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Editorial: Pope Francis, EWTN, and Catholic media

Pope Francis talks to a camera linked with Argentina as he leads a meeting for the 4th World Congress of Educational Scholas Occurrentes in the Synod hall at the Vatican February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Max Rossi/Alamy

Editors’ note: The Pillar does not, as a rule, publish editorials — we reserve the expression of our opinions to our twice-weekly newsletters.

But remarks from Pope Francis published Sept. 21, and the Catholic reaction to them, merited editorial attention. Given our closeness to the subject matter, it seemed reasonable to cover them only by recognizing and expressing our own viewpoint on the state of Catholic media, and its impact on the Church. We do so below.

In remarks published this week in a Jesuit journal, Pope Francis drew attention for his comments about a “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope” — a television station largely understood to be EWTN.

At least among Catholic media figures, the remark has stoked a great deal of conversation, if only because EWTN is both the largest Catholic media conglomerate in the game, and also the most controversial.

Of course, it is somewhat awkward when the media covers the media; it's hard to claim objectivity when one is writing about others working in the same space. And it is especially awkward to write about the network for which one used to work.*

But disagreement over EWTN — and its purported manner of “speaking ill” about Pope Francis — point to the challenges for American Catholics — and for the Church’s life and ministry — posed by the Catholic media landscape.

The problems of Catholic media are the problems of institutional media writ small. Legacy outlets have, for decades and across several pontificates, cultivated a crowd and a viewpoint to which they pander.

Whether it comes in the form of pompous TV punditry or shrill editorializing, ecclesiastical coverage has polarized right alongside the secular outlets which it aspires to ape, be it Fox News or the New York Times.

Along the way, Catholic media figures have carved up the Church — readers, writers, bishops, and even popes — into “our people” and “those people,” with content and commentary skewed to fit the divide.

Within the microclimate of the Catholic media world, that approach leads to sometimes comical extremes: the Raymond Arroyo Show airing grainy cell phone conversations with Archbishop Viganó, despite the archbishop’s discredited public reputation and open hostility to the very concept of Vatican II, or the National Catholic Reporter making heroic editorial contortions to avoid acknowledging Pope Francis’ repeated denunciations of legal abortion or rejections of same-sex marriage.

Bombastic controversy is profitable, and always will be. That’s the reason why many Catholic outlets come to lean on it — there is always a donor base to sate by taking things to an extreme. Controversy causes clicks. Those who don’t go in that direction tend to veer toward “safe,” sanitized, institutional predictability - which is why one of the largest Catholic media outlets in America is the official outlet of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Neither of those approaches tends to reward truth-telling. There’s neither money nor safety in it, and facts rarely have a “tribe.”

Fact-checking, supposedly the backbone of the editorial process, loses out to a calculation of plausibility — or plausible deniability, if necessary — allowing too often for “reports” of third-party rumors from third-rate sources.

“Narrative” in media drives consumer engagement, but it also stifles journalistic endeavor, since reality rarely, if ever, conforms to the preferences of the reporter or the reader. It leads to fawningly deferential coverage, bordering on explicit endorsement, for political candidates of either party, as was made manifest in Catholic media during the last election. And, along the way, it frustrates or stifles the work and aspirations of the fine young journalists who strive to practice their faith and their profession with integrity, and aim to cover the Church fairly.

And a bias for “narrative” over fact causes journalists to intentionally ignore stories, as we read in last year’s McCarrick Report, for fear of offending the patrons of their own tribe, or losing institutional permission to be in the room where things happen.

Most important, “narrative” tends to serve and be served by division, which — no surprise — never serves the unity of the Church.

While Twitter and other social media platforms allow bishops who want it to speak directly and publicly on any subject they choose, many prize the ability to speak to the particular “audience” offered by one outlet or another, and with the implied endorsement that comes with that.

The problem is that even when bishops are calling for unity and Catholicity, the medium becomes its own pre-set message of division.

Francis decried the leveling of “insults” and “attacks.” Sadly, it isn’t hard to find examples of what he’s talking about, from the place that he’s talking about. The pope has also been frank about his openness to legitimate criticisms of policy, and has often enjoined journalists to “do your jobs” when asked about scandals.

The distinctions between the “attack,” “criticism,” and “investigation” are easily lost when all are approached with a partisan mentality, and the damage done is real.

When Catholic media cannot articulate an honest conversation about clear issues, like about what the pope says in public about abortion, there is little hope for a nuanced debate on controversial issues like the Vatican-China deal — to say nothing of thoughtful analysis on broader theological and governance issues in the life of the Church.

Honest content comes at a high premium - it does not, for example, tend to attract patrons drawn by flattery, or customers looking for confirmation bias. But the Church’s mission - and by extension that of Catholic media - is to announce first the truth. Everything else is entertainment.

*The Pillar’s staff editors — JD Flynn, Ed Condon, and Michelle La Rosa —  were formerly employees of EWTN.