Pope Francis, Fake News, and Post-Truth Journalism
Post-truth journalism is not just about narratives for financial profit; it can also be for political or ideological ends. Whole media organizations can degenerate into “an association of individuals united against a perceived common enemy,” as Francis puts in Fratelli Tutti referring to “digital campaigns of hatred and destruction.”
In Let Us Dream, Francis explains that media’s prime duty is to mediate: to conquer our myopia, to open us up to reality. He praises journalists who have done this in the Covid crisis: “The best reporters took us to the margins, showed us what was happening there and made us care.”
But he blasts media pathologies that did the opposite: pandering to their readers and viewers, twisting facts to suit their prejudices and fears, peddling narratives—the coronavirus is little more than the flu, the restrictions are unjust — for their own gain. In this way, says Francis, the media “cease to mediate and become intermediaries, obscuring our view of reality.” Rather than mediate, they interpose and block out.
Take EWTN. Rather than report on Archbishop Viganò’s 2018 campaign of allegations against Pope Francis, it enabled it. And since then, as Paul Moses recently documented in Commonweal, it has surrendered any pretense to care about the truth revealed in the McCarrick report.
But there is another, insidious way in which EWTN poisons the wells of dialogue and communication in the Church. It simply screens out the papacy when the papacy challenges its ideology.
Thus, but for a single blog post by the National Catholic Register’s Rome reporter Edward Pentin on the issue of the book’s authorship, the EWTN empire has wholly ignored Let Us Dream.
So far, a month after publication, there has been not a single mention nor request for an interview about the book from any of its cable channels reaching 310 million households in 145 countries, nor from its 500 radio affiliates.
Although the book has been reported and commented on by Reuters, Associated Press, the BBC, and dozens of other leading global English-speaking media—I won’t even get into reports on the book across the globe in five other languages—there has been not a single story by the EWTN-affiliated Catholic News Agency, which its recently-departed editor gushingly describes as “the very finest group of journalists in the world.”
Let this sink in. The pope produces a major reflection on the Covid crisis, the first papal book of its kind in years; and what is claimed to be the world’s finest group of Catholic journalists doesn’t consider it worth mentioning.
In my early days in Catholic journalism, when I wrote for a paper deeply uncomfortable with many of the elements of the John Paul II papacy, we always regarded a papal document—whether an encyclical or a book—as a major news event. Whatever we thought of what he said, the pope was speaking to the Catholic faithful. Love or hate what he said, you couldn’t just pretend he hadn’t spoken.
I have come to expect EWTN to ignore me, of course. Back in 2014, when I wrote the Francis biography The Great Reformer, the atmosphere was different: the book carried blurbs from Archbishop Chaput and George Weigel, and I was interviewed on perhaps a dozen EWTN programs, even (testily) by Raymond Arroyo on his show The World Over. But then came Amoris Laetitia and Viganó. By the time my second pope book Wounded Shepherd came out in late 2019, EWTN had long since descended into its state of self-isolation from the body of the Church, the schism that Michael Sean Winters eloquently described in 2018. I have it from good sources that instructions were issued from on high to ignore the book. No surprise, there.
But Let Us Dream is the pope speaking, not me. My role—as journalists do with any papal book interview—was to ask questions, draft, and edit, but the message is wholly his. Surely no Catholic media can ignore the pope addressing humanity in the depths of its crisis?
Bishops are citing Let Us Dream in their pastoral letters; many are writing to me to say they are giving it to their priests or seminarians. People are organizing Zoom retreats around it. It is being reviewed, commented on, and excerpted. Yet if you are in the United States and depend on EWTN’s filter, you are unlikely even to have heard that the pope is offering major spiritual guidance to humanity at this time of pandemic. You will know the pope has spoken if you read the op-ed pages of the New York Times or the Guardian or Catholic media in communion with Rome, not if you watch, read or listen to EWTN.
An iron curtain has descended over a large section of the U.S. Church, severing it from the papacy. EWTN has blocked the very channel that it is the first duty of Catholic media to facilitate.
Appropriately the very book they seek to shut out contains a precise diagnosis of EWTN’s malaise in what Francis calls the “isolated conscience.”
These pages describe a form of contemporary Pharisaism, namely “the effect of a bad-spirit temptation to withdraw spiritually from the body to which I belong, closing us in on our own interests and viewpoints by means of suspicion and supposition.”
At the heart of the rigidity and self-isolation of groups within the Church—whether on the left or the right—is not an ideological problem but a spiritual one, for which ideology provides the rationale or justification. Hidden behind the spiritual withdrawal from the body, Francis explains, is always something petty—power, influence, security—we cling to. The more we hang on to these attachments, the more we justify them by blaming others, and the more our ideologies harden.
EWTN’s attachments, of course, are not hard to identify: the power in the organization belongs to people caught up in the old heresy of Americanism, in which modernist ideas – in this case, libertarian market ideologies — are dressed up as orthodox Catholicism. When the isolated conscience is allowed to dictate journalism, the effect is toxic indeed.
It is a startling thought that for no money at all you can learn far more about the thinking and the insights of this papacy in one article on Where Peter Is than in weeks of programming by the multi-million-dollar EWTN.
WPI is a garage start-up on a shoestring budget supported by a team of volunteer contributors. Yet because they take seriously the idea that the pope is anointed and to be trusted as a teacher of the faith, they have become superb and reliable mediators of the Francis papacy.
After my experience these past weeks at the hands of churnalists and papacy-blockers, I am ever more grateful for this kind of journalism of integrity, both inside and outside the Church.
Not only is he right about the extraordinary badness of ETWN’s journalism, he is dead right about the excellence of Where Peter Is. If you want to know what is actually going on in the Church, bookmark them.
All true. But when it comes to EWTN, my first question is: How much does it really matter? Is anyone under the age of 70 even watching EWTN anymore? Aren’t they basically preaching to an ever smaller choir? Am I wrong?
yes you are wrong. Schools like Franciscan at Steubenville are all about EWTN and Church Militant. those young people are becoming priests, nuns, youth ministers, DREs, and active lay members of parishes so yes, this matters very much.
The USCCB yesterday elected a culture warrior as its president. A man who is
-a gay basher
-believer that’s gays caused the clergy pedophile crisis
-Covid vaccine denier
-Supporter of Maciel (and Legion of Christ abuses)
-against pope Francis
It’s not just EWTN. The institutional Catholic Church in the US has simply degenerated into a mass populist movement, and a crass one at that.