Stephen Bannon

Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

What we have here are two interesting stories, which appear to be connected by a bridge of New York Times paranoia. It’s that latest addition to a growing canon of work attempting to connect Donald Trump to a vast right-wing Catholic conspiracy to bring down the compassionate, progressive Pope Francis.

The first story is a legitimate profile of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, whose life has taken her from the heights of glitterati fame to where she is now — a Catholic philanthropist with very conservative Catholic beliefs and a willingness to work with the rich and the poor.

The second story is — brace yourself — about Stephen K. Bannon and his ongoing efforts to promote his own power and prestige, primarily by spinning conspiracy theories that make cultural progressives go nuts. (Click here for a GetReligion post about a previous chapter in this drama and here for another.)

That leads us to the New York Times opus with this headline: “The ‘It’ ’80s Party Girl Is Now a Defender of the Catholic Faith.”

This is a story that I would think made Bannon very, very happy.

At the same time, it is a story in which Princess Gloria makes one or two comments about Bannon, but then basically shows herself to be a conservative Catholic who greatly admires the now retired Pope Benedict XVI. Yes, the does have questions about some of the actions of Pope Francis and, yes, she admires Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. You know what that means in mainstream press circles.

Let’s tiptoe into this, looking at the key summary statement and, then, the statement of Gray Lady theology that frames this whole two-stories-in-one train wreck.

Princess Gloria — once christened “Princess TNT” for her explosive years as a hard partying, art-collecting, punk-haired aristocrat — has grown into the sun queen around which many traditionalist Roman Catholics opposed to Pope Francis orbit. Her Regensburg castle is a potential “Gladiator School” for conservative Catholics on a crusade to preserve church traditions.

Her Roman palace overlooking the ancient forum is a preferred salon for opposition cardinals, bitter bishops and populists like Stephen K. Bannon. Many of them are hoping to use the sex abuse crisis that amounts to the greatest existential threat to the church in centuries to topple the 81-year-old pontiff, who they are convinced is destroying the faith.

Now, for that blast of Times theology. The key is that the following shows, once again, that the journalism issue here is NOT an anti-religious bias. No, the key to this piece of advocacy journalism is that there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and that the Times team gets to decide who is who.

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Podcast thinker: Bannon attack on Catholic bishops was news, while 'loud dogma' wasn't?

Podcast thinker: Bannon attack on Catholic bishops was news, while 'loud dogma' wasn't?

It's one of the questions that non-journalists ask me all the time: What makes some events "news," while other events are not "news"?

Long ago, a caller in Charlotte wanted to know why it was news that a downtown church replaced a window, while it was not news that her church built and dedicated a new building.

Well, I explained, that window was in an Episcopal Church downtown and that sanctuary is an historic site. It was controversial to put in a modern window. Now, if there had been a zoning fight about that new megachurch sanctuary, then the newspaper would have covered it. She was not amused or convinced.

So here is a more modern news-judgment puzzle, one with a twist that combines cutting-edge technology and the old demons of media-bias studies. This puzzle was at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

Too wade into this, start with the top of this interesting Crux piece that ran with this headline: "Fears of anti-Catholic bias rise on both left and right."

NEW YORK -- Of late, California Senator Diane Feinstein has come under fire for questioning judicial nominee Amy Barrett’s commitment to her Catholic faith during a senate confirmation hearing last week.
“I think in your case, professor … the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern,” declared Feinstein.
That same week, another story prompted Catholic furor when former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said he thought the U.S. bishops had been “terrible” in their support of DACA and “They need illegal aliens to fill the churches.”
These two cases -- which happened in the span of one, shared 24-hour news cycle -- have prompted some to wonder if anti-Catholic bias on both the political left and the right in America is on the rise.

In my mind, there's no question that both of these events were worthy of coverage.

However, stop and think about it.

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Chaos in Trump White House! But it has nothing to do with fights over culture and religion!

Chaos in Trump White House! But it has nothing to do with fights over culture and religion!

The big news in The Washington Post this weekend? The headline! "Inside Trump’s White House, New York moderates spark infighting and suspicion."

This was a shocker built on two stunning revelations.

First, did you know that Donald Trump -- who has surrounded himself with chaos at every stage of his public life -- has created a White House staff that appears to exist in a constant state of chaos? Shocking! As many has noted, Trump has always said that he enjoys hearing a wide range of viewpoints, even if that creates conflict, knowing that he gets to make the final decision.

Then there was shocker No. 2: Did you know that the style, priorities and values of "moderate" (a label that in elite media-speak means, "good guys in this context") New Yorkers are often different kinds of people than the populist and cultural conservatives who live in red-zip-code America? Can you imagine?!

Now, when you look at this buzz-producing Post political thriller from a GetReligion perspective it contains one more stunning revelation: Apparently these chaotic clashes are rooted in personalities and pure political gamesmanship and have nothing to do with hot-button issues linked to culture and religion!

At least, that is how things play out when the script is written by the pros at the Post political desk. Here is the overture and how-we-did-it summary for this feature:

Inside the White House, they are dismissed by their rivals as “the Democrats.”
Outspoken, worldly and polished, this coterie of ascendant Manhattan business figures-turned-presidential advisers is scrambling the still-evolving power centers swirling around President Trump.

