? CBS Still Stands By Its Smear of the Vatican
MINNEAPOLIS — When “CBS Evening News” claimed — falsely — that it had evidence the Vatican had put in place a policy of secrecy on sex abuse, that was bad enough.
But two days later, the program edited Catholic radio host Jeff Cavins' rebuttal to make it seem like he agreed with their falsehood.
That made Denise Ehlen, one of Cavins' listeners, blow her top. She said she wanted to stick her head out her window and shout, “I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!”
A formal FCC complaint has been filed, after CBS' failure to acknowledge its mistake.
An Aug. 6 CBS report claimed to have obtained from two Massachusetts lawyers a 1962 Vatican document that laid “out a Church policy that calls for absolute secrecy when it comes to sexual abuse by priests.”
The document, titled “Instruction on the Manner of Proceedings in Cases of Solicitation,” does nothing of the sort. Rather, it details the procedures that bishops should follow when a priest is accused of soliciting sexual acts during the sacrament of reconciliation. Special procedures are necessary so the secrecy of the confessional will be guarded. The document says that if a priest solicits sexual favors in the confessional, the bishop “has no choice but to bring the priest to an ecclesiastical trial.” It also says the penitent may not remain silent or attempt to hide the priest's sin.
Other media outlets — ABC, NBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post — were also given the document, but none of them used it.
Negative reaction to CBS' reporting was swift.
On Aug. 8, Cavins, host of Starboard Network's national Catholic radio program “Morning Air,” fielded phone calls from angry callers and urged them to register their complaints with CBS. In response to the numerous calls they received, CBS invited Cavins to an in-studio interview in Minneapolis to represent his listeners' position.
Cavins agreed, granting CBS reporter Vince Gonzalez a 20-minute interview.
In the report that aired that evening on “CBS Evening News,” Cavins' comments were edited in such as way as to make it look as if his listeners were upset with the Vatican document when in fact they were upset with CBS' reporting.
Ehlen described the CBS report as “neon-yellow journalism.”
“It was a blatant misuse of Cavins' comments and it really struck a chord with me,” she said. “Cavins was speaking for his listeners and, as a listener, when CBS manipulated his words, they were manipulating my opinion.”
What He Really Said
“It outraged me,” Cavins said, “and it outraged our listeners. They took one of my comments and placed it in the story to show that I was possibly in agreement with them.”
Cavins had the entire interview recorded by WCCO-TV.
In a transcript of the interview obtained by the Register, Gonzalez asks Cavins, “Just to sum up: The feeling that you are picking up from your listeners — what are they feeling out there? What are they saying?”
Cavins responded: “My listeners are very upset, and I'm hearing a different tone. I am hearing them say, ‘You know what, that crosses the line. Last week, the Chicago Sun-Times crossed the line with a headline and Cardinal [Francis] George responded to that and said, ‘We as Catholics cannot ignore this. We have to do something about it.’ Now, when you have men like Cardinal George who are telling the laity, ‘We have to do something about this,' the laity are going to get involved, and they're going to rise up, and they're going to speak, and they're going to call, and the ultimate is that they're not going to watch that news anymore, and they're going to make their voices heard, and I think that's what's happening right now. I think we've crossed a line in reporting and the people are saying, ‘I'm tired of this.'”
The CBS news report ended up using only: “My listeners are very upset and I'm hearing a different tone. I am hearing them say, ‘You know what, that crosses the line.'”
Cavins said he knew it was possible CBS might misuse his comments. He took the precaution of rehearsing beforehand.
“Everyone warned me, but I had no idea they would edit it the way that they did,” he said. “Five minutes after the interview aired, people were calling me to say, ‘You've been had.'”
“Jeff made it a point to be very repetitive and pointed out what he felt were his strongest messages,” said Anne Moyer, public relations and promotions manager for Starboard (which operates 14 Catholic radio stations in six states), who was present at the interview, “but those didn't make it into the piece.”
Cavins made efforts to contact Gonzalez. He also sent a letter to executive producer Jim Murphy and plans to send the transcripts to the FCC. To date, CBS has not responded to Cavins.
CBS also has not issued a formal response or apology for its reporting.
“We did receive a number of calls in response to our stories, but that is not uncommon for stories of this type,” CBS publicist Andy Silvers said.
Silvers disagreed that the report misrepresented what Cavins said.
“I read [the transcript] to be very clear,” she said. “It starts out saying, ‘Catholics across the country were angered by a Wednesday CBS News report that focused on a once-secret Vatican document. Jeff Cavins hosts a talk show on a Catholic radio network,' followed by Cavins' comments.”
“There has been no official response,” Silvers said. “The correspondent and the executive producer thoroughly researched and sourced the elements involved and we stick by our original story.”
“CBS does not issue a retraction unless it's wrong,” she said. In response to Register inquiries, Silvers asked who had made the complaints and whether those protesting the coverage were “devout Catholics.”
Devout Catholics or not, viewers such as Ehlen and organizations such as the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights were upset by the reporting.
“The reason I am so outraged by what CBS has done is that it is so atypical,” said Catholic League president William Donohue. “They took the truth and stood it on its head. They have compounded the error by misrepresenting Jeff Cavins' comments to suit their own interests. They've thrown salt on the wound.”
Others worried about the impact the reporting error could have on parishioners.
“A female parishioner at my Church came to me with questions about the report. She told me of a older man who had previously left the Church and who was on the edge of coming back,” said Chris LaRose, RCIA coordinator at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Brasher Falls, N.Y., and St. Lawrence Catholic Church in North Lawrence, N.Y. “After seeing the CBS report, he decided not to come back. I wonder how many other folks have been negatively affected by this.”
Although Ehlen had witnessed media bias in the past, she had never previously acted on it. This time she did.
“I cannot take this any longer,” she said. “I think the reason the Holy Spirit motivates these feelings in us is for us to take action.”
Ehlen proceeded to contact CBS three times. She e-mailed the network the evening the report aired, and she also called its New York and Los Angeles offices to register a complaint. In addition, she contacted her local CBS affiliate in Milwaukee, e-mailed various radio and television talk-show hosts, contacted a journalism professor at Marquette University and e-mailed and telephoned approximately 13 friends and family urging them to call as well.
“I asked for a public apology, a correction and [for] CBS to consider terminating the reporter, Vince Gonzalez,” Ehlen said.
Aside from transcribing her complaint, she said, CBS did not respond.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
- September 7-13, 2003