An accomplished writer cites the cases of two wrongly convicted priests to call out The Boston Globe, “Spotlight,” and the Academy Awards for embracing moral panic.
For some purveyors of journalism in America, the standard for modern news media seems to come down to “whoever screams longest and loudest is telling the truth.” Taking a position against a tidal wave of “availability bias” – a phenomenon I recently described in “A Spotlight Test of Truth Before the Academy Awards” – might get a writer shouted down in a blast of hysteria masked as journalism.
But that may be changing. A post I wrote just weeks ago, “The Lying, Scheming Altar Boy on the Cover of Newsweek,” a story that exposes a Catholic sex abuse fraud, has generated an unexpected response. At this writing, it has been shared over 1,220 times on Facebook and many other social media, and has drawn readers by the thousands every day since it was posted.
There is nothing in that post, however, that screams out drama from the rooftops. If anything, it is subtle, reasoned, and unemotional. I am sometimes criticized for telling important stories without much emotional hype. Sometimes my friends become irritated with my lack of ranting and raving, but I must come down on the side of rational discourse when I write.
That lesson in the difference between responsible journalism and moral panic has been driven home again. In recent weeks I’ve had to add a few names to my short list of “News Media Spinal Columns.” Some writers exemplify courage and integrity by rationally exposing important stories despite a scandal hungry news media that prefers moral panic to moral truths. Some have pushed back against that tide admirably, and though the list is short, today I have to add the name of another journalist with a spinal column.
On Sunday evening, February 28, I opted for Downton Abbey on PBS instead of the Academy Awards. Like most PBS productions, Downton Abbey has no commercial breaks so I didn’t switch over for even a peek at that annual diversity-challenged nod to Hollywood narcissism known as the Oscars.
I was not at all surprised to learn that “Spotlight” won the Oscar for Best Picture, its sole award out of six nominations. It’s a sign of Oscar’s elitist finger on the pulse of common humanity that only two percent of viewers thought this was “Best Picture” in a USA Today study of exit interviews.
JoAnn Wypijewski has a very different take, not so much on the film itself, but on the integrity, of the story behind it and its damage to the art of journalism as rational reporting gave way to emotion. I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to read a review by Kathryn Jean Lopez at National Review Online who surrendered reasoned journalism right in paragraph one:
“I cried watching that movie. I looked around and saw sorrow. I couldn’t help wondering if someone around me had been hurt by someone who professed to be a man of God.”
“But, hey, lighten up. It’s just a movie,” wrote two reviewers in the The New York Times (which, by the way, owned The Boston Globe during its 2002 Spotlight Team investigation). “And they don’t give an Oscar for telling the truth.”
On the day after the Oscars, at least five people sent me messages with a link foreboding, “You Need to See This!” Each warned that I am mentioned extensively in a controversial article by JoAnn Wypijewski at CounterPunch, a left-leaning news site that lives up to its name. Entirely unaccustomed to being treated justly by the media of the left in all this, my first thoughts on the article were not happy ones. Then the final message we checked was from the author herself with a link to “Oscar Hangover Special: Why’ ‘Spotlight’ Is a Terrible Film”:
“Fr. MacRae, I suspect you will think this intemperate… but then being in prison has given you an expansive view of polite company. I wrote this [see link] on the heels of the Oscars. I think you will like some of it, at least.”
I had no input into this article and no prior awareness of it. It does not represent my point of view at all, but rather is written solely from the point of view of the public record, seen through a fair and just set of journalistic eyes. The article was read once to me via telephone, and my knee jerk reaction was to keep it to myself. Then it was printed and sent to me, and I have since read it carefully twice. It’s tough stuff, and it made me grimace more than once, but mostly for its brutal honesty.
On first hearing the article, I have to admit that I didn’t much like being thrown together with the story of Father Paul Shanley, a notorious Boston priest with a long history of ecclesiastical rebellion. I suspect this is what the author meant by prison giving me “an expansive view of polite company.” I guess she understands that in some other circumstance, I may not choose to stand next to a lightning rod in a perfect storm.
But I know and admit that my gag reflex of umbrage was unjust, as I know that the case against Paul Shanley was unjust. He was tried not based on evidence of a real crime, but solely on the basis of his reputation. That was the only vehicle in which an utterly unbelievable, scientifically unsupportable claim of repressed and recovered memory could have been sold to an otherwise rational set of jurors.
First, throughout the 1970s, The Boston Globe, celebrated Paul Shanley as a notorious, pro-gay, in-the-Church’s-face “Street Priest.” Then, when it better suited the agenda of editors, the Globe turned on him. Shanley was tried in the pages of the Globe before he set foot in any court of law. He was sacrificed to a story that is not even plausible, and in its telling, journalistic integrity was sacrificed as well.
“LET THAT SINK IN”
Paul Shanley stood for and did all manner of things that on their face were seen by some as dishonorable and disrespectful of his priesthood and his faith. But he was not on trial for those things. He was on trial for very specific offenses for which there was no evidence whatsoever beyond his reputation. All objective observers who look past his personal morality long enough to see the facts conclude that he was innocent of the crimes for which he is now in prison at age 84. We don’t have to like him to see that the Shanley trial was a sham.