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Your weekend think piece: Darth Bannon making earth move inside Vatican? Crux says look again

Your weekend think piece: Darth Bannon making earth move inside Vatican? Crux says look again

In another example of the Catholic-beat team at Crux offering some timely media criticism, the omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr., has produced a follow-up analysis about that the highly symbolic media storm surrounding White House mastermind Stephen "Darth" Bannon and his alleged campaign to undercut Pope Francis.

The headline: "A dose of reality about the Steve Bannon/Cardinal Burke axis."

My original piece on this controversy -- "Looking for on-the-record Vatican voices in the New York Times shocker about Darth Bannon" -- focused on journalism issues in this case, in particular the lack of actual inside-the-Vatican voices about this giant inside-the-Vatican political conspiracy. Here is the thesis statement from the Times piece, followed by a quick replay of my concerns:

Just as Mr. Bannon has connected with far-right parties threatening to topple governments throughout Western Europe, he has also made common cause with elements in the Roman Catholic Church who oppose the direction Francis is taking them. Many share Mr. Bannon’s suspicion of Pope Francis as a dangerously misguided, and probably socialist, pontiff.

I noted:

The key word is "many," as in "many" sources inside the structures of the Catholic Church. 

Later, the Times team adds, making that "many" claim once again:

For many of the pope’s ideological opponents in and around the Vatican, who are fearful of a pontiff they consider outwardly avuncular but internally a ruthless wielder of absolute political power, this angry moment in history is an opportunity to derail what they see as a disastrous papal agenda.

Obviously, Trump is a strange hero for Catholics who really sweat the details in moral theology. Now -- other than one think-tank voice with ties to Cardinal Raymond Burke -- one searches in vain for concrete sources for the information on this story, let alone "many" sources inside the halls of Vatican power. 

In his analysis essay, Allen is reacting to the waves of media commentary about the Times piece, very few of which did anything in the way of adding factual information about this alleged drama. It was enough that the Times printed what it printed. That means it's all true. Carry on!

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Looking for on-the-record Vatican voices in the New York Times shocker about Darth Bannon

Looking for on-the-record Vatican voices in the New York Times shocker about Darth Bannon

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.

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Just listen for a while: What Spayd said @NYTimes. OK, even what Bannon said ...

Just listen for a while: What Spayd said @NYTimes. OK, even what Bannon said ...

For the past several days, I have been in transit from New York to Baltimore to Washington, D.C., and finally home -- all while getting sick as a dog, as we would say in East Tennessee. So I confess that I'm a bit out of touch, when it comes to what's been happening in news and social media.

But let me try to pull things together from my fevered point of view. It seems the hot media items have something to do with President Donald Trump's bluster-maestro Stephen K. Bannon saying something about America's elite media needing to "shut up" and/or do some listening. In fact, if you search for "Bannon," "mouth" and "shut" right now on Google News you get a mere 238,000 hits.

Oh my. What did this man actually say to The New York Times

“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Mr. Bannon said in an interview on Wednesday.
“I want you to quote this,” Mr. Bannon added. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”

Oh my, again. Never use a flyswatter when a baseball bat will do. But let's assume that this quote should not be read with the kind of hyper-literalism the Times team would be tempted to call "fundamentalism" in another context. (As usual, turn to M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway at The Federalist for a stunning summary of the online storm.)

Instead of jumping straight to the nuclear option -- Trump aide tells press to shut *$^@#*+ up (some of that was implied, to be sure) -- I think it's possible that the actual content of that quote could better be stated as: "The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut for a while and just listen."

Right, right. All I did was move the words "for a while." I think that's what Bannon meant, since everyone knows that the press -- when it comes to listening to Americans on tense topics such as politics, culture and, YES, religion -- is supposed to be listening all the time. I think that's an essential part of their job. 

Is the actual content of this acidic Bannon comment radically different than what ordinary readers said in letters to Times Public Editor Liz Spayd in the hours after Trump won the White House race? Let's flash back to that, while remembering (hello editor Dean Baquet) that discussions of this kind, at the Times and in other elite newsrooms, often include references to the need to "get religion."

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Que sera, sera: It's Trump's turn to deal with Middle East. Let the guesswork begin in earnest

Que sera, sera: It's Trump's turn to deal with Middle East. Let the guesswork begin in earnest

The presidential election is finally over and according to the rules of the American electoral system Donald Trump will be our next president (my bias is showing). That means it's that time in the journalistic election cycle to guess at what the president-elect may or may not actually do once sworn in.

Yes, guess work Is pretty much the state of affairs, at least as of my writing this post. We may soon have a better understanding, but for now candidate Trump's steady stream of contradictory, conniving, condescending and cockamamie pronouncements makes it hard for his opponents and supporters alike to know just what he plans with much certainty.

So sit back and watch as aspirational, personal projection and shot-in-the-dark journalism swarms the field.

Oh, wait.

It appears that aspirational, personal projection and shot-in-the-dark journalism have been on the field all along, given what the majority of political polls predicted, and what some of our best journalistic minds (seriously) said before being proved wrong.

Others at GetReligion have written extensively about the domestic side of Trump's victory. So as this column's title suggests, I'm going international, starting with the Middle East. I'll begin with Israel before getting on to the Arab and Muslim Middle East actors. (I'm skipping the Syria-Iraq situation in this post; it's a post itself.)

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