Shooting The Messenger [or rather, the Interviewer as well as the Interviewee]
By Rod Dreher • September 12, 2012
Several readers have e-mailed to say that John Burger, the veteran National Catholic Register writer and editor who conducted that controversial interview with Fr. Benedict Groeschel (it’s been removed from the site; story about the controversy here) was fired by the EWTN-owned newspaper because of it. I confirmed with Mr. Burger that he was let go because of the incident, but he did not wish to comment further.
This is disgraceful on the Register‘s part, just disgraceful. I hope somebody in Catholic media with a job to offer will contact John Burger and talk to him. In 2002, when the Register was owned by the Legionaries of Christ cult, I was at a Catholic media seminar in suburban Washington. The event had been planned before the sex scandal broke, but by the time we all got there, that’s all anybody wanted to talk about. The LC priest who was then the publisher of the Register spoke on a panel, and praised his own newspaper for not dirtying its hands by reporting these scurrilous stories about clerical sex abuse. During the Q&A, I stood to challenge him, saying that this isn’t journalism at all, but a form of propaganda. As I recall, he did not really know how to respond. He must have assumed that because everybody in the room was a conservative Catholic, we would agree with him.
I had hoped that after the Register left LC hands and went to EWTN’s, that unprofessional mentality would depart as well. Apparently not. I don’t know John Burger, but this situation strikes me as EWTN scapegoating the messenger for the message. From what I can tell, Burger was sacked for not editing out comments from Groeschel that later proved embarrassing — in other words, for not protecting Groeschel from himself.
The transcript of the interview is no longer available, but what surprised me when I read it was that Burger himself didn’t seem to pick up at the time on how outrageous Groeschel’s claim was. Nor, it seems, did anybody else on the Register‘s editorial staff. It only got to them when the interview was released, and the blogosphere exploded with critical commentary.
Why didn’t the Register staff notice anything amiss in this? My guess is that it was because Benedict Groeschel is a towering figure among Catholic conservatives. If he says something, it’s not questioned. Until he was forcibly retired from the EWTN airwaves in the wake of this gaffe, Groeschel was the highest-profile on-air personality on the Catholic cabler. One can easily see how a conservative Catholic publication owned by the network that made a Catholic media star of Benedict Groeschel would be naturally inclined to be uncritical of anything he said. Besides, as we have seen (e.g., here and here), Groeschel has held that same line on the abuse scandal for many years. He simply forgot to speak in guarded tones, and his interviewer didn’t realize his job was not to report what Fr. Groeschel actually said, but to make him look good. In other words, he forgot that EWTN didn’t really want him to be a journalist, but rather a publicist in disguise.
EWTN and the newspaper it publishes has made John Burger, now jobless, suffer for committing the sin of journalism. At the Register, the truth won’t set you free; it’ll cost you your job. See, this is part of the reason why so many talented men and women of faith stay away from church-affiliated news and entertainment media. People who run churches and church organizations often don’t understand what communications (journalism, filmmaking, etc.) is. They think it’s all supposed to be publicity, and so they guarantee mediocrity, and ultimately the discouragement of talented people — artists and journalists — who have good and useful talents to give to the whole church.