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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

The chatter behind the story


Every day the staff at NCR makes dozens upon dozens of decisions -- about what stories to assign and to whom, about graphics and photos, about wording of story leads, about appropriate sources, about what pages what stories go on, about headlines and story length and on and on.

Some of those decisions are the results of a second or two of thought; many others require conversations that sometimes turn into discussions; many are made collegially; some as a matter of where the buck stops. Rarely does a question hang in the air for more than a day or two. And then there was John Edward. His is the kind of story about which, in hindsight, one might wonder, “Why did we bother at all?” But there he was, on the page when I first saw it, essentially hawking his book on praying the rosary. You see, there I go already. Just from my language you might already know where I stand on this, and if this were the language of a news item, for instance, it would be edited out -- no discussion. (See story)

But there was discussion about this story and the discussion began with my initial reaction.

Some here, where we’re always looking for the “light” story to balance the more ponderous content of the paper, thought the Edward story fit the bill, regardless of what one thought of his soothsaying and “communicating” with the dead. (There I go again, putting that in quotes. With that you know I don’t think he really “communicates” with the dead.)

I had seen John Edward perhaps twice on television, bouncing around before a live audience peppering souls with questions rapid-fire enough to make your head spin. Now, maybe Edward is, amid the array of initials and leading questions and picking up on cues like shaking heads and quivering lips and gasps of delight and surprise, actually communicating with the dead.

I think he’s a 21st-century snake-oil salesman, a huckster, even if he does claim that his first inklings of the paranormal came from a woman who claimed to be communicating with the Virgin Mary on Long Island. Apparitions, ah, but that’s another story.

About Edward, everyone on the staff could see that I was pained to think we’d give him room to sell his paranormal insights about practical praying on our pages.

Others, especially Retta Blaney, who writes engagingly and knowledgeably about the theater, obviously thought otherwise. Retta, who doesn’t own a TV set, had never seen John Edward but she thought that immaterial because, as she pointed out, she wasn’t talking to him about his role as a psychic medium.

“I was talking to him about his new book about the rosary, which is about as risky a subject for a best-selling author and TV personality to take on as any I can think of. It is an extremely vulnerable book. Jesus told us to judge things by their fruits. The fruit of my reading his book is that I got out my first holy Communion rosary with the tiny mother-of-pearl beads and prayed it in his practical praying method. It brought me great comfort throughout last summer as I went through a cancer scare and two surgeries.”

Some of the other comments from NCR staff are as follows:

Copyeditor Patty McCarty: “Showman, schmoman. To my way of thinking, being a psychic guru doesn’t invalidate what the man has to say about how he prays the rosary.”

Patty had never seen John Edward’s show but didn’t think that mattered. Sr. Antonia Ryan, assistant to the opinion editor, had seen his show and also didn’t think it mattered.

“I didn’t take him seriously and assumed that our readers would know who he was, and that they wouldn’t take him seriously either. When I read the Retta Blaney article, I thought it was just a light, funny sort of piece that showed a slice of American pop culture,” Antonia said.

Opinion editor Margot Patterson, who handles the book page, said she had been interested that a popular media figure was peddling a book on the rosary, what that said about the place of and/or interest in religion in the U.S. today.

“To me, the story pitched had a certain news value. When I read Retta’s piece, it was clear to me that Edward was an on-the-fringe kind of guy, but I don’t mind reading about on-the-fringe people and I assumed other people couldn’t help but see him as a certainly-not-mainstream figure,” she said.

Staff writer Dennis Coday said he didn’t object to the Edward book review: “I personally dismissed it as fluff. Because I had seen his show, I could do that. I would have assumed that our readers could have made a similar judgment.”

It was just one of those discussions that no one called an end to and it escalated and expanded until someone (actually publisher Sr. Rita Larivee) suggested that the most interesting part of all of this was not the story but the discussion about whether to run it. “That’s something I think our readers would like to be in on,” she said.

I don’t know if that’s the case, but by that point we were having such fun talking about John Edward and whether or not we should run the story that it seemed a shame to waste all that gas on something that would never show up in our paper.

So, in the interest of transparency, or at least the possibility of a “light” moment on our pages, we offer you the gist of the conversation and the story. May it lead you, too, to your rosary.

Tom Roberts is NCR editor. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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