Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Updated - Helen Osman's Curious Correction Demands Clarification

The by now well-known blog post by USCCB Secretary of Communications Helen Osman accusing Catholic News Agency of fabricating quotes by Cardinal George in their report on the bishops’ Spring meeting raises more questions than it answers.

First it is curious in the extreme. CNA posted their story on Jun. 16. CNA itself gets much traffic, but the story and Cardinal George’s reported remarks additionally spread like wildfire in the Catholic web and to reports by EWTN and CNN. If a news agency fabricates quotes by the president of any major organization and the false quotes spread wide and far, I cannot imagine the reasoning of a communications director who would take five days to respond – and then only in a staff blog post.

Second, while giving the impression that CNA’s entire piece was grossly incorrect, Osman corrects only two minor quotes which don’t remotely change the substance of what was reported and incorrectly corrects a third point which was not in fact a quote from the original story. Let’s look at the accusations:

While the cardinal did present a sequence of events to the bishops, he never used the phrase “so-called Catholic,” accused the Catholic Health Association of creating a “parallel magisterium” or said the meeting of the three bishops with Sr. Keehan had “frustrating results.”

“Parallel magisterium” was not a quote put into Cardinal George’s mouth in the CNA story, but rather a reporter’s characterization. It is an accurate description of how Catholic Health Association acted in the health care debate and it would be a fair characterization of how Cardinal George has described their behavior in other public, published remarks.

For the sake of argument, let’s grant that the Cardinal did not use the words “so-called” and “frustrating results”. What other direct quotes are attributed to him by CNA (excise the red):

“the Catholic Health Association and other so-called Catholic groups provided cover for those on the fence to support Obama and the administration.”

“Sr. Carol and her colleagues are to blame”

“I personally met with her in March to no avail,”

“The bill which was passed is fundamentally flawed. The Executive Order is meaningless. Sr. Carol is mistaken in thinking that this is pro-life legislation,”

“in the end, they have weakened the moral voice of the bishops in the U.S.”

Are these accurate? Osman goes on to criticize CNN for using the CNA report as a source:

For CNN to elaborate even more on what CNA said in error is even more disturbing. If CNN had tried to verify the citations, it would have learned that CNA fabricated quotes. It also would not have made its huge and erroneous assumption that the issue in question was an example of the bishops at odds with the sisters.

But CNN did not, in fact, use any of the quotes that Osman sought to correct. Are the quotes CNN used also false? Osman doesn’t say. What she does say is disturbing and evasive (my emphases):

To honor the bishops’ privacy and confidentiality, we will not be releasing the transcript. It’s unfortunate if someone breached that confidentiality; also unfortunate if CNA tried to take an educated guess at what the cardinal might have said and cobbled together its own fabrication of the session.

The last suggestion is coy and demands a clarification. Osman, who was present and reviewed the tape of the session, knows full well whether CNA “tried to take an educated guess at what the cardinal might have said and cobbled together its own fabrication of the session.” Either it is a substantially accurate transcript (again, granting the exception of four words) or it is not. It is grossly unfair to make such a suggestion when you know the actual facts. Osman can remedy that, as the director of CNA has asked, by releasing the tape, or failing that possibility, by retracting the suggestion.

UPDATE: Michael Sean Winters over at America thinks he knows who the bishops are who "leaked" Cardinal George's comments to CNA are:

It is not difficult to think of who these “several bishops” might be. Go ahead – you can list them. I will only call attention to one telling indication. Yesterday, the blog at the official newspaper of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, the Catholic Key, ran an item that questioned the veracity of Helen Osman and defended the substance of the CNA report. The editor of the Catholic Key, Mr. Jack Smith, is a man who has made it a habit of attacking Sr. Carol Keehan in the most scurrilous and unchristian manner; he is on my short list of the very few people who warrant an ad hominem attack. Perhaps Mr. Smith is on such a long leash that his master lets him publish whatever he wants, including this blog post which would seem to question the integrity not only of a staffer at the USCCB but of Cardinal George. Perhaps.

There is much wrong in that paragraph, but I'll correct one thing. The Bishop of Kansas City - St. Joseph did not attend the June bishops' meeting and so any suggestion that he leaked the comments is false.

I'm very pleased to be on Mr. Winter's "short list", but any regular reader of his knows he's exaggerating the exclusivity the club.