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Doctors of spin for pastors of the flock


When a priest becomes a bishop, he is automatically a D.D. (Doctor of Divinity). Soon, however, the second-ranking member of a diocese may well be the D.S. -- the Doctor of Spin.

(As an aside, 81of the 300 or so U.S. bishops have earned doctorates; most from The Catholic University of America; next, from Rome-based universities; a handful with doctorates from secular establishments, Columbia, Vienna (Austria), George Washington University, University of Southern California and Rutgers, etc.)

Spin doctors, however, are operators rather than academics.

These quicksilver-tongued, crisis-managing, public opinion swayers are now part of the payroll in dioceses from West to East, from Los Angeles to Long Island, on call in dioceses from Florida (Tampa) to Massachusetts (Boston), in service to Philadelphia and Santa Rosa, Calif.

Superflack to Los Angeles’ Cardinal Roger Mahony is Los Angeles’ Michael S. Sitrick (billing rates about $350 an hour according to previously aired contracts). Unlike most of his peers, he has penned a book (with Allan Mayer) about his work.

Sitrick’s Spin: How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage, opens with a 1995 radio confrontation between a U.S. aircraft carrier and a Canadian lighthouse off Newfoundland’s coast. Others in the field researched Sitrick’s story and say it never happened.

Undisturbed, Sitrick subscribes to the Reagan White House philosophy that “image is sometimes as useful as substance. Not as important, but as useful.”

Public relations is an amazing field meant to amaze. Sitrick mentions in passing Ivy Lee, the public relations man called in by John D. Rockefeller after Rockefeller’s militia opened fire on the tents housing striking workers and their families. And killed more than a dozen of them.

Lee, who later had Rockefeller giving dimes to little boys in the street, was actually known as “Poison Ivy” Lee. Sitrick could have added the name of Albert D. Lasker (see Taken at the Flood), the man who wrote the book on the 1920s’ “selling of the president.”

An editor pal of mine when I was a Forbes writer in New York City described public relations as “the art of the used car salesman refined for the boardroom. But the board buys the chat instead of the car.”

Public relations people have few illusions about their own public image, and none about the image of others. They refer to themselves as “practitioners,” though Sitrick ratchets that up a couple of notches: “What we do,” he says, “is not all that different from practicing law.”

“Poison Ivy” Lee explained public relations as if it had to do more with spreading good news than countering bad news. “When the Norsemen discovered America,” said Lee, “they had no compass. Yet the compass had been invented thousands of years before. When Marie Curie discovered radium, her achievement was spread throughout the world as rapidly as cables and wires could carry it. Madame Curie’s work could have been of no value to the world if her discovery had been known to her alone.”

A far more candid P.R. man was Benjamin Sonnenberg, at his prime in Manhattan of the 1940s, an artist among flacks. Sonnenberg, asked why he went into public relations, replied: “Because I like to eat melon out of season.” In other words, for the money.

When Sonnenberg bought his Gramercy Park home, he had shelves made for his first editions. Some shelves weren’t deep enough. He ordered an inch cut off the front of the books so all the spines neatly bordered the edge. In P.R, appearances are everything.

Why does this matter to NCR readers? On the sex abuse mishandling, some California parishioners asked in a letter to their regional bishop, “How did we get to this point?” They later insisted, “No amount of public relations ‘spin’ or legal posturing will fix this.” (On the Internet, one wit wrote that some dioceses don’t need P.R. men, they need exorcists.)

But the question is valid: If a doctor -- even of divinity -- is one who must “first do no harm,” and if a bishop is a pastor to the flock, how indeed did we get to the point that bishops need spin doctors to deliver their message to the world?

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002