It would be hard to imagine a subject more intriguing to some editors at The New York Times than suggestions that the Darth Vader of the Donald Trump administration -- that would be Stephen K. Bannon -- was somehow working with forces close to the Vatican to undercut Pope Francis.
Thus, there has been quite a bit of online buzz about the rather BuzzFeed like feature (in terms of its sourcing) that Times editors ran under the headline, "Steve Bannon Carries Battles to Another Influential Hub: The Vatican."
Catholic insiders -- on the left and right -- will be able to see more in the thin tea leaves of this piece than I can. I am primarily interested in journalism issues linked to how the piece was reported and presented. The bottom line: It is very rare to see such sweeping, conspiratorial language used in a news feature that -- on its key points of fact -- appears to have one crucial named source, other than quotes from other journalists. Hold that thought.
The intrigue, as you would expect, starts right where it should -- in the overture.
ROME -- When Stephen K. Bannon was still heading Breitbart News, he went to the Vatican to cover the canonization of John Paul II and make some friends. High on his list of people to meet was an archconservative American cardinal, Raymond Burke, who had openly clashed with Pope Francis.
In one of the cardinal’s antechambers, amid religious statues and book-lined walls, Cardinal Burke and Mr. Bannon -- who is now President Trump’s anti-establishment eminence -- bonded over their shared worldview. They saw Islam as threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values, and viewed themselves as unjustly ostracized by out-of-touch political elites.
“When you recognize someone who has sacrificed in order to remain true to his principles and who is fighting the same kind of battles in the cultural arena, in a different section of the battlefield, I’m not surprised there is a meeting of hearts,” said Benjamin Harnwell, a confidant of Cardinal Burke who arranged the 2014 meeting.
Harnwell appears to be the main source for this entire story. He is founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a foundation that -- as the Times piece notes -- is currently displaying prominent images of Bannon, linked to quotations praising Harnwell.
The timing of the meeting is fascinating and, for journalists, a bit problematic.