Misreporting the Pope

Published December 13, 2006

Despite its op-ed page — which often sounds like a transcript from an asylum for victims of Bush Derangement Syndrome — the New York Times remains the nation’s newspaper-of-record. If it decides that something is news, so do other papers, and so do the networks; the Times‘ take on the news also echoes throughout the American media. These facts of journalistic life put a special burden on the Times to get the story right — which, in Istanbul last month, it certainly didn’t.

Thus on November 29, front-page, above-the-fold, the Times trumpeted the “news” that “Pope Backs Turkey’s Bid to Join European Union.” According to reporters Ian Fisher and Sabrina Tavernese, “Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey…armed with a surprise gesture of good will aimed at blunting Muslim anger toward him: he backed Turkey’s long-stalled desire to join the European Union, reversing a statement he made two years ago.” The reporters went on to note that their source was the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that the Pope had responded positively to his request for support for Turkey’s admission to the E.U. “‘You know we don’t have a political role, but we wish for Turkey’s entry into the E.U.,’ the Pope said, according to Mr. Erdogan. “His wish is a positive recommendation for us,” the prime minister concluded.

Was it? Or was this first-class prime ministerial spin?

Until the last minute, Mr. Erdogan, who leads a “moderate Islamic” party, had declined to meet the Pope. Now, having changed his mind so as not to look like a cad, he likely wanted to demonstrate to his constituents that the man some of them had charged with leading a new “Crusade” had, so to speak, truckled, and at the prime minister’s urging. At least that’s what a typically worldly Timesman might have thought. But not Mr. Fisher and Ms. Tavernise, who apparently took Erdogan at his word (a courtesy the Times rarely extends to the President of the United States).

Buried in the twelfth and thirteenth paragraphs of the story was a statement by the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, that might have given the Times pause — had the paper not been too busy chortling over Benedict’s “concession” and “reversal.” According to Father Lombardi, while the Vatican had neither the power nor the political clout to get Turkey admitted to the E.U., the Holy See “looks positively and encourages the road of dialogue and of moving toward integration of Turkey in Europe on the basis of common values and principles.” In other words, nothing whatsoever had changed in the Vatican’s position on Turkey and the E.U.: if and when Turkey demonstrates that it is part of Europe — by, among other things, bringing the state’s role in protecting religious freedom into line with European “values and principles” — then the integration of Turkey into the E.U. becomes a possibility. The question at issue today, just as it was when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger raised the point years ago, is whether Turkey can do that; unfortunately, it can’t, now.

Why did the Times botch this so badly? It’s a question of assumptions. The Times went to Istanbul convinced that the rigid, undiplomatic Benedict XVI had made a serious error in his September Regensburg lecture (an even more-egregious-than-usual Times editorial on November 29 derided the pope’s “tone-deaf comments about Islam”). Evidently indifferent to the over-the-top Islamist response when Benedict at Regensburg raised the (obvious) question of why terrorists claimed the sanction of Islam for their deeds, the Times was looking for an apology. So when Mr. Erdogan put his spin machine into overdrive, the Times jumped aboard — and misinformed the world.

The Times is famous for criticizing what it judges to be the false assumptions that shape policies of which it disapproves. Might the newspaper-of-record — which has barely recovered from a variety of recent newsroom scandals, including the falsification of stories — take a moment to examine its own assumptions about Pope Benedict XVI? For if the Times hadn’t assumed that the “Pope Benedict = dolt,” the Times wouldn’t have blown the story in Istanbul.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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