An analysis of the Bp. Tobin “Hardball” interview

From American Magazine comes this with my emphases and comments.

We have seen Michael Sean Winters before here on WDTPRS.  He wrote a hit piece about Patrick Madrid some months ago.

Here is a day I didn’t think would arrive quickly: I am in substantial agreement with Michael Sean Winters about the Church and the media.  I give him credit for his analysis here.

The Media and the Church
Posted at: 2009-11-24 07:16:04.0
Author: Michael Sean Winters

Catholic bishops need to be a bit more careful about how they approach the media. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?] Not only are there real world consequences when they fail to understand how the media works, but the media must become a tool for the bishops in evangelizing the culture and correcting the gross ignorance of and bias against basic Catholic beliefs and ideas. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?  This is, in part, what I was writing about in my recent piece in The Catholic Herald.]

Last night, Bishop Tobin of Providence went on MSNBC’s "Hardball" with Chris Matthews. The first problem was that Tobin did not appear in the studio with Matthews but was in a studio in Providence. The momentary delay in transmission always makes the interlocutor look a little slow, especially with someone who talks, and thinks, as fast as Matthews. [I wonder how much that was a factor…. but read on…] The interview began with a clip from JFK’s Houston speech about separation of Church and State in which the future President said, "I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute…where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any ecclesiastical source." Now, if Bishop Tobin had only read my book Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats he would have had a ready and thorough critique of JFK’s speech. The short-hand critique is six words: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr[Which is the point I made repeatedly at the time of the notre Shame debacle, even in a response to America.] All the liberal canards about ecclesiastical encroachment, or about not legislating morality on others, require a bit of refinement when you consider the career of Dr. King.

The interview got worse as it went on. The bishop was completely unprepared to answer the questions asked, unprepared for the rapidity of Matthews’ questioning, and all too willing to get into a bizarre adult version of the playground excuse, "But, he hit me first!" Take five minutes and watch the interview. It could become a textbook case in how not to conduct a media interview. Indeed, Matthews’ show is called "Hardball" for a reason and the bishop never should have been on it.  [Hmmm… perhaps a mild mannered bishop shouldn’t have been on it.  But should a catholic priest or bishop go on Hardball and be willing and able to throw down, that could be a sight to behold.]

Sunday before last, the priest at my church here in Washington apologized to the congregation for the dreadful public relations job the Archdiocese had done in dealing with the impending fight over the same-sex marriage bill and its requirement that the Church provide same-sex partner benefits. Indeed, the Church was getting rolled in the press, and in speaking to reporters covering the story, it was clear that even after four or five days of covering the story, they were not clear about what precisely concerned the Church. [Or perhaps the reporters do understand and have another agenda?] I had a neighbor call me one morning after reading a front page story in the Washington Post that suggested the Church was closing down Catholic Charities. She was confused and distraught and deeply shaken in her confidence in the Church.  [In that aforementioned Catholic Herald I mention the issue of official diocesan spokesman.]

In my dealings with the press, almost all of whom are really bright people, it is always worthwhile to take your time and make sure that you explain how differently the Church approaches some issues from the way the mainstream culture approaches those same issues, that it is not mere disagreement about outcomes, although there is that, but more often a completely different point of departure for analysis and understanding[My experience is that it isn’t always just methodology, but rather world view that differs.  And reporters have editors.] In explaining the Church to politicians, one of the things I find you have to say over and over again is "Yes, but you know they are bishops not politicians." (The reverse is true, too: Sometimes I have to say to clergy: "Well, you know they are politicians not theologians.") For too long, bishops wanted nothing more from a communications director than to keep the Church out of the news, but those days are gone. [Exactly.] We need the media if we are to reach our people and spread the Gospel. We need the media if we are going to reframe the national debate on an important issue like health care reform or abortion. In my experience, the media are fascinated by the Church and eager to learn how and why the Church does what it does. I have encountered ignorance of the Church’s ways but never hostility. [Then he needs to meet more reporters.] Bishops should draw the right lesson from their recent fiascos: Get it right, but don’t think it can’t be done well.

I think this is very sound analysis, though I am a bit more Augustinian in my view of reporters, or at least their editors.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Aaron says:

    This reporter sounds pretty fair-minded until he says he’s never seen hostility to the Church from the media. That’s just ridiculous.

