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MSM Agenda Journalism: Stephanopoulos on Epicenters and Truth

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Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was on “This Week” yesterday, and host George Stephanopoulos initiated a discussion of an article Santorum had written three years ago about the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal that included the line “[W]hen the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While there’s no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.”

Yesterday Stephanopoulos made the extraordinary claim that it was wrong for Santorum to single out Boston in 2002. Here’s the exchange as reported by the Washiongton Times this morning:

“I wrote the article in 2002. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry wrote no articles in 2002 criticizing this church,” Mr. Santorum said.
“I went out and talked to bishops. I went out and talked to cardinals. I was very concerned. I was offended and hurt by a church that betrayed me by not doing what they should have done, and I was angered by that, and I spoke out about it, and I spoke loudly about it,” Mr. Santorum said.
“The senators from Massachusetts did nothing. They spoke nothing,” he said yesterday. “They sat by and let this happen. And I’m standing my ground because I tried to fight to change the church.”
Mr. Santorum said he singled out Boston as the epicenter of the problem because it was not known in 2002 how widespread the problem of sexual abuse of boys in the church was in the U.S. He was challenged by Mr. Stephanopoulos, who called the statement “untrue” and cited several press reports of similar problems elsewhere.
“I went back and looked at all of these clips. We had stories in 1994, going back all the way to 1984 in Louisiana, in just about every archdiocese in the country,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “I just don’t understand why you stick by this, because we now know it was widespread. It was in every city in the country.”

Stephanopoulos is of course doing his best for his Democratic colleagues and for Santorum’s 2006 opponent Bob Casey, Jr. in raising this issue in this fashion –exactly the sort of agenda journalism that one never sees practiced against incumbant Democratic senators appearing on Stephanopoulos’ show.

But it also simply wrong for Stephanopoulos to say that in 2002 Boston wasn’t perceived as the epicenter of the scandal, and to do so on the basis of there being a clips of other abuse stories from that era.

I hope Santorum’s staff bothers to flip through ABC’s coverage of the scandals in 2002. Anyone familiar with David Francis’ Our Fathers, the most extensive chronicle of the national scandals knows that the epicenter was indeed Boston, even though the abuse scandals were in fact widespread. The focus on Cardinal Law, and the Boston Globe’s investigations led to the national demand for accountability, and if Stephanopoulos doesn’t know this, he’s a terrible journalist. If he does know this and chose to distort it, he’s not a journalist at all. It takes less than a minute to find “A Year of Scandal: 2002 in Review” an interactive feature on the Globe’s web page. The Globe won the Pulitzer for its coverage of the abuse scandals, and in reprting its win noted: “Starting in January 2002 with a Globe Spotlight series, Globe reporters revealed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse by priests that was covered up by the Archdiocese of Boston. The scandal culminated with the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law in December.”

Far from being “untrue,” as Stephanopoulos charged, it is manifestly true and obviously so that in 2002 Boston was the epicenter of the scandal, the “center of the storm.”

Senators Kerry’s and Kennedy’s response were charming:

”Senator Santorum’s partisan, hate-filled comments do a disservice to the victims of abuse,” said Kerry spokeswoman April Boyd. ”He’s never failed to inject politics into these deeply personal and trying issues for Catholics everywhere. He owes an apology to the families of abuse victims and to the faithful who fill the pews of Massachusetts churches every Sunday.”

Kennedy spokeswoman Laura Capps said of Santorum: ”First, he blames the people of Boston, and now he blames the senators from Massachusetts. When is he going to realize that while attempting to score political points, he causes further damage to the thousands of families across the country who have suffered enough from these tragic crimes?”

It would have been more effective for the spokesmen to produce the press releases from their offices from 2002 and earlier calling for accountability and a full investigation, and siding with the victims.

Stephanopouls’ assertion that, in 2002, the scandal was known to have spread to “every city in the country” is the sort of absurd overstatement that candidates’ flaks use, not serious newsmen. Note as well that Santorum is trying hard to make the issue a question of Santorum’s credibility rather than the accuracy of Santorum’s statement that Kerry and Kennedy did nothing throughout 2002 to assist the victims or push the Church towards accountability.

Stephanopoulos can distort history all he wants in the service of his party’s candidates and old lions. But you would think someone at ABC would worry that this sort of misrepresentation is the first sign of a Rather-like blindness to basic facts that can endanger the brand.

It would indeed be of service if there is an article or survey out there on the response of elected officials to the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals. The Globe receieved praise for throwing light on the scandal and pushing for accountability, but Santorum is getting blasted for having done the same thing.


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