NPR's Dirty Campaigners of the Week: 'Conservative Bloggers' Push 'Bold' Pro-lifer to Head Bishops Group

The U.S. Catholic bishops' conference disappointed liberals this week by choosing a leader who agreed with the bishops' campaign this year against pro-abortion provisions in ObamaCare. On Tuesday night's All Things Considered, NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty reported the expected moderate winner was apparently smeared by “conservative Catholic bloggers” for being too close to the sex-abuse scandal. (This might be the first time reporters have felt bad about bishops over the sex-abuse scandal.) Hagerty reported:

It's not clear what tipped the election. But over the past few days, conservative Catholic bloggers and activists have waged a campaign against [Tucson Bishop Gerald] Kicanas, who's considered a moderate with a conciliatory style. His critics sent faxes and left voicemails telling bishops to vote against Kicanas, saying Kicanas had been tainted by the sex abuse scandal when he had recommended an abuser to be ordained as a priest.

Kicanas flatly denied knowing about any abuse of minors. But that did not save him. The bishops elected the media-savvy Timothy Dolan, who's considered one of the boldest and more orthodox bishops, and who's willing to speak loudly and publicly on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research.

Asked what his priorities would be, Dolan said he would continue what is already in place. The outgoing president, Cardinal Francis George, has been an outspoken conservative on culture war issues.

Isn't it fascinating how liberal reporters lament “outspoken” conservatives “willing to speak loudly and publicly,” especially on their pet social-liberal issues? "Waging" a campaign inside a church is somehow questionable -- unless it's installing a gay-activist bishop in the Episcopal Church. NPR didn't actually mention any bloggers by name. Matt Abbott at Renew America was one, and he was pointing out that gay leftists like the Rainbow Sash movement were promoting Bishop Kicanas, which somehow didn't make the NPR story.

While the election was a surprise – the vice chairman has been routinely elevated to chairman – it was a vote to continue in the current direction. So Morning Edition anchor Steve Inskeep just made a bone-headed mistake when he introduced Hagerty the next morning:

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops chose a new leader, they also chose a new direction. The bishops held an election yesterday. The winner was Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. He's considered more conservative than the candidate he surprisingly defeated.

Inskeep asked "Why Dolan?" So came more loud-conservative talk. Notice the "really-really" modifiers from NPR:

HAGERTY: Well, for one thing, he's considered more overtly conservative than his rival,Gerald Kicanas of Tucson. He's been really outspoken on issues like same- sex marriage, on abortion, on stem cell research. And so while the more low-key Kicanas would have emphasized things like poverty and immigration reform, we can actually expect Dolan to focus on the hot-button social issues. So that's one reason.

Also, his style. His style is completely different from Kicanas'. He's really media-savvy. He's outspoken. He's affable. He's funny. He's a really large man - kind of both in personality and in girth. And he jokes about that. And so he brings what one expert, professor Robert George of Princeton, calls a confident Catholicism. That's this notion that the Catholic Church has a moral message to bring to the world, and it should be really, really bold about asserting it.

INSKEEP: Interesting you mention that he'd more overtly conservative. I guess there wasn't really a question here of the church becoming more liberal. It's a conservative institution.

That assumption is incorrect. NPR and other media outlets have offered very eager support for liberal "reformers" in Catholic and Protestant circles, pushing feminism and abortion and homosexuality inside the church. In his only previous mention on NPR (in Nexis, at least), Dolan was pushing back against women seeking to be ordained priests, which NPR celebrated. So Inskeep's being disingenous, or just slow on the uptake.

HAGERTY: It's a conservative institution. But what you have to think about is, some people emphasize one wing - for example, poverty or social justice issues - and other people emphasize things like culture war issues, you know, abortion and same-sex marriage. And that's what Dolan will emphasize.

INSKEEP: OK. So what does that say about the direction, then, of the American Catholic Church?

HAGERTY: Well, one thing it says is that the church wants to be leaders in the culture wars. After the sex abuse scandal in 2002, the bishops kind of went into this defensive crouch, where they kept a pretty low profile. But that began to change a few years ago, when they elected the outgoing president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

George was really, really assertive. You probably remember his role in the health-care debate. Under his leadership, the bishops pressured the House to change the language of the health-care bill because they were worried about federal money being used for abortions. And they basically, Steve, forced the House to rewrite the law. And what Archbishop Dolan said yesterday is, he's going to continue in that style. So what I think you're going to see is bishops flexing their muscles in public policy.

That obviously wouldn't bother liberals if the cause was liberal. They championed the USCCB in the 1980s when they campaigned against Reaganomics and for nuclear arms control. Then Hagerty turned again to the blogger campaign, and Inskeep suggested it was dirty "attack ad" politics that elected Dolan:

Kicanas' problems actually began last week, when some bloggers began writing that he was tainted by the sex abuse scandal. They say that Kicanas ordained a priest who later went on to abuse boys. And they said that Kicanas knew about the man's proclivities. He says he didn't. But over the past few days, conservative activists began sending faxes and leaving voice mails for bishops, urging them to vote against Kicanas.

INSKEEP: This sounds like the equivalent of a last-minute political attack ad.

HAGERTY: That's right. Really, I don't think that the sex abuse scandal was what hurt Kicanas. I think, really, what the issue was - was that they didn't like his style and ideology. They considered him a moderate and not a culture warrior. And it seems that the bishops wanted someone more aggressive on hot- button issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

Hagerty underlined two routine tendencies of national-media reporting on religion. Liberal "reform" movements aren't cast as "culture warriors," only conservatives are. Liberals aren't labeled as liberals, but conservatives are routinely described as conservatives. Between these who NPR stories, it added up to eight C-words, not to mention their taking acception to Catholic bishops being "really, really assertive." NPR is really, really assertive -- but from the liberal side.

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