Stopping the press
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
Two depressing facts hit the news wires in early February: that the institutional Catholic church is still not an open institution and that todays press has its eyes fixed more on maximizing profits than on both informing and disturbing the public.
The case of the Philadelphia Inquirer versus its own ex-reporter Ralph Cipriano versus Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua and the Philadelphia archdiocese is back. Sounds complicated? Indeed it is. NCR readers know part of it because the National Catholic Reporter, on June 19, 1998, published Ciprianos prize-winning investigative article on the archdiocese, including embarrassing material that his own paper, the Inquirer, had cut.
But today the case is hot again for three reasons:
Today, some Inquirer staff members blame Ciprianos single-minded abrasiveness for the papers troubles. Others are wondering whether they are still free to fulfill the gospel of American journalism: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They are not alone. Across the country, the conglomerates that own newspapers are demanding an unheard-of 15 percent to 20 percent profits for the stockholders. Word -- or unspoken signals -- comes down from the boardroom: Dont make waves; dont upset imagined opinion leaders, like businessmen or cardinals, who might nip advertising or circulation.
Ciprianos troubles involve two periods: 1991-93, when, as religion reporter, he profiled Bevilacqua and began investigating the dioceses big expenditures on an elaborate video-conferencing center and $200,000 to refurbish his beachfront summer residence in Ventnor, at a time when the diocese was raising $100 million to save struggling parishes and schools; and 1996-97, when, working on a new profile for the magazine, he discovered, along with other financial problems, that the diocese had settled a suit for $87,000 with a former employee who claimed the cardinal had been rude and abusive toward him.
Upset at the direction Ciprianos investigation was taking, Tierney staged three meetings with Inquirer editors, where, as is his method, he does not dialogue but harangues his captive listeners non-stop, employing slangy language like cool and dude, not letting his listeners forget that, with his control of his clients advertising budgets, he is one of the most powerful men in town.
According to Nicholsons report on Ciprianos legal complaint, Tierney warned Cipriano and the editors he could ruin them and said to Cipriano, We got rid of you once, and well do it again. The Inquirers Jonathan Neumann, who was Ciprianos supervisor, described Tierneys method as insulting and demeaning. Phillip Dixon, currently deputy managing editor, called it venomous.
Despite Ciprianos eight months of research, editors trimmed the piece, which ran April 14, 1997, to 167 lines.
Rosenthal said later in deposition that his statement to the Washington Post was directed not against Ciprianos written material but his comments on the cardinals personal life. Bevilacqua told Nicholson that he knew of no one investigating his personal life and had nothing to hide.
But Bevilacqua set out immediately to put the Inquirer on the defensive. First, in his newsletter, The Voice of Your Shepherd, he called the story on his little used media center fallacious and found it disturbing that the paper had left Cipriano on the story in spite of their meetings. He would allow no news organization, he said, to unjustly malign the Catholic church.
Second, he demanded that the Inquirer print his long rebuttal in its entirety. In an internal memo, Neumann called Bevilacquas letter false and libelous and warned against caving in. The Inquirer printed it on May 19, 1997, but stood by Ciprianos reporting as objective and ethical.
Perhaps it helps to look at it this way: There are two kinds of reporters -- the retrievers and the bloodhounds. One brings back the story content to merely depict the surface of a situation -- an earthquake, a fire, a school closing -- without reference to the shabby construction that made the buildings collapse, the building inspector who didnt make his rounds, the financial mistakes or misplaced priorities that closed the school. This is sometimes called, incorrectly, objective journalism.
The bloodhound smells something wrong, and the whiff of blood quickens his senses. If he exposes the problem, someone will be embarrassed enough to fix it. The bloodhounds dont all have warm fuzzy personalities, but journalism could not fulfill its role as tribune, defender of the weak, without them.
Cipriano went back to work, did more research, and offered his 9,000-word article to NCR. When it appeared, readers saw an enigmatic cardinal, a masterful politician in front of a crowd, but an isolated, sometimes rude administrator toward those who had to deal with him day by day; a big spender -- embellishing his private mansion, his headquarters and summer house -- with a history of poor money management; and a successful fundraiser to save the schools, who immediately set about closing parishes and schools, particularly in North Philadelphia, the poorest part of town.
Not a flattering portrait, but, ironically, the fall-out, the long-range consequences of Bevilacquas attempt to stop the presses, has done more harm to both the archdiocese and a great newspaper than any piece of investigative journalism could accomplish.
Defending the Inquirer in a letter to Editor & Publisher (Feb. 12), David OReilly, the current religion writer, points to his own three-part 1999 series on the archdiocese, including the parish closings, as comparable to anything your martyred saint, Ralph Cipriano, ever produced and a worthier model of reporting to hold up to young journalists than Ciprianos Holy Grail. (My call to OReilly and request for a copy of the series got no response.) Phillip Dixon, in a letter, said Editor & Publisher erred in reporting the settlement at $7 million. It was nowhere near that amount.
The Inquirer maintains that the Tierney offensive did not stop the story or weaken their coverage. Yet, Bevilacqua himself told Editor & Publisher, referring to the 1996-1997 meetings between Inquirer editors and Tierney, He stopped the story. That was the important thing. As a result, the cardinal now finds the Inquirer very positive in their stories, much more than they have ever been, even better than the archdioceses own paper, The Catholic Standard and Times. The Inquirer even offered Bevilacqua a weekly column.
Although former editor Gene Roberts told Editor & Publisher that the church should be subject to the same scrutiny as any institution, Tierney and the archdiocese, and it seems the current leadership at the Inquirer, which has a renowned stable of investigative journalists, disagree.
Meanwhile, the cardinal has his costly properties and his costly victory, and Cipriano has a few million dollars -- and his professional self-respect.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit community professor of the humanities at St. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001 [corrected March 30, 2001]