years; and what is claimed to be the world’s finest group of Catholic journalists doesn’t consider it worth mentioning.
In my early days in Catholic journalism, when I wrote for a paper deeply uncomfortable with many of the elements of the John Paul II papacy, we always regarded a papal document—whether an encyclical or a book—as a major news event. Whatever we thought of what he said, the pope was speaking to the Catholic faithful. Love or hate what he said, you couldn’t just pretend he hadn’t spoken.
I have come to expect EWTN to ignore me, of course. Back in 2014, when I wrote the Francis biography The Great Reformer, the atmosphere was different: the book carried blurbs from Archbishop Chaput and George Weigel, and I was interviewed on perhaps a dozen EWTN programs, even (testily) by Raymond Arroyo on his show The World Over. But then came Amoris Laetitia and Viganó. By the time my second pope book Wounded Shepherd came out in late 2019, EWTN had long since descended into its state of self-isolation from the body of the Church, the schism that Michael Sean Winters eloquently described in 2018. I have it from good sources that instructions were issued from on high to ignore the book. No surprise, there.
But Let Us Dream is the pope speaking, not me. My role—as journalists do with any papal book interview—was to ask questions, draft, and edit, but the message is wholly his. Surely no Catholic media can ignore the pope addressing humanity in the depths of its crisis?
Bishops are citing Let Us Dream in their pastoral letters; many are writing to me to say they are giving it to their priests or seminarians. People are organizing Zoom retreats around it. It is being reviewed, commented on, and excerpted. Yet if you are in the United States and depend on EWTN’s filter, you are unlikely even to have heard that the pope is offering major spiritual guidance to humanity at this time of pandemic. You will know the pope has spoken if you read the op-ed pages of the New York Times or the Guardian or Catholic media in communion with Rome, not if you watch, read or listen to EWTN.
An iron curtain has descended over a large section of the U.S. Church, severing it from the papacy. EWTN has blocked the very channel that it is the first duty of Catholic media to facilitate.
Appropriately the very book they seek to shut out contains a precise diagnosis of EWTN’s malaise in what Francis calls the “isolated conscience.”
These pages describe a form of contemporary Pharisaism, namely “the effect of a bad-spirit temptation to withdraw spiritually from the body to which I belong, closing us in on our own interests and viewpoints by means of suspicion and supposition.”
At the heart of the rigidity and self-isolation of groups within the Church—whether on the left or the right—is not an ideological problem but a spiritual one, for which ideology provides the rationale or justification. Hidden behind the spiritual withdrawal from the body, Francis explains, is always something petty—power, influence, security—we cling to. The more we hang on to these attachments, the more we justify them by blaming others, and the more our ideologies harden.
EWTN’s attachments, of course, are not hard to identify: the power in the organization belongs to people caught up in the old heresy of Americanism, in which modernist ideas – in this case, libertarian market ideologies — are dressed up as orthodox Catholicism. When the isolated conscience is allowed to dictate journalism, the effect is toxic indeed.
It is a startling thought that for no money at all you can learn far more about the thinking and the insights of this papacy in one article on Where Peter Is than in weeks of programming by the multi-million-dollar EWTN.
WPI is a garage start-up on a shoestring budget supported by a team of volunteer contributors. Yet because they take seriously the idea that the pope is anointed and to be trusted as a teacher of the faith, they have become superb and reliable mediators of the Francis papacy.
After my experience these past weeks at the hands of churnalists and papacy-blockers, I am ever more grateful for this kind of journalism of integrity, both inside and outside the Church.
We commentators and authors depend more than ever on those who gather and interpret the news. So many Catholic media organizations, as well as religion reporters for secular news organizations, have moved me by the way they have reported Let Us Dream, opening it up for readers, putting it in context, anticipating questions and answering them, making it interesting but never sacrificing truth for impact.
In so doing, they exhibit a kind of confidence in reality that is the very opposite of ideology. They are curious, dig deep into what they see, confident that the truth will be revealed.
It’s what Jesus does in chapter 11 of Matthew, when John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask him (roughly) are you The One? Jesus doesn’t say “yes.” He doesn’t tell them what to think. He shows them what’s going on around him—the healing, the new life, the joy—and invites them to report it all back to John. Journalists call this “show, don’t tell.”
I’ve had a Christmas of illuminating contrasts. Fake news versus Good News, churnalism versus journalism, the confidence in truth versus its commodification.
But I think I now understand better what Francis says in Chapter Six of Fratelli Tutti, that “the heroes of the future” will be those who “determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest.”
“God willing,” he rightly adds, “such heroes are quietly emerging, even now, in the midst of our society.”
And God willing, in our Church too.
Image: Adobe Stock