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On Point Exchange: NYTimes Chief, Notre Dame Prof on Church Coverage

This article is more than 9 years old.

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and University of Notre Dame history professor Scott Appleby have engaged in a running online dialogue, following an On Point segment on Monday, about the newspaper's coverage of issues relating to Catholicism and the Vatican. The exchange began when Keller emailed host Tom Ashbrook after the show to say that some of Appleby's on-air remarks were a "slanderous bit of nonsense."

During that On Point show, which looked at Pope Benedict and the current crisis for the Vatican, Appleby leveled some serious charges against Keller and the Times. Appleby said that a piece Keller once wrote during his tenure as a columnist "likened John Paul the Second to Hitler and Stalin." Appleby said of Keller's column, "It was ludicrous, just outrageous," and asserted evidence that the Times sees the Church as an institution "that needs to be taken down" -- an assertion questioned by Ashbrook. (Transcript of the exchange at bottom of this post.)

Keller then wrote an email to Ashbrook on Tuesday saying that Appleby's remarks seriously misrepresented his 2002 column. With Keller's permission, we have posted the letter below. On Wednesday, Appleby responded to Keller's letter, and Keller replied back later in the day. All of this comes against the backdrop of a very public argument between the Times, which has broken a number of recent stories about the Vatican and the Pope, and senior Church officials, who have been harshly critical of the newspaper.

Here's Keller's initial response:

Dear Mr. Ashbrook,

One of your listeners alerted me to a slanderous bit of nonsense aired on your show yesterday. In the course of your discussion of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, one of your guests, Scott Appleby, declared that, back in my column-writing days, I compared Pope John Paul II to Hitler and Stalin. That is utterly false, as you can see from reading the column in question — pasted below.

The May, 2002, column compared the Vatican's insularity and intolerance of dissent to those of the Soviet Communist Party in the Brezhnev era. But there is no hint of comparison between the pope and two great butchers of the 20th century. Stalin's name does not appear in the column at all, and Hitler's name occurs only in a quote from a prominent historian of the church, Charles Morris, whose point was exactly the opposite of what your guest alleged. (Morris's point was that, by likening contraception to genocide, Pope John Paul II had put the majority of modern Catholic couples on the same side of the moral abyss with Hitler and Pol Pot.)

I know you can't be held accountable for every utterance on your show. And The Times's coverage of the church is certainly fair game for critics. But as an historian, Mr. Appleby has a particular obligation to get his facts straight. And, by the way, he has reason to remember the column in question: he was quoted in it.

Bill Keller

Update I: Appleby responds to Keller:

An Open Letter to Bill Keller, editor, New York Times

Dear Mr. Keller:

Some may hope that my suggestion, offered on Monday's On Point program to host Tom Ashbrook, that you want to "take the Church down" might lead the two of us into an entertaining round of accusations and rebuttals. I must disappoint them. I was inaccurate in my characterization of your 2002 column comparing the Church under Pope John Paul II to the Soviet regime under Leonid Brezhnev. You compared John Paul II to Brezhnev, not to Stalin, and the mention of Hitler came in an altogether different context. I sincerely apologize. I have a responsibility to get the facts right, and I failed in this instance. I hope you will accept my apology.

That particular column irritated me and is lodged in my memory because you included a quote from me, extracted from our 20-minute conversation, that completely misrepresented the spirit and substance of my remarks to you. You marshaled my words to support your comparison, which I continue to believe was irresponsible and wrong-headed. I wrote the Times a letter of correction, but it was ignored. That lingering anger no doubt contributed to my gaffe yesterday, but does not excuse it.

Despite my misgivings about what I perceive as an unbalanced approach by the Times to the sexual abuse crisis, I am a fan of the paper (and have contributed occasionally to the Book Review), and I have admired most of your columns over the years. If you consult the video of Monday's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, you will hear a more balanced statement of my appreciation for the media and The Times in particular.

