One-Source Story Blues

Repeat after me: Wall Street saved Main Street. Wall Street saved Main Street. That’s the mantra of the mainstream press and Wise White Men whom they always quote when events turn sour.

What do reporters do when they have one source for the hottest story of the day and their attempts to check it out fail? That was the bind reporters found themselves in when Kentuckian Kim Davis’ lawyer indicated Davis had an unannounced audience with Pope Francis during his visit to Washington, D.C. Even if the Rowan County court clerk and her lawyer told the same story, it was one self-serving tale designed to add luster to her religious refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.It was the dreaded one-source story that didn’t check out on deadline. The news media went with it.  Davis’ lawyer said Pope Francis told Davis to stand firm. She told essentially the same story. Why the pope would inject himself into this American cultural battleground remains unclear, but no one should be surprised if that’s what the pope said. Francis and the Vatican oppose same-sex marriage. As for Davis and her allies, what could be more valuable than affirmation by the rock-star head of the world’s largest Christian denomination? "Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we're doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything," she told ABC.American conservatives loved what they interpreted as a papal endorsement of their opposition to same-sex marriage. LGBTQ activists complained that the remarks attributed to Francis were at odds with pastoral statements he’s made. Caught unaware, Vatican spokesmen blustered.First, it was can’t confirm, won’t deny.Then they said Francis met Davis, but it wasn’t meant to support her refusal to obey a federal judge and issue the marriage licenses as she’s paid to do.Moreover, it wasn’t an “audience,” Vatican spokesmen added. Davis was part of a crowd invited to meet the pope at the Vatican embassy. News media didn’t back off. After days of questions and culture-war sparring, the Vatican began to catch on to what its American representatives stirred up in an otherwise seamless papal visit."The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.If the pope assured Protestant Davis that it’s no sin to suffer for her faith, I missed that exchange in the news coverage. The question of who set up the meeting between Davis and the pope has been the subject of fervid media speculation.CNN reported Vatican officials saying such an encounter could only have taken place with the planning and approval of the Holy See's nuncio — or envoy — to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.In that sense, the Davis “audience” with Francis was a classic of bumbling at the Vatican embassy in Washington and press offices. I have no idea what Vatican and embassy staff knew about the unresolved storm around Davis, but I’m waiting to see if heads will roll.On the other hand, Francis embraced a gay man, Yayo Grassi, during a private meeting. Grassi is a student from the pope’s earlier career in the Argentine Jesuits. With Grassi was Iwan Bagus, his male partner of 19 years. This wasn’t a Vatican embassy arrangement. The pope personally assured Grassi in a telephone call that there would be time in Washington to talk.  Grassi told CNN that the pope has long known that he is gay but has never condemned his sexuality or his same-sex relationship. In a video, Francis says he recalls meeting Grassi's boyfriend in Rome."He has never been judgmental," Grassi said. "He has never said anything negative.”Again, that figures, Jesuit journalist James Martin said. “It reminds us, again, that the pope meets with all sorts of people on his trips and that such meetings are not an 'endorsement' of anything," Father Martin, an editor-at-large at America magazine, told CNN.  "In this case, for example, he is not endorsing same-sex marriage. But if Mr. Grassi's account is accurate, then it makes me happy to know that the Pope keeps in contact with his old friends, both gay and straight. For friendship and welcome are at the heart of the Christian life."Francis is back in the Vatican, running a worldwide conference on the family and coping with the fallout from a prominent clerical aide coming out as gay just before the gathering.The news media brouhaha over Davis Meets Pope underlines the central maxim in what has come to be known as “crisis communication” — recognize you have a crisis or soon will have. A corollary is that while thoughtful, skilled and honest responses can mitigate problems responding to the news media, a botched response will make it worse; i.e., Vatican fumbling and shifting answers when asked about Davis’ assertion that the pope urged her to stand firm in a personal conversation.Moreover, the drip-drip-drip of controversy was perfect for reporters; always another daily story.  A personal note: I worked in Rome when John XXIII was pope and I’ve covered religion on and off for decades. It was no surprise to me that reporters covering Francis’ U.S. trip had problems trying to confirm the story.It’s no secret or accident that the Vatican is among the least agile and transparent institutions when it comes to press relations. Agility and candor are not natural to the Vatican press office. This in turn assures sensational and poorly sourced stories and endless speculation dedicated to interpreting every papal statement or Vatican action or policy. News media never tire of quoting “experts” on what this or that means. Only the Kremlin and North Korea evoke so much fantasy. Some modern popes are more problematic than others when it comes to how they were reported by the secular news media. It didn’t take reporters long to learn that Paul VI’s  special commission on birth control urged him to reconsider the church’s ban on artificial contraception and to leave it to Catholic couples whether to use it. When Paul reaffirmed Catholic rejection of artificial contraception, he provoked a controversy that Obamacare reignited.I was covering religion in the Twin Cities in the mid-1960s, and when the Vatican provided a formal photo of that birth control commission, the local archbishop would neither confirm nor deny that he was in the photo.About par for the course.Francis’ immediate predecessor, Benedict, created more than one unexpected crisis for Vatican spokesmen.During an African trip, Benedict said that epidemic AIDS there was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”Then there was Benedict’s inexplicable decision to lift the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, the follower of a rebel French cleric and a Holocaust denier.The Vatican press office also struggled with news that a much younger Benedict — then Joseph Ratzinger — belonged to the Hitler Youth during World War II.  It wasn’t Vatican candor that sorted this out. Rather, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center effectively absolved the German pope, saying 14-year-old Joseph came from an anti-Nazi family but had no choice.