Ms Wypijewski’s CounterPunch juxtaposition of all this with the story of my own trial and imprisonment was jarring at best, but only because I have lived under the cloud of false witness for so long that to see it again in print assails me. The author’s revelation that this was all driven by the hysteria of moral panic surrounding the very idea of priestly abusers, and not evidence – for there was no evidence – drove the accusations, drove the trial, drove the media coverage, and drove me. “MacRae got sixty-seven years for refusing to lie,” she wrote. “Let that sink in.”
The truth is that most of you now reading this have already let that sink in while others, including others in the Church, have settled for moral panic. This is why the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, Publisher and Editor of First Things magazine, wrote that my imprisonment “reflects a Church and a justice system that seem indifferent to justice.” This is why I need you to share this post and the CounterPunch article linked at the end.
Otherwise very reasonable Catholics on both the left and right have used the scandal of accused priests for their own agendas and ends with no regard for evidence, for justice, or for the most fundamental rights of their priests. The blind, self-righteous judgment of this “voice of the faithful” was the soil in which moral panic grew. Let that sink in, too.
The news media has done the same, and JoAnn Wypijewski has documented this masterfully. What The Boston Globe did was not journalism. It came as no surprise, in the years to follow the spotlight revelations, that the Globe’s owner, The New York Times, became desperate to sell it. Several years ago the Globe was purchased by John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox. The New York Times let the Globe go for less than seven cents on the dollar on their original purchase price of $1,100,000,000.00. It was sold by the Times for $70,000,000.00. Bottom line: The Boston Globe is dying. The Catholic Church is not.
Globe to shutter Crux site, shift BetaBoston
by Hiawatha Bray GLOBE STAFF MARCH 11, 2016
The Boston Globe said Friday that it will shut down Crux , the newspaper’s online publication devoted to news and commentary on the Roman Catholic Church. Crux will halt publication on April 1, and several employees will be laid off.
In a memo sent to Globe employees Friday, Globe editor Brian McGrory wrote “we’re beyond proud of the journalism and the journalists who have produced it, day after day, month over month, for the past year and a half.” But McGrory added, “We simply haven’t been able to develop the financial model of big-ticket, Catholic-based advertisers that was envisioned when we launched Crux back in September 2014.”
McGrory said that the Crux site will be handed over to associate editor and columnist John Allen, a veteran reporter on Catholic affairs. McGrory said that Allen “is exploring the possibility of continuing it in some modified form, absent any contribution from the Globe.” Crux editor Teresa Hanafin will stay in the newsroom, probably at bostonglobe-com, the paper’s online home.
CASTING THE SECOND STONE
Last week in these pages, in “Casting the First Stone: What Jesus Wrote in the Sand,” I described the limits that the Hebrew Scriptures imposed on the process of accusing, judging, and destroying our fellow human beings. Only with evidence and witnesses, and there had to be at least two, could the first stone be cast according to the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 17:17). Only then could the mob be justified in joining in.
But in the creation of a moral panic, such as that which Hollywood recently endorsed at the Academy Awards, no such limits on public stoning by the mob are deemed necessary. The Laws of God are not to be found in the credits of a Hollywood production, and for many in modern Western Culture, Hollywood is now the final arbiter of truth and justice. Are you really prepared to accept a lecture on morality and justice taught by the news media with an endorsement from Hollywood? Some – even among Catholic priests and bishops – have learned that the best way to avoid being targeted by a witch hunt is to join in with its inevitable stoning.
Regarding the CounterPunch article taken as a whole, JoAnn Wypjewski is wrong about one thing. I did not “like some of it, at least.” I liked all of it! I liked it not because it is comfortable to read – it isn’t – but because it is the truth, because it is written by a person whose integrity, as a journalist took precedence over what those on her ideological side of the fence demand from her. I like it because very early on in the article she risked making herself a lightning rod for the media left by challenging its availability bias:
“I am astonished that, across the past few months, ever since ‘Spotlight’ hit theaters, otherwise serious left-of center people have peppered their party conversation with effusions that the film reflects a heroic journalism, the kind we all need more of… What editor Marty Baron and the Globe sparked with their 600 stories and their confidential tip line for grievances was not laudatory journalism but a moral panic, and unfortunately for those who are telling the truth, truth was its casualty.”
Writing for The Wall Street Journal recently, author Carol Tavris described the devastation typically left in the wake of a moral panic:
“How do you convey to the next generation the stupidity, the rush to judgment, the breathtaking cruelty, the self-righteousness, the ruined lives, that every hysterical epidemic generates? On the other hand, understanding a moral panic requires perspective-distance from the emotional heat of anger and anxiety.” (“A Very Model Moral Panic,” WSJ.com, August 7, 2015)
I was informed this week that to date the CounterPunch article has been shared over 2,000 times on Facebook and other social media. This is of utmost importance because it lets all media know that this is an important story that has been neglected by the mainstream media.
I therefore implore you to share this post, and to read and share links to this important article by JoAnn Wypijewski: “Oscar Hangover Special: Why ‘Spotlight’ Is a Terrible Film.”