    Catholics may need the media, but we don’t need Chris Matthews. Some forums are simply confrontational by nature, and if you don’t go in swinging, you’re going to get beat up. If you have to send someone to Hardball (which may be a mistake in the first place), send someone who knows the media and is a fighter. A bishop shouldn’t have to lower himself to that level.

  2. Supertradmom says:

    Perhaps I am a bit more tolerant, but I honestly thought that Bishop Tobin’s peaceful demeanor put Chris Matthew’s tirade into perspective. Matthews was not trying to be open or fair, as his love affair with the Kennedy family has always blinded him to the serious issues that family has had with Catholic teaching. Bishop Tobin did not try to answer questions he could not answer. So what? Listen to the many politicians who are not as glib as Matthews. To remain calm is an accomplishment.

    Also, the confrontational method of Matthews and many other such media guys is in itself offensive. Why do those interviewed have to withstand a constant barrage of the media personality’s viewpoint? Matthews was just plain rude.

  3. “. . . .someone who talks, and thinks, as fast as Matthews.”

    Thomas Merton said, some people do not so much think as secrete cliches. When you’re doing that, it’s easy to think fast.

  4. Bishop Tobin did a remarkable job of being polite. It would have been great, though, if someone on his staff had prepped him for the kinds of questions with which he would be peppered. It would have been great if he or she had told him to throw out early and often, as Winters suggests, the name Martin Luther King Jr.

  5. Agnes says:

    I think I know a few priests who could take Matthews. It really does need to be someone who is not only quick and smart, but also someone who is fighting in the trenches with the rest of us. I applaud the Bishop for making it through! Very hard to stick to the high road when someone is continually grabbing for your heel.

  6. john 654 says:

    In viewing the interview one can just envision a Pharisee or the Sanhedrin judges berating Christ.


  7. Aaron says:

    Next time, send Fr. Corapi. Make sure he’s in the studio, though; somehow I think Matthews would be polite.

  8. taad says:

    Sometimes when we are attacked we need to act like Christ and remain silent. I think Bishop did a good job.

    Secondly, does anyone consider the possibility that the Kennedy Family has decided to come to the defense of one of their own. I remember thinking when this story first started breaking in the news, that Bishop Tobin had opened himself up for an attack like he’s never seen before. The Kennedy’s are not politically successful by accident. They know how to play the game. They have lots of friends who will help to destroy those who get in their way. Matthews is a friend of the Kennedy family. Connect the dots and expect more of this if it continues.

    Thirdly, Matthews soul is troubled and conflicted. He is reacting to this inner conflict.

  9. I saw this interview and I too thought Bishop Tobin came off better than MSW thought. Chris Matthews wanted to argue simply from the perspective of legislation. The Bishop did okay, but Matthews is nearly impossible to dialog with. A verbal slap from Bishop Tobin would have been welcome but really beneath a bishop’s dignity. The Bishop did much better with Bill O’Reilly. Excellent interview. Props to the Bishop for standing up and going before the media. Practice makes perfect.

  10. Margaret says:

    Practice makes perfect.

    True enough, Msgr., but our priests and prelates have to be willing to take the time for some good, professional media training if they’re going to step into the arena like this. I was one of a large number of people in Opus Dei who made ourselves available to the local media in the wake of the Da Vinci Code movie. Anyone who did so had to go through a short course in media relations first, and had to review and do prep work before even the briefest interview with the most obscure local newspaper. Crises like this hullabaloo with Kennedy can be a golden PR opportunity if handled correctly.

  11. Margaret says:

    Practice makes perfect.

    True enough, Msgr., but our priests and prelates have to be willing to take the time for some good, professional media training if they’re going to step into the arena like this. Opus Dei did a great PR job when the Da Vinci Code movie was released, and not by accident. Anyone in the Work who had even the briefest interview with the most obscure local newspaper had to go through a media relations training course first, and practice practice practice beforehand. Crises like this hullabaloo with Kennedy could be a golden PR opportunity for our Church if handled correctly.

  12. wanda says:

    I’m with you Aaron, ooh just to think of a face to face between Mr. Matthews and Fr. Corapi.
    Another great Priest who could take CM would be Fr. Mitch Pacwa, now that would be something.

