NBC Takes Up Kennedy vs. The Bishop, Implies Church is 'Crossing the Line' Into 'Political Blackmail'

Monday’s NBC Nightly News took up the story of liberal Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s public feud with the Catholic Church, and NBC’s Ron Allen implied something improper in how "the Catholic Church is flexing its religious and political muscle."

When Catholic officials endorse liberal initiatives like immigration reform or oppose an execution, the networks don’t worry about the separation of church and state. But with traditional stands against abortion and gay marriage in the crossfire, NBC’s screen graphic asked if the church was "Crossing the Line?" A secular-left lobbyist accused the church of being "not above spiritual and political blackmail."

NBC even used footage from Nicholas Ballasy’s video interview with Kennedy for Cybercast News Service, a news outlet affiliated with the MRC. But the brief snippet took out some of Kennedy’s hostility against the church for "fanning the flames of dissent and discord" over the "absolute red herring" of abortion. Here’s how NBC portrayed it:

ALLEN: Last month, Kennedy had publicly chastised the Church for demanding tough abortion restrictions in the health care reform bill. Today he could not be reached for comment but recently spoke to Cybercast News Service.

PATRICK KENNEDY (D-RI): If the Church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health care reform because it's going to provide health care that are gonna keep people alive.

A larger clip of the interview with CNSNews.com (posted on October 22) offers more of a taste of Kennedy’s hostility:

"I can’t understand for the life of me how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of our time, where the very dignity of the human person is being respected by the fact that we’re caring and giving health care to the human person – that right now we have 50 million people who are uninsured. You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life-saving health care? I thought they were pro-life.

If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health care reform because it’s going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive. So this is an absolute red herring and I don’t think that it does anything but to fan the flames of dissent and discord and I don’t think it’s productive at all."

NBC must have thought it would look less positive to have a liberal complaining about "fanning the flames of dissent" during the Obama era. Allen doesn’t consider that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops didn’t oppose health "reform" in general, but favored the Stupak amendment to insure that abortions are not government-funded. It's a little overstated for NBC to call this a "tough abortion restriction." Kennedy voted against the amendment. Abortions do not qualify as "health care that is gonna keep people alive."

Allen also turned to secular leftist Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who painted a gaudy picture of Catholic bishops shredding the First Amendment and ruling America with an iron fist:

ALLEN: Critics say the Catholic Church – which, like all religious institutions, is tax exempt and not for profit – has rarely been this aggressive politically.

BARRY LYNN: I think the Church sees this as a golden opportunity to turn Church doctrine into the law of the United States at every level, and, frankly, they're not above using spiritual and political blackmail to do it.

Allen added to the "blackmail" theme:

In Washington, D.C., where the city council could approve a same-sex marriage bill next week, Church leaders warn the law would force them to end decades of programs it runs with the city helping the needy. That’s because the law would require groups like Catholic Charities – which accept public funding – to provide full employee benefits to same-sex couples, something the Church refuses to do. Church leaders say they are morally obligated to take strong stands on policy issues.

Typically, the NBC story downplayed how it could have been portrayed as liberal public officials lecturing the church to get in line with the state, whether it’s the D.C. Council telling the church to accept gay partners or Congressman Kennedy insisting the church should endorse health reform, complete with state-subsidized abortions. It could just as easily be called "political blackmail" in the opposite direction.

Thomas Tobin, the Bishop of Providence, spoke twice in the story. He said after the D.C. discussion that "We have the right and the duty, I think, to bring a spiritual vision and spiritual values into these discussions."

The other came in a very defensive way: "Keep in mind, I didn't go after him. He started this dialogue when he attacked the Church now nearly a month ago. To receive a sacrament, you have to be in union with the Church."

NBC portrayed the dispute between the bishop and the Congressman as "increasingly bitter" and "personal." It began like this:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: An increasingly bitter dispute has been playing out in recent weeks between Congressman Patrick Kennedy, the youngest son of the late Ted Kennedy, and his Roman Catholic bishop. As NBC’s Ron Allen reports tonight, it is the latest instance of the Church asserting a role in some of this nation’s most contentious issues.

RON ALLEN: As the nation grapples with emotional issues like health care reform, abortion and same-sex marriage, the Catholic Church is flexing its religious and political muscle, caught up in an unlikely personal argument with Representative Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Senator, over his bishop's request in a confidential letter not to take communion because he supports abortion rights.

We all know which side NBC would take in deciding which is more precious to America, the Kennedy family or the Catholic bishops. But if the church was as aggressive as Barry Lynn suggested, the bishop wouldn't send the congressman a secret letter asking nicely that he refrain from taking communion (the bishop says he sent a letter in 2007, long before this public debate). He would publicly excommunicate him.

Obviously, there are a large number of pro-abortion Catholic politicians (especially in New England), so that could turn into a very broad order of business. The current course seems much more moderate and less muscular than the Barry Lynns of the world want to paint it.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis