Pope Scoop

RAY JENKINS

May 19, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

On May 2 the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal carried a headline which joyously proclaimed:

The Pope Affirms

the 'New Capitalism'

I chuckled. I knew, of course, that the headline was no more to be taken seriously than a headline in the old Communist Daily Worker which might have proclaimed: "Reagan Affirms the 'New Socialism'." It was so amusing that I could almost picture the pope taking a tour of the New York Stock Exchange dressed in the finely tailored pinstripe suit befitting the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Oh well, I thought, it's just the Wall Street Journal up to its old tricks, cutting its facts to fit its ideological suit. What else is new?

But it turns out there was something new. This wasn't just an old trick, but a dirty trick. In effect, the Wall Street Journal captured and held hostage the head of the Roman Catholic Church for 24 hours.

I readily recognized that the article, which covered most of the editorial page, dealt with the long-anticipated papal encyclical on economic issues. The article carried a familiar byline: Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister who is in transit, so to speak, to becoming a Roman Catholic priest.

Mr. Neuhaus is one of a small band of conservative theologians who seem ever ready to give absolution to anything done in the name of "the market economy." This is essentially what he did in his lengthy analysis of the papal pronouncement on the world economy after the collapse of communism.

Having followed the writings of John Paul II on these issues for quite a few years, I could tell from reading the article -- which, I must say in fairness to Mr. Neuhaus, did not bear out the Journal's triumphant headline -- that the Neuhaus interpretation was highly selective, to put it charitably. So to get the facts, I turned to the other newspapers of the morning. To my surprise, I found nothing in The Sun about this major news story. The New York Times, also, carried no story. Nor did the Washington Post. For that matter, not even the Wall Street Journal carried a news story.

Then I turned to the Associated Press news wire, and found an advisory which cleared up the mystery: The Journal's editorial page had broken the embargo on the release of the papal encyclical.

Major documents of this kind customarily carry a release date to assure that reporters will have sufficient time to study the statement carefully and avoid the pitfalls of competitive pressures that lead to rushing into print. The press office of the American Catholic Bishops Conference, which handled the distribution of the encyclical in this country, said the release date was carried on each copy which was distributed to the press.

Copies of the encyclical were also supplied to the nation's 389 bishops, with a covering letter which clearly stated the release time.

I called Mr. Neuhaus to ask how this breach of obligation came about. He indicated that he had gotten his copy from a bishop, and when I asked if it bore a release date, he replied: "Emphatically not."

Mr. Neuhaus is not a professional journalist, and I can accept his explanation that the whole thing was just a misunderstanding on his part.

I am far less inclined to be so charitable toward the editors of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. They, after all, are professional journalists, they know the rules of the game, and they either knew or should have known of the release date. (This does not fall into the category of a "leaked" document; under these circumstances, any resourceful journalist could contrive a "leak" to break the release date, and the rules would go out the window.)

The net effect was that for 24 hours the pope's words in a historic statement were presented exclusively through the ideological lens of the Wall Street Journal. When the other newspapers carried their extensive stories the following day, I saw none which carried interpretations of the kind put on the document by Mr. Neuhaus in the Journal.

I do not know whether this breach was deliberate or not on the part of the Journal's editorial page. But in either case, it was done so recklessly that it amounted to the same thing. But, then, there's nothing new about this willingness of the Journal to stoop, to distort facts in order to score ideological points.

Some may say, perhaps, that I am being unduly nitpicky about this matter, perhaps just sore because I got "scooped."

But consider this: Suppose Sen. Edward Kennedy received an embargoed copy of President Bush's State of the Union message, ignored the release time, and wrote an analysis of it in the Washington Post -- 24 hours in advance of the speech's delivery?

How do you suppose the Wall Street Journal would react to that?

Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

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