  13. Rob Cartusciello says:

    Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves. – Matt. 10:16

    It was moments like this that I wished Bishop Tobin had some leagl training.

    A good lawyer would have killed Matthews in the discussion.

  14. Maltese says:

    At one point in the interview Matthews tells Bishop Tobin to go ahead and answer, and when + Tobin tries to, Matthews immediately interrupts him and resumes his soliloquized tirade. This was a snow job if ever there was one. Matthews is an ASS.

  15. joecct77 says:

    I have begun to think of Roman Catholicism as a set of “Inconvenient Truths” (sorry Al). Many faiths have jettisoned their truths when they conflict with the comfortable or succumb to pressure of their surroundings. What we believe (or should believe) as Catholics is not “mainstream”, and frequently subjects us to head wagging or profound dislike. We are the rock in the midst of eddys and currents that constantly change and shift. The Rock never moves it is constant and a refuge from the forces that surround the rock.

    We can’t blow up the rock lest we be swept away in the currents. If we chip away at it, cracks develop that the water can seep in and erode the rock to eventual nothingness. No, we must be solid, unmoving, an obstacle even to those currents. Our truths should be self-evident and obvious to all. It is a shame that they have become distorted by the current media and obscured by our lack of clarity.

    If we stick to, and stay on message, you may disagree with what we believe, but you won’t misunderstand what we mean.

  16. THREEHEARTS says:

    I worked for several years in TV broadcasting, even taught a course on Broadcast TV production and direction. I worked cheek by jowl with every kind of director, producer, actor, interviewer and newscaster. The one thing we all miss in are looking at them they are all exceptionally ambitious. They want the kudos and the money and most will do anything for these pots of gold. They do not in the main give a fig for anyone’s susceptibilities they use the technical editing facilities of the technical media when editing to make sure you say what they want. Any over the shoulder shot should be dismissed as you can bet that what you see is not what was said. Dr Hans Suyin when being interviewed said you will not make me say that, Judy Todd, Garfield Todd’s daughter asked what else do you want me top say already here and at the UN I have said enough to be tried for reason in Rhodesia. I do not know of one priest, well there was one at a TV station I was senior manager at who drove, on a live show the pro choice woman out the studio during the second commercial break. The director called the break to give her chance to recover.

    What they should do is have their Sunday homilies printed in local newspapers with a conditional form signed by the Manager of the Station or network guaranteeing no changes or editing to the contents submitted. Fat chance you say I think so too.
    So no Catholic Bishop or Priest should be interviewed on TV or Radio unless it is a live broadcast. They should never sign a release form that is tantamount to making them lie publicly.
    I to my eternal shame helped with the setting up a method that enabled in the early days before time code editing a way to edit word by word anyone guests words. It was another catholic man who helped me to the necessary equiptment changes.
    So let me say with all the priests I have met except one, none of them should appear on TV or ad

  17. Mrs. O says:

    And one priest who could go on and hold his water would be Fr. Z.
    I would like to see that interview.
    I had never before seen HardBall and I went back to see his other interviews (?) and the ones
    I looked at didn’t seem to have that tone, especially at the end.

    You don’t get toughened up by never engaging but then again, prudence could cause
    someone to “pass” on his offer.

  18. Respectfully, I think all of us are missing the obvious, blinded as we are by disgust of Matthews.

    In a Church whose episcopal hierarchy is filled with Mahoneys, Wuerhls, McCarricks, O’Malleys and their fellow travellers, here comes a HUMBLE Servant of God, unused to the evils of the media, whose stands his ground and still enters the lair of the dragon to defend Holy Mother Church and Her teachings. When His Excellency was on O’Reilly, that person started in on him, especially about the death penalty, but this Man of God stood firmly on the rock of Holy Mother Church’s teachings and gave not an inch of ground. He did so here, in the face of even more obvious hatred and loathing. He may have been flummoxed by the attack- who among us would not have been, but he DID NOT FAIL in his duty. He still defended Holy Mother Church and her teachings and his interrogators came off as bullies.

