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Bishops must respect their newspapers


I am out of a job ... ironically, because I did my job too well, well enough to earn national awards. My vision of a diocesan newspaper, as its editor, did not match the current bishop’s. I am not the nation’s first editor, nor will I be the last, to face this situation.

During my career with the Catholic press, I have seen bishops make a number of decisions that reflected a lack of understanding of journalism and the potential role of their diocesan newspapers. In fact, other editors who are currently facing similar problems and possible dismissal recently talked with me at the Catholic Press Association convention in Chicago (where I was honored by receiving the 1999 Eileen Egan Award from Catholic Relief Services and an honorable mention for the Bishop O’Meara Award given by the Propagation of the Faith).

Being ushered out the door after serving on the staff of my diocesan paper for 15 years -- 12 of those years as editor/general manager -- has given me a reason to ponder the state of the Catholic press on the diocesan level. Furthermore, it allows me the freedom to publicly express my views about the situation and ways to improve it.

The basic problem I see is that some bishops do not understand what a diocesan newspaper can and should be. They automatically acquire the position of publisher without any training in journalism or publishing. Normally, that training would be a requirement when hiring an editor. (Even though that is not the way my bishop replaced me).

It’s critical to understand the uniqueness of diocesan newspapers. They must maintain a balance between being a public relations tool and a hard news secular paper. On one hand, overstepping that line in favor of public relations destroys the credibility of the paper. On the other, focusing exclusively on reporting news can cause the publication to lose sight of its mission to be a tool of evangelization.

During my tenure, the mission statement of our diocesan paper, drawn up by an advisory board, called for a publication that “presents and explains church teaching,” and “promotes mutual understanding and unity in the diocese.” As a means of accomplishing that goal, our mission statement and editorial policy explained that the paper should “offer a forum for the voicing of legitimate opinions and concerns of its readers,” presenting a “balance of opinion while clarifying those concerns.”

Unfortunately, many of today’s bishops are reluctant to provide forums for the exchange of ideas, and it is easy to understand why. The church is experiencing an obvious trend toward limiting discussions. Just look at the number of theologians who have been silenced. Even suggesting dialogue on the issue of women’s ordination has been all but banned by the Holy See.

Attitudes of this sort deny people the opportunity to better understand each other. Common sense tells us that without the opportunities to communicate our ideas and opinions, we become polarized.

I am not suggesting that diocesan newspapers should become arenas for dissent, but I believe that censoring letters and columns because they address controversial issues breeds misunderstanding and distrust among the faithful. The way to promote unity is to nurture understanding and allow people to find a common ground.

Bishops must understand that the newspaper belongs to the people of the diocese. And since, in most cases, it is paid for and supported by the people, those people should be involved in determining its content.

As publishers, bishops are responsible for providing their readers with adequate, relevant and accurate information. Ideally, diocesan papers should be, and can be, a tool for spreading the word of God. It is one means by which bishops save souls.

I know some bishops who have admirably answered the call as publisher. My former bishop demonstrated a keen awareness for balancing hard news, differing opinions and spiritual components. But chances are that even the best bishops are acting on instinct more than a background of solid education.

Something needs to be done to change this situation.

Although I am no longer involved in Catholic press and have no role in the direction of The Messenger in the Covington, Ky., diocese, I am still a Catholic who must rely on his diocesan paper for news. I expect to read the whole truth and have the opportunity to understand the views of other Catholics.

The bottom line is: The only way to maintain dignity in the Catholic press is to keep its key players educated and talking with each other. To make that happen, we, as Catholics and readers, must demand professional journalistic practices and decisions from our publishers and editors.

Jerry Enderle is the former editor/general manager of The Messenger, the newspaper of the Covington, Ky., diocese. He has been involved in the Catholic press for 15 years. He is currently freelancing out of his home in Burlington, Ky.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999