But I must ask: Can even one article or column mention the enormous good done by the Church for this nation, the extensive social services provided for decades and still today, the thousands of caring and compassionate priests and religious who continue to devote their lives to the service of God and their fellow human beings? (And could it do so without the obligatory irony?) Could you run, for example, a story on the profound de-moralization of the clergy and religious, the vast majority of whom are tainted unfairly by the sins and crimes of some of their colleagues and some of their leaders? Millions of practicing Catholics in this nation are affected by this crisis of confidence in the priesthood and the Church, and they lament both the suffering of the victims of sexual abuse and the negative fallout on good priests and religious. They are embarrassed and scandalized by the behavior of the culprits among them, but they do not therefore conclude that the Church is a totalitarian institution bent on repressing the faithful. The views of "collapsed Catholics," as you called yourself in the 2002 column, are welcome in The Times. What about the voices of tens of millions of disheartened but still faithful American Catholics who do not equate or reduce their Catholicism to the follies and crimes of sinful men, even ordained sinful men. Do these Catholics deserve even a few of the hundreds of news reports and columns over the last nine years?

In any case, I am embarrassed by getting you wrong on Monday, and I repeat my apology.


Scott Appleby
University of Notre Dame

Update II: Keller replies to Appleby:

Dear Professor Appleby,

Thanks for your gracious message. Of course I accept your apology.

I do understand that there is much more to the Catholic Church than a scandalous minority of predatory priests. Although it is human nature to remember hurts, many of those who feel the church to be under attack have overlooked or forgotten a great deal of Times coverage that spans the range of Catholic life and experience. Laurie Goodstein, whose excellent work on the current crisis has come under fire from some vociferous defenders of the church, has written much of that coverage. In 2008, she did a fascinating and often uplifting three-part series on the experience of priests from Africa and Asia in American parishes. Just within the last year she has written articles about the joy of traditionalist Anglicans at the Vatican's decision to embrace them into Catholicism, an interesting study showing that the younger generation of American nuns and priests tend to favor a more traditional approach to the liturgy, and a thriving monastery in Wisconsin. There is much more — from our metro staff, our national staff, even our sports staff (a recent profile of the 77-year-old nun who coaches Xavier's basketball team) that is not about crime or malfeasance.

But by definition news tends to be what is out of the ordinary. The sexual abuse allegations — and the new information emerging about how they were handled — are news because they are shockingly out of the ordinary. The story has been driven not by outsiders hostile to the church, but mostly by horrified Catholics looking for reassurance and accountability.

It's interesting that you suggest we consider the demoralization of priests. My wife returned from mass last Sunday moved by the pastor's Easter sermon, in which he described how shaken he has been by the latest round of scandal. The next day I asked our national desk to look into the impact of the crisis on the morale of priests. I'm happy to be able to identify a little patch of common ground between us.

Bill Keller

And here is the transcript of Appleby's remarks during the show Monday:

SCOTT APPLEBY: The media is not innocent in this regard, and one of the implications, or one of the effects of it, has been to reinforce clericalism, because some of the attacks of the media have indeed been unbalanced. The current editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, wrote an op-ed years ago at the end of John Paul the Second’s pontificate, before he became editor, that likened John Paul the Second to Hitler and Stalin. It was ludicrous, just outrageous. So when people say the New York Times has it in for the Catholic Church, I don’t think that’s true overall for all their reporters, but there’s evidence that the New York Times opposes the church and various of its policies, and sees it as retrograde, rearguard, a regressive institution that needs to be taken down. Also…
TOM ASHBROOK: That’s a pretty big comment. That needs to be taken down?
TOM ASHBROOK: The Church needs to be taken down? You think…
SCOTT APPLEBY: Well, go look at the editor of the New York Times’ op-ed.
TOM ASHBROOK: How many years ago?
SCOTT APPLEBY: It was right at the end of John Paul the Second’s reign. And he’s comparing… he didn’t like John Paul’s policies, and he compared John Paul the Second to Hitler and Stalin, a totalitarian leader with no sense of human dignity. It’s just outrageous. There are things to criticize, but on the other hand, and I’m not suggesting that everything the Times does is of this caliber, but those who say there is a focus, an unbalanced focus on this issue – and it’s a terrible issue, don’t misunderstand me – but how often does the New York Times, or the media in general, say anything about the largely positive record of the Church on so many issues? That’s not part of the coverage.

This program aired on April 12, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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