    One expects the stance to come from a Burke or an Arinze, but from a humble bishop from Rhode Island- this was the most galling part for his interrogators. An unknown cleric stood up to the scion of the Kennedy family, and did not back down, over a period of three years, nor did he revel publicly in the scandal caused by the Kenedy in question. He shames the O’Malleys and McCarricks for his heroism.

  19. Kimberly says:

    I so agree with “GeoffsWife1962. You can prepare all you want and, in Matthews case, have your eye on the gold, but in the end, being open to the Holy Spirit will win the day (and your soul). I absolutly admire Bishop Tolbin for what he did.

  20. Melania says:

    I am in agreement with Michael Sean Winters when he says, “The media must become a tool for the bishops in evangelizing the culture and correcting the gross ignorance of and bias against basic Catholic beliefs and ideas.” I am also in agreement with Fr. Z when he suspects hostility towards the Church in most reporters.

    Scripture advises us to be “both wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” We need to be both with regard to the media, especially “wise as serpents.” After all, we are at war with an Enemy. The promoters of the “culture of death” are aggressive and never rest.

    We Catholics need to do be more assertive and less passive with regard to the media. The bishops, for example, cannot just wait to respond defensively to events. Anyone who appears before the media needs to receive some media training and learn at least simple techniques such as “key messages,” not sitting by passively while an interviewer labels you negatively or not letting an interviewer frame the debate unchallenged. We need to set the terms of the debate on all life issues.

    David Horowitz has published a very good article about aspects of this war we’re engaged in. Not everything is something we Christians can use, but it provides useful insights and advice. Here’s the link:

  21. GeoffsWife1962: Dittos.

  22. I have commented on this interview (+Tobin and Matthews) and I think it fair to say that the real argument that +Tobin had to face was forty years of Novus Ordo catechetics and comprehension of what it means to be Catholic. There is no comparison between the death penalty and abortion. The foetus IS ALWAYS INNOCENT. There is every likelihood the criminal being executed committed a heinous crime. The Church has always allowed capitol punishment to protect others. Nota Bene: Fr. John Geogan was killed in prison by a “lifer” who had NOT been executed. Fr. John Geogan should be alive today!
    The TEACHINGS of the Novus Ordo approach are anathema to true Catholic teaching which has always existed in the Traditional approach. That is why the Fruits of Vatican II were introduced.
    I am sure Chris Matthews is a weekly Communicant in his Novus Ordo parish!

  23. Catholic Greta says:

    It is hard to watch at times the liberal catholic whose conscience is clearly telling him he is in big trouble with his soul. Mathews must know that he is risking eternal damnation just to back a flawed democratic party that for decades backed slavery and then when abortion became the law of the land, switched over to supporting that with the net loss of 50 million innocent babies. Quite a burden Mathews and his party carry to their maker.

  24. AndyMo says:

    This may have already been mentioned, but remember that MSW was not only responsible for that Patrick Madrid hit, but also his article “Why Bishop Tobin is Wrong.”

    Keep that in mind when reading his criticisms.

  25. Thank you, AndyMo, for your thoughtfulness in citing the MSW piece in the National Catholic Reporter. I read both the piece and the comments on it. One practice I have learned over the years is to refer to the “Jew” or the “Black” in the mother’s womb when I discuss the subject with others. If the party still does not get it, I then cite the Nuremburg Trials after WW II after which the Allies hanged or imprisoned the bureaucrats whose defense was: “I was only following orders”. “Catholic” politicians don’t respond? Orders of American nuns don’t respond? Face it. The last forty years have been a Divine punishment and we are finally recognizing the cost. Thank God for Pope Benedict and for bishops such as Burke, Tobin and others.

  26. robtbrown says:

    All the liberal canards about ecclesiastical encroachment, or about not legislating morality on others, require a bit of refinement when you consider the career of Dr. King.

    Also the 19th century Abolition Movement, which was largely driven by religion.

  27. CPKS says:

    I watched the interview for a few minutes. (It confirmed to me the wisdom of living without television, which has blessed my life!) This is not an interview, but a piece of theatre in which the bishop is ranted-at by a shouting, posturing, hectoring verbal bully. It is pointless to “analyze” such goings-on. More interesting, really, to ask oneself if this is not “bread and circuses” for today’s proletariat. Whatever it is, it is not enlightening.

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