I think this can be categorized under the heading of what is old is new again. Newspapers are still important. Of course, you’re reading this in a newspaper so it goes to reason that this would be a valiant and hopefully not vain defense of “old” media that struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds.
Television news was the first challenge to newspapers when that medium came into its own in the middle of the last century. Suddenly, the news-hungry populace didn’t have to wait for the afternoon or morning editions of their local paper to get stories and photos of what happened … yesterday.
Television could have “film at 11” on the same day and when satellite and digital technology fully flowered, TV news became a worldwide and real time conveyance of information. But whether it is televised news or the Internet, the common denominator was then, is now and forever will be, speed — getting the story first, many times at the expense of the truth.
Just when television news thought it was safe and had cornered the market in the news business, the Internet reared its head. In the time it takes to type “Google,” the Internet redefined how news was consumed. It also allowed every person with a computer keyboard and access to Internet service to become an essayist and political pundit.
The rise of the social network exponentially multiplied the speed and breadth of news travel even though it can be at times, rather anti-social — this is especially true when it comes to self-proclaimed political and theological experts who declare this or that issue either doctrinaire or heretical.
I have fallen into this trap myself. It is so tempting to blast back via email, Facebook or Twitter when one takes offense to some perceived defective characterization of Church teaching. Most of the time when this low hanging fruit beckons me, I hark back to the best advice my mother ever gave me: “Do not put down in writing what you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.”
She didn’t live long enough to experience social media, but that vehicle is her advice in triplicate as nothing is as forever as a posting on the web.
To be honest, I haven’t always followed that advice and entered Internet debates on matters of both church and state and I always felt a little empty when it was over. The Internet provides us with the ability to hit and run with a few flurries of finger strokes across a keyboard. We hit “send” and think, “Take that!”
When it comes to hard news, the Internet is right up there with the wheel, opposable thumbs and 24-hour sports networks as integral means of human progress. And, sorry to say, in this respect, makes the concept of a brick and mortar produced newspaper feel like a buggy whip shop trying to survive next door to a Ford factory in 1915.
Pope Benedict XVI was the first pontiff to explore the prospect of communicating via social media and many bishops across the United States put it to good use to inform and inspire their flocks. Pope Francis’ style and manner is tailor made for it. Unfortunately, when it comes to nuance and reliable quotation, the social media ether can get downright murky.
As a person with all 10 of his toes dipped into the social media pond, I have seen firsthand how a particular quote that purportedly comes from Pope Francis revs the internet into overdrive with half of the commentators believing a specific quote is irrefutable proof that the pope is going to make “long-in-coming” wholesale changes to millennia of Catholic dogma. The other half is equally convinced the pope is part of some kind of anti-Catholic plot.
Usually what follows are commentary streams on Facebook as long as Torquemada’s enemies’ list with “theological experts” regaling us to what the pope actually meant about this or that topic.
This creates a lot of heat but very little light.
Almost always, a “shocking” quote attributed to Pope Francis that generates a maelstrom on social media is later clarified as a “mistranslation” or outright fabrication from people with their own specific agendas. The storms always pass but the experts on both sides of any particular issue are soon off on another tangent.
Newspapers can never be as immediate as television or the Internet, and thank God for it. Granted, they can fall prey to their own biases and disinformation but precisely because they are paced radically more methodically, they have time on their side and a better shot at a fuller embrace of the truth of a story.
When we are talking about quotes from the Holy Father on a whole gamut of important theological and doctrinal issues, informed Catholics have a moral obligation to be informed by the most reliable sources at their disposal.
As the saying goes, all good things are worth waiting for, so even if it means re-training our brains to resist the need for instant information, it might be well worth our while to wait for a more in-depth report of what the Church, through the office of Peter, is saying with regard to the important issues facing faithful Catholics today…send.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry. He has been a contributing writer for the National Catholic Register for many years and has also been published in Our Sunday Visitor and This Rock.