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Scandal can be the cost of truth
Journalists must oppose silence and threats with the courage to 'expose what is hidden'
- Fr. William Grimm, Tokyo
- May 3, 2012
Two weeks before my eighth birthday, the journalist Victor Riesel who exposed criminal influence in New York was blinded when a gangster threw acid in his face. Shortly afterwards, he was back at work, still fighting corruption.
About the same time, there was a childrenâ€™s television series about a newsboy who teamed up with a grown-up reporter to uncover corruption, crime and abuse in their city. The show had a theme tune I still remember after more than half a century.
The lyrics were the six major questions of journalists: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Journalists know there are answers out there for those willing to search for them and the result can be a better, more just society.
And finally, since my primary boyhood reading was comic books, I knew that "Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet" was the secret identity Superman chose. Journalists are heroes, though they may not always appear so.
Not all people who work in media are willing to do the difficult, dangerous work of journalism. Out of laziness or fear or for the sake of money or to curry favor, they publish what the powerful want them to publish.
They invent reports. They lie. They ignore facts that might disturb the powerful, forgetting that journalists work on behalf of all people rather than merely the powerful. Every profession has practitioners who betray their vocation, and journalism is no exception.
Ironically, one place where it is possible to see journalism at its worst and at its best is the most Catholic country of Asia, the Philippines. Media there are notorious for sensationalism, pandering, trivialization, politicization and fabrication.
At the same time, the Philippines is infamous for being one of the worldâ€™s most dangerous places for honest journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists rates the country as the third-worst in in the world for unpunished killings of journalists. George Vigo, aÂ UCAN reporter, and his wife Maricel, also a journalist, were murdered in 2006.
Other countries are similar, or use censorship and intimidation to keep the public from knowing the answers to journalistsâ€™ curiosity.
In spite of the Churchâ€™s vocation to proclaim the truth about sin and salvation, every Catholic journalist can give examples of attempts at censorship and intimidation by Church leaders when the pursuit of truth exposes individuals or the community falling short of our ideals.
They do not use acid or guns, but they too often succeed in keeping journalists from fulfilling their vocation.
"You are providing ammunition to the Churchâ€™s enemies," they say, as if the real enemy were not sin and corruption within. "You are an enemy of the Church," as if showing the need to repent and repair were an attack.
"We will report you to Rome, the bishop, superiors or whoever," as if the response to sin should be a cover-up and punishing those who point out the truth. "You are causing scandal among the faithful," as if the scandal were the not the sins, but their exposure.
St. Gregory the Great, sixth-century pope and doctor of the Church, said: "It is better that scandals arise than that truth be silenced."
When the Japanese bishops asked me to be editor-in-chief of their national newspaper, I asked one of them about press freedom. He said that unless the paper started advocating heresy, they would not interfere. And, since the paper carried opinion and letters but no editorials, that was not going to happen anyway.
Shortly afterwards, a law suit against one of the bishops was decided against him. Throughout the trial, there had never been any mention of the case in Catholic media.
In fact, the only coverage was by a local Buddhist newspaper which did a good job of being fair, accurate and balanced. A local secular paper also occasionally carried a piece.
The day we printed the story as front-page news, the bishop who was liaison with the newspaper said to me, "Your predecessor would never have printed that story."
I answered, "Then my predecessor was not running a newspaper."
"But we wanted him to," replied the bishop.
Two days later, a package arrived from the bishop who had been fined by the court. His cover letter told me he was enclosing his files for reference in case it was necessary to do further reporting.
For the next month or so, religious publications throughout the country, Christian and not, carried editorials and commentary applauding (often enviously) the Catholic commitment to truth.
Would that more people in the Church could learn from the wisdom of St Gregory and the Japanese bishops so that we might know the facts that hinder our proclamation of the truth.
Father William Grimm is the Tokyo-based publisher of UCA News