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Watching the Watchdog: The Separation of Church and Journalism

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

Name me a job where it's normal, even expected, for bosses and employees to disagree in public -- sometimes fundamentally -- while everyone agrees that doing so is a laudable example of professional integrity.

Certainly it doesn't apply to lawyers, bankers, bricklayers, chefs, politicians, police, prostitutes, priests etc. etc. etc. Woe betide any of those folk who don't do what the boss tells them! But it is what journalists are expected to do.

It's a grand old tradition of the craft. In fact, it's the very basis of what we do. Because, by long tradition, our first loyalty is and must be to the people we serve. Not our bosses, not our unions, not whatever causes we believe in.

The people.

I'm reminded of this by coverage of the resignation of Benedict XVl, the 266th Pope of Rome.

There on the front page of the Globe and Mail ("Canada's National Newspaper") is a five-column, full-colour photograph of Benedict, far in the distance, announcing his exit to some 40 of his cardinals. It's a pretty picture; all those identical ancient men resplendent in scarlet choir dress gowns, birettas and lacy white aprons sitting under a vaguely erotic painting of some half-naked (male) saint.

Makes one wonder why so many of the church's princes -- one of whom is almost certain to be elevated to Benedict's job -- happen to be hanging around the Vatican on this particular day. Shouldn't they be out working? Or did God tip them off that good news was imminent?

But I digress.

Right under the Globe's big picture is a small portrait of Benedict with the caption:

"The Legacy. On sexually abusive priests, Benedict leaves behind a criticized yet complex history."

Turn to page eight and its five-column headline:

"Benedict's Legacy. A papacy stained by the spectre of abuse."

Underneath, the story by the Globe's distinguished urban affairs reporter, Michael Valpy. He pulls no punches:

"Benedict' XVl's eight-year reign as Pope was a losing battle against perception -- most tellingly the perception that, as absolute ruler of the Roman Catholic Church, he did far less than enough to rid it of the cancer of sexually abusive priests and may be been complicit in its spread."

A little further down, Valpy refers to Benedict's record "of handling the church's horrific calumny of sex abuse."

On page 10, Paul Waldie reports under the heading "Sex Abuse Claims."

"The church faces lawsuits, not to mention seething anger, from thousands of people in North American and Europe who were victims of abuse by priests ... Many saw Pope Benedict as a major obstacle in the issue."

Then on page 14, Eric Reguly's report from Rome:

"He will be forever associated with, and somewhat tainted by, the sexual abuse scandals which handed the church its greatest crisis since the Second World War ... His clean-up effort, while more extensive than any previous pope's, was widely considered less aggressive than it should have been."

All in all, some five pages of Benedictine coverage. With every story not devoted to some specifically peripheral issue mentioning the thousands of documented examples of churchly sex abuse (although none dared call it by its correct term -- child rape.)

Then, in blatant contrast, comes the Globe's Editorial page. The page that reflects the philosophy of the folk who own the newspaper. The anonymous lead editorial headline is nothing less than a tribute from one powerful prince to another:

"Benedict XVl. Intellect and independence."

Whoever wrote it praises Benedict's modesty, his "undoubted articulateness and lucidity" and his being "a good CEO." It goes on:

"In short, Benedict has successfully fulfilled the teaching function of his office, however mixed his record as an administrator may be."

Sex abuse? Child rape by Benedict's priests? Here's the only reference:

"He established reasonably solid reforms to prevent any recurrence of priests' sexual abuse of children ... but he has been less effective in holding individuals accountable for past wrongdoing."

Which is a bit like saying that slippery Senators Brazeau, Duffy and Harb have done one fine job by highlighting the Canadian senate's tendency to sloppy morality.

All of which brings me to the Globe's op-ed page. The page opposite the editorials. There, in all its glory, is a large Anthony Jenkins-drawn caricature of Benedict looking like a battle-hardened Mafia boss waving ecclesiastically as he bids farewell.

Obsequious headline: "Pope Benedict offers us another great teaching." Subhead: "The 'simple and humble' man of the church demonstrates the frailty and weakness of mankind."

Any mention of the child rapes that happened under the reign and authority of this simple and humble man? Not a word. Nada. Instead, fawning praise for Benedict as:

"One of the greatest teachers of the faith that the church has ever known."

The article ends with the immortal words:

"It is a time ... to give thanks for this brilliant pastor and a time to learn eternal lessons from a great teacher."

Unlike that other fawning commentary on the editorial page opposite however, this column is signed. By one Thomas Rosica, described as "CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation." It isn't mentioned, but Rosica also happens to be the Vatican's media attaché. Its public relations flack.

Right after the Pope's resignation announcement, Rosica was hawked around as many newspaper, TV and radio newsrooms as could be fitted into his day and would listen to his sophistry. His job, which he did very well, was to deliver bromide after bromide, banality after banality, platitude after platitude.

And if a lie can be the absence of truth -- lie after lie after lie.

I suggest that much more appropriate words for the Globe's anonymous editorial writer and Rosica -- and for Benedict himself -- would have been these lines from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;

"And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;

"And there is no health in us."

So what's my point?

It's simply that good journalists, almost uniquely in our workplace culture, are independent operators and thinkers who don't write stories to fit in with the philosophies of their bosses.

It's a right we've fought for over the centuries.

It's one of the glories of our craft.

Pope's first appearance since resignation
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