Curmudgeon Notes

Repeat after me: Wall Street saved Main Street. Wall Street saved Main Street. That’s the mantra of the mainstream press and Wise White Men whom they always quote when events turn sour. “Too big to fail” is the subtext. And then there is “too embedded in campaign finance to prosecute.” 

It seems the immunities of Wall Street extend to 5/3 moneylenders. They seem to escape criminal prosecution after defrauding the federal government on more than 1,400 home loans. In a detailed report, the Enquirer described the systematic 5/3 fraud that went on for a decade and contributed to the Great Recession’s collapse of the home mortgage market. That story came days after 5/3 agreed to stop gouging borrowers who took out loans from car dealers.

What I missed in the Enquirer was why no one is being prosecuted; 5/3 employees admitted committing home-loan fraud. The bank agreed to an $85-million civil settlement and said some people were fired. Just like Wall Street. 

• And in the wider world of repeat offenders, Volkswagen is a leader. London’s Daily Mail said VW fought for years to suppress a report on the ease with which car thieves can hack digital “keys.” When the Daily Mail — with its casual approach to what most Americans think of as journalism ethics — has an apparent scoop, I don’t ignore it. I check it out. This time, the story was legit. From Bloomberg: “Thousands of cars from a host of manufacturers have spent years at risk of electronic car-hacking, according to expert research that Volkswagen has spent two years trying to suppress in the courts.”

In “keyless” car theft,  Bloomberg explained, “hackers target vulnerabilities in electronic locks and immobilizers” in luxury cars stolen to order. It said digital protections can be hacked by “a technically minded criminal within 60 seconds.”

VW isn’t alone, Bloomberg said. There is a “similar vulnerability in keyless vehicles made by several carmakers. The weakness — which affects the Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) transponder chip used in immobilizers — was discovered in 2012, but carmakers sued the researchers to prevent them from publishing their findings.

• Americans suffer a major shooting incident almost daily, London’s Guardian says. The paper is counting Americans killed by gunfire in a crowd-sourced project, The Counted. More recently, it looked at the bigger picture.

The Guardian said Americans had “994 mass shootings in 1,004 days.” It defines “mass shooting” as four or more persons shot, whether wounded or killed, and gives the number killed and wounded along with the dates and locations. 

Some had no fatalities. Others had multiple, like Roseburg, Ore., which had nine dead victims plus the dead shooter. London’s Independent reported early this month that the FBI “defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are killed or injured. This year there have already been 294 of them, more than one a day.”

As Republican Jeb Bush put it so inelegantly when asked about the Roseburg killings, “stuff happens.” 

• In the Grudging Gratitude Department, the FBI director finds it “ridiculous (and) embarrassing” that the federal government has no better information on police shootings than databases compiled by Guardian US and the Washington Post (see above). 

“It is unacceptable that the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the U.K. are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between (US) police and civilians. That is not good for anybody,” said the FBI’s James Comey Oct. 7.

“You can get online and figure out how many tickets were sold to (movie) The Martian ... the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) can do the same with the flu,” he continued. “It’s ridiculous — embarrassing and ridiculous — that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.”

The Guardian said 891 deaths so far this year have been recorded by The Counted, its crowdsourced and staff-verified investigative project. The Washington Post, which has a similar project, has documented 758 deaths this year.

• I put “copycat killing” into Google and got 799,000 results. My search was prompted by arguments over whether to name the Umpqua Community College shooter. Would using his name inspire others to emulate him in search of their moment of infamy? Researchers and commentators can’t agree.But it wannabes really did follow the news, they’d realize how few killers’ names are remembered.

Killings are so common that only a mentally ill shooter would imagine he’d be famous for more than a couple news cycles. So that’s what we have, fantasists with rapid-fire weapons. 

• It’s no secret that different sections of newspapers have different reporting and editing standards. The most demanding are in the hard-news sections and sports. Features/fashion/women’s pages often don’t even attempt to escape the sense that they are little more than upbeat advertorials or validations of movers and shakers.  

A ghastly example came from a Faithful Reader of Curmudgeon Notes. It’s from the NYTimes Style section. I quote the Oct. 8 correction in full:

“An article last Thursday (Oct. 1) about Melania Trump and the passive role she has been playing in the presidential campaign of her husband, Donald Trump, misstated her age at the time she was Melania Knauss and posed for a picture in Talk magazine. She was 29, not 26, making her almost a quarter-century younger than her future husband, not more than a quarter-century younger. 

“The article also misidentified a presidential debate she attended. She was in the audience at the Fox News debate in Cleveland in August; she was not present for the CNN debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. 

“In addition, the article misidentified the position in Congress held by Marco Rubio, one of Mr. Trump’s opponents for the Republican presidential nomination. He is a United States senator from Florida, not a representative. 

“The article also misspelled the surname of an editor at The Palm Beach Daily News, who noted that Mrs. Trump is ‘not gossipy at all, not bitchy and just really nice.’ He is Robert Janjigian, not Jangigian. 

“And, finally, the article referred imprecisely to Mr. Janjigian’s role at the newspaper. While he has reported on society, he is in charge of fashion coverage, not society coverage. (Shannon Donnelly is the society editor.)”

Misspelling the names of public figures is bad enough, but for a reporter and editors at the Times to not know who Marco Rubio is or what he does for a living when he’s not running for the GOP presidential nomination is stunning.

Just for the hell of it, I typed Marco Rubio into Google: 63,200,000 hits. The first screen identifies him as a U.S. senator. 

Maybe they’d have known him if he’d get a Fashion Week front-row seat or share his recipe for Cuba Libre cocktails. 


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]


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