Doing the right (reporting) thing: Washington Post keeps digging on Klanner-turned-priest tale

The late Phillip Graham, onetime publisher of The Washington Post, is widely credited with saying journalism is "the first rough draft of history." But, as journalist Jack Shafer noted seven years ago, another writer named Alan Barth may have originated it.

Regardless of who said it first, and as Shafer noted in the article linked above, the words ring true. A news story is generally the first take on something that's happened. Many newspapers will stay with an important local (or national) story as events unfold. Conscientious newspapers will flesh out their follow-up reporting with greater detail and insight.

Fortunately for those of us who decry when the media fails to "get" the religion angle, The Washington Post has -- in one recent case -- come through with reporting (and even a first-person commentary) that shows they do "get" it.

I'm speaking of the continuing story of the Rev. William Aitcheson, a Catholic priest who once-upon-a-time wore a very different set of vestments: the robes of an "exalted cyclops" in an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. The Post, which broke the story in the general media, has stayed with it, From its follow-up story:

The reason behind Aitcheson’s revelation also has been called into question. Maria Santos Bier, a freelance journalist and member of the Arlington Diocese, had contacted the diocese a few days before Aitcheson wrote the essay to ask about Aitcheson’s KKK history -- and told them she might write about it.
In an essay published in The Washington Post, Santos Bier described her experience as a history student of Aitcheson’s while she was home-schooled in the early 2000s in Woodstock, Va. Aitcheson was a “fervent advocate of the Confederacy” who would joke about “Saint Robert E. Lee” in homilies at the church, and seemed so knowledgeable about history, Santos Bier wrote, that “I trusted him when he taught us that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights, not slavery; that the South’s cause was noble and just.”
Through all the revelations, Aitcheson has been publicly silent, declining daily interview requests through the diocese. Efforts to find him were unsuccessful. Church officials in Arlington and Reno -- the two dioceses where he has worked since his ordination in 1988 -- declined to speak at any length about him. Priests and lay leaders in the eight parishes and many congregants where Aitcheson has worked also declined to speak about him.

This is good, solid reporting. This is the kind of journalism readers should see far more often than we do in this BuzzFeed-ified era of quick hits for even quicker web clicks.

The Post is offering readers more context, including details about something I'd wondered about previously: Who was the journalist that apparently forced Aitcheson's hand?

We don't know a lot about Maria Santos Bier, but we at least know her name and, via the paper, have a link to her essay on the subject. And to demonstrate the multi-dimensional nature of the story, the paper also shares some of the conflict worshipers at St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax, Virginia, where Aitcheson most recently served, are feeling:

St. Leo parishioner Mark Krajewski at first praised Aitcheson as a “deep scriptural thinker” and said he felt unconflicted. But as he learned more about his priest’s KKK past, and his lack of apology and payment to his victims, Krajewski grew more ambivalent.
“I try to think good things about our priests and it’s difficult to learn of this information and think good things. ... This will always be in my mind,” he said. ...
“I’d have no problem going to confession or getting spiritual direction from this guy -- in fact, maybe more now,” said Ryan Ellis, 39, a parishioner at St. Rita Catholic Church in Alexandria. “This guy has seen hell and the other side.”

It's encouraging to see such in-depth reporting on a controversial and complex subject. I'd like to hope that what the Post did will inspire other journalists to go and do likewise.

Don't worry, gentle readers: I suspect the Post will remain on the trail of this onetime "radical" who became a priest, and the resulting twists and turns.

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