Since when is the press this polite?

by Kathryn Joyce

All of the usual mud was thrown, partisan guns drawn and pseudo-“larger questions” raised after the Deal Hudson scandal broke several days ago. The story of how Bush’s top Catholic adviser resigned in anticipation of the publication of a report detailing his sexual abuse of an intoxicated and damaged young student was briefly and intensely useful, vindicating both those who believe Bush and his religious allies are corrupt and those who believe the media is out to get Christians, especially Catholics. As usual, there were numerous angles and attempts to situate the story into part of a larger narrative: whether “it” was the fault of fundamentalist beliefs, or an isolated incident; whether a public figure’s life was fair game and, if so, where the cut-off line for privacy was (at sex? at hypocrisy? at abuse?). People writing about the story asked whether or not the “girl” should be believed; whether blackmail was involved; whether the Church, or “slutty” women’s fashions were to blame.

All of this seems par for the course by now, having witnessed the televangelist scandals of the ’80s, Paula Jones’s accusations, Governor McGreevey’s affair, Monica. The press’s routine coverage of a breaking scandal is something the public can predict line-for-line, one character portrait after another, day upon extended day. It’s kind of the same this time — but the press left the party early.

All the vitriol, all the putting-into-perspective, the calls for purges and calls to move on came from a handful of blogs and websites, most religiously-concerned. The mainstream follow-up on Joe Feuerherd’s excellent profile in The National Catholic Reporter amounted to an AP bulletin and two short, general reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post. All three announced Hudson’s resignation as a final story, accepted the White House’s refusal to comment and didn’t mention the affair again. Wherefore this new press modesty, and since when has “no comment” been good enough for reporters when the subject is this close to the top — possessed of such influence that William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said that, “If you wanted to get something to the top inner circles of the White House from a Catholic perspective, you could contact Deal Hudson and it was delivered”?

The 1980s press coverage of the televangelist scandals involving Jim and Tammy Bakker,Marvin Gorman and Jimmy Swaggart, and the more recent outcry against Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson for their controversial comments after September 11th, are all frequently given as examples of an anti-Christian “media frenzy,” or sensationalist reporting or politically motivated smear jobs. The father of “compassionate conservatism” himself, Marvin Olasky, gives voice to the complaint in the introduction to his 1988 book, Prodigal Press: The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media: the media persecutes public Christians more than other public figures. While “the prodigal [the press] frequently [filed] reports full of hatred for Christianity,” Olasky writes, more serious legal cases were “making it harder for anti-Christian journalists to ridicule all Christian thought.” But, “Coverage of the Bakker scandal allowed journalists to return to familiar ground — Elmer Gantry revisited — at just the time when it looked like they might have to deal with basic presuppositions.”

This complaint — that the accusations were politically motivated and the scandal was being used to distract from real issues — finds new life as the substance of Deal Hudson’s letter of defense in The National Review, and the perspective of many of his online supporters. Hudson removed himself from the Bush campaign, they write, so that the accusations of liberals and the media wouldn’t cloud the campaign. The standard rhetoric isn’t surprising, but its effectiveness is. The AP report’s title sums it up: “Blaming ‘attacks,’ advisor to GOP quits.” Other mainstream press accounts paint a similarly “balanced” picture, giving equal weight to Feuerherd’s thorough and well-sourced report, and Hudson’s and the White House’s tight-lipped dismissal of the matter.

However, Feuerherd and The National Catholic Reporter directly addressed the question of “political motivations” through Feurerherd’s report, his additional account of the story behind the story and NCR editor Tom Roberts’s introductory letter: the story is independently newsworthy as an account of a political figure’s rise to prominence and the chain of events that led him to his current situation, and a profile of a powerbroker whose opinion influences policy. Nevertheless, accusations of “political motivations” go untested in the major dailies, which also neglect to address the next logical question: even if it was “politically motivated,” so what? What does that have to do with the substance of the story, and how would it make the story’s conclusions less valid?

In some ways, this seems an extension of the “chilling effect” the administration’s press policies have had — discouraging reporters from asking tough questions with the unspoken warning that doing so will mean that they don’t get to ask any questions at all. It’s one thing to call the bishops to task and, it seems, quite another to question the religious sincerity of any of the president’s men. Has the press become so fearful of criticism like Olasky’s, of alienating the “persecuted” majority, of appearing to engage in a Christian “witch hunt,” that they won’t press for details when a political scandal seems, in some vague way, “religious”?

Read more: Jeff Sharlet’s “Bush’s Catholic Deal