The Bishops & Iraq

Where Was the Coverage?

After walking in late to a monthly meeting of eucharistic ministers at my parish in Brooklyn, New York, I sensed right away that something was wrong. Everyone was tense.

The deacon who leads the ministry was raising questions about the morality of pursuing war against Iraq, and it was pretty clear that most of those in the room supported President George W. Bush’s plans. When asked what I thought, I tried the easy way out.

"I’ll go with the bishops," I said. But more than a week after the U.S. Catholic bishops’ September 17 announcement of their opposition to a preemptive attack on Iraq, none of the thirty or so people present, all of them committed Catholics, knew about it. And why would they? They had missed the ninety-nine-word wire-service brief the New York Times ran on September 18, the only mention it got to that point in New York City’s daily newspapers.

Bishop Wilton Gregory’s letter on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ sixty-member administrative board was news and should have been treated that way. Urging that Bush "step back from the brink of war," Gregory contended that "a preemptive, unilateral use of force is difficult to justify at this time." He went on to provide a point-by-point application of the just-war theory.

With extremely few exceptions, major newspapers waited ten days or longer to provide anything more than a bare mention of Gregory’s letter or, for that matter, the views of other religious leaders on the same subject. When the story was covered, it usually was consigned to special religion pages that happen to run on Saturday, when papers have the fewest readers. (The Saturday paper is such a throwaway in the newspaper industry that the audits used to tally circulation don’t count it.)

The criteria that editors use to determine newsworthiness should have dictated otherwise. The release of Gregory’s letter was, for example, timely. The debate on whether to initiate war against Iraq remained front-page news throughout the week as Bush delivered a critical pitch to Congress. It involved a matter of obvious consequence. And the letter’s author is a nationally known figure who spoke for the leadership of the country’s largest church on a matter where faith-based morality and public policy clearly intersect. The Catholic bishops’ viewpoint on the criteria for a just war should have entered immediately into the debate, particularly since the tradition is deeply rooted in Catholic teaching.

Instead, the story was largely confined to the Saturday religion pages. Beginning September 28, religion writers at large papers around the country produced informative, in-depth roundups on the mostly negative reaction in the religious community to the prospect of war with Iraq. (My effort, a freelance piece, ran in Newsday on October 12.)

The spread of stand-alone sections on religion is to be applauded. But these Saturday sections should not become the repository for all religion news that does not involve sex. A story in which religious leaders evaluate the morality of a war—a preemptive war—ought to be told in the center of the public square, not on a side street. It’s not just church news. It’s news.

When the Persian Gulf War was publicly debated in late 1990 and early 1991, newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post repeatedly ran lengthy, staff-written stories in their foreign news sections that quoted religious leaders’ views on war against Iraq. Some stories ran on page one. Other major papers did the same.

Monsignor Frank Maniscalco, the bishops’ spokesman, has noticed the difference. Referring to this year’s letter, he said, "I would not say it got a lot of attention." The bishops’ stance on the Gulf War got far more coverage, he added.

When I checked the Lexis-Nexis database of major newspapers to compare the pre–Gulf War coverage to this year’s stories, the most striking find was how few big papers bothered to run even the Associated Press article on Gregory’s letter. The database lists the brief in the Times on September 18 and briefs in the San Diego Union-Tribune on September 20 and the Washington Post on September 21. The Los Angeles Times ran a 314-word staff-written article on page 6 with foreign news on September 18—one of the few papers to treat Gregory’s letter as news of some import—and then followed up with an in-depth piece on September 28. After running a brief from the AP on September 18, the New York Times ran a column on September 28 and a roundup news article on Saturday, October 5, nearly three weeks after the bishops’ letter was released. The Washington Post ran two Saturday articles, September 28 and October 12.

"It hasn’t received a lot of press, unfortunately," said Johnny Zokovitch, communication director of Pax Christi USA. One reason for that, he said, is "the issues that have been surrounding the bishops over the past year."

A number of people watching the issue closely suggested that the clergy sex-abuse scandal might have dampened news organizations’ enthusiasm for spotlighting the Catholic bishops’ moral judgments. It may well be a factor, but other religious denominations have not been successful in getting prominent news coverage of their statements, either.

Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, said in an e-mail interview that there is a "fatigue with all things Roman Catholic" because of the many stories on clergy sex abuse. Some religion reporters continue to cover the story nearly full-time, she said. Other factors are reduced emphasis given to reporting on religious leaders’ official statements and greater stress on providing a wider variety of religious viewpoints, leading to less space for the Catholic position, she said.

The scandal could possibly have made individual bishops reluctant to speak out. One of the key factors in determining newsworthiness is proximity to readers. If a bishop addressed the issue, his local newspaper might be more likely to cover the story.

Zokovitch said that some bishops—he mentioned Walter Sullivan in Richmond, Virginia, Thomas Gumbleton in Detroit, and Joseph Fiorenza in Galveston, Texas—have been raising the issue.

In New York, the nation’s media capital, there has been a void—again, much in contrast to 1991. Back then, Cardinal John O’Connor spoke on the horrors of war, recalling his own experience in a military career that led to the rank of rear admiral. In one homily, he remembered watching a tank sink into a swamp, drowning five men trapped inside. "I will remember that swamp, those bodies till I die," he said, urging Catholics to ponder the morality of war against Iraq.

His successor, Cardinal Edward Egan, has not addressed the topic except for several brief references at Mass. He did, however, host a fundraising dinner at which Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke in support of war with Iraq. (In response in his public remarks, Egan gently told Powell, "You know how precious peace is," adding, "Mr. Secretary, you know what I’m talking about.")

The Gregory letter did get widespread coverage in the Catholic press. But, Zokovitch noted, it was still treated in many papers as "a secondary article." I found the same thing: Many editors ran the Catholic News Service account in the back of the book.

The question of war with Iraq was one of the hottest stories in September. When the Catholic bishops took a stance on it, they provided the Catholic press with a strong angle to write about one of the major issues of the day. It’s odd that quite a few papers downplayed the story.

"Even with the ones who showcased it, there hasn’t been a lot of follow-up," Zokovitch said, adding that most of the calls his organization gets on the topic have been coming from the secular press, not Catholic papers.

Published in the 2002-11-22 issue: 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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