LifeSiteNews Calls Kettle Black

by Jimmy Akin

in Benedict XVI

LifeSiteNews.Com, best known for reporting pro-life issues, has just performed a disservice to both the Catholic community and the newsreading community in general.

At the heart of this disservice is THIS STORY ON THEIR WEB SITE.

Here’s are a couple of important excerpts whose significance I’ll elaborate on:

[In February 2003] the English press throughout the world falsely proclaimed that Pope John Paul II approved of Harry Potter. . . .

[A] Vatican prelate who quipped about Potter during a press briefing . . . led to the false press about the Vatican support of Potter.  At a Vatican press conference to present a study document on the New Age in April 2003, one of the presenters – Fr. Peter Fleedwood – made a positive comment on the Harry Potter books in response to a question from a reporter.    Headlines such as "Pope Approves Potter" (Toronto Star), "Pope Sticks Up for Potter Books" (BBC), "Harry Potter Is Ok With The Pontiff" (Chicago Sun Times) and "Vatican: Harry Potter’s OK with us" (CNN Asia) littered the mainstream media.

I remember this event. I gnashed my teeth during it at the stupidity of the press. The fact is, most reporters and editors are so UTTERLY CLUELESS about how the Church works that they can take some offhanded comment by a priest in a press conference and report it as an official declaration by the pope. What a bunch of individuals too ignorant to hold their own jobs!

LifeSiteNews.Com obviously was upset about it, too, as the two extracts from their current (2005) story illustrate.

But y’know what?

I also resent it when a group that is aware of this tendency of the press decides to EXPLOIT it and PLAYS THEM FOR SUCKERS.

That’s exactly what LifeSite has done.

Specifically: They have taken two brief instances of a person who was not the pope but who works at the Vatican and was speaking in a private capacity and presented them to the press in a way that they either knew or should have reasonably foreseen as causing the press to misrepresent these as official papal statements.

Thus one of the headlines on the Drudge Report was

POPE CRITICIZES HARRY POTTER . . .

But it doesn’t stop with secular sites getting the headline wrong. LifeSite ITSELF is running a story with the gravely misleading headline

POPE BENEDICT OPPOSES HARRY POTTER NOVELS

Now, before we go any further, let me issue THE BIG RED DISCLAIMER: I am not a fan of the Harry Potter novels. In order to be able to comment apologetically on the Harry Potter phenomenon, I read the first novel and watched the first two movies. I was not at all impressed with them as literature, and I recognize that they can have a harmful spiritual effect on some readers, especially among the young. I also recognize that they are not an apologia for paganism and that a reader who is secure in his faith will not be magically turned into a neo-pagan by reading them.

Having said that, what’s problematic about LifeSite’s headline–and its story in general?

Let us count the ways . . .

  1. As anybody in the news business should know (like the people at LifeSiteNews), the headline of a story is crucial. It can’t misrepresent the content of the story or the facts behind it. Yet that is precisely what this headline does.
  2. The headline is all the more crucial in the news business because it frames the way folks read the story and because many people read the headline who never go on to read the story. The only impression they have of it is the one generated by the headline.
  3. To any reader of normal intelligence the above headline would convey the impression that Pope Benedict has said something official that is in opposition to the Harry Potter novels. Individuals reading news stories commonly assume that when the pope is reported as doing something that he has just done it (hence: "news") and that he has done it in an official capacity (hence: "pope").
  4. In this case, Pope Benedict has said absolutely nothing about Harry Potter.
  5. What the stories is based on is a pair of extremely short letters written by Cardinal Ratzinger. We therefore have a problem with LifeSite misrepresenting, in its headline, comments by a cardinal as comments by the pope. The fact that this cardinal later became pope is irrelevant. Cardinals have a liberty to say things that popes do not, and you cannot go rummaging around in things a cardinal said years before becoming pope and represent them in a fashion that will lead the casual reader to suppose that they are things that he has endorsed as pope.
  6. Further, the two letters were not from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They were private correspondence from Cardinal Ratzinger. We therefore have a problem, again on the headline level, with representing personal opinion in a way that would lead the reader to think of it as official.
  7. Further, the two letters were written more than two years ago. We therefore have a problem with representing old material as if it were new. Note the tenses in the headline: "Pope Benedict opposes [present tense] Harry Potter." Uh-uh. Cardinal Ratzinger two years ago said things that sounded anti-Potter, but people can, y’know, change their minds on subjects, particularly as they learn more about them. You can’t take a statement someone made two years ago and represent it as indicative of present opposition when, in fact, there has been NO present opposition.

Even granting that their interpretation of Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks was accurate (a point I will deal with later), what we have here is a case of LifeSiteNews taking (1) an unofficial statement (2) of personal opinion (3) by a man who worked at the Vatican and portraying it in a way (including, in this case, headlines on their own web site) in which (4) a casual reader would conclude that it was an official statement of the pope.

SAME EXACT THING THEY FAULTED THE WORLD MEDIA FOR DOING BACK IN 2003.

Colloquially, that’s referred to as the pot calling the kettle black.

Technically, that’s referred to as hypocrisy.

Only this time, what happened can’t be chalked up simply to the cluelessness of the world media. LifeSiteNews exploited that cluelessness. They played the press for suckers in order to generate the kind of press coverage they wanted. That’s a special kind of hypocrisy.

Now, having said all this, what should the faithful make of the contents of the two private Ratzinger letters?

See my forthcoming post on that subject.

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