Blaming the media rarely works

“Shoot the messenger” is a strategy that is massively ineffective, but often used. It’s a staple of political life in particular, where the “media” is often used as code word for “other” people who don’t agree w/ the position of those speaking/writing/blogging. And over the last few weeks, it’s been the preferred strategy of the Catholic Church, with predictably bad results. (fwiw, I am Catholic). Today, my morning reads include two such “blame the media” stories. First, in the Seattle Times, an article about the Archbishop of Portland, on Easter Sunday, distributing a letter asking people to drop their subscriptions to the Oregonian. Apparently, an op/ed piece, a cartoon and an editorial pushed him over the edge. The article notes:

Vlazny’s protest comes amid a broader backlash by the Catholic Church against recent media coverage of how the church and Pope Benedict handed sexual-abuse cases involving priests. In a statement released on a Vatican Web site last week, Cardinal William Levada, a senior Vatican official, attacked The New York Times coverage as "deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness." On Tuesday, Vatican officials said that accusations that Pope Benedict helped cover up sexual abuse by priests were part of an anti-Catholic hate campaign.

Then in the NYT (second up in my morning newspaper reading), comes a “Memo From Rome,” a thoughtful piece (soon I’m sure to be denounced as an anti-Catholic screed) that includes this:

Nor has the Vatican adapted its centuries-old insular culture to face the exigencies of civil courts, let alone the courts of public opinion. Easter weekend provided two examples of what has become a pattern of tone-deafness in the hierarchy: The pope’s own preacher delivered a Good Friday sermon in St. Peter’s Basilica comparing criticism of the church’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis to anti-Semitism, offending abuse victims and Jews.

Then, during Easter Mass, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state, denounced as “petty gossip” recent criticism of the church and of Benedict, who has been under scrutiny for his handling of sexual abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich in 1980 and when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The cardinal’s remarks highlight a siege mentality that may comfort the pope, but does not answer his critics.

Adapting to a world of increased transparency is hard, and books are written about how this change has made life difficult for corporations. I started this blog in part to talk about this specific change. And being held accountable, or having to respond to the “other” people can be hugely jarring to people in authority, thus driving the “shoot the messenger” impulse.

Of course, there is one scenario where this tactic works – where the desire is to revert to a base, to only talk to those true believers (in politics this would be the zealots on left and right) and leave out those in the middle, likely the majority, who have the capacity to process information and make decisions, and who value having a voice.

What we are seeing play out in public right now will likely be a case study for future communications professionals – what happens when one of the world’s oldest and least transparent organizations comes face to face not just with “old” media, but new media as well? Making a demon of the media has been used before. But it is hard for me to see how the path the Church is currently on will end well in a world where the media is now…everyone.

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