For the last several weeks, as my friends in the media have circled the Globe in a sometimes sympathetic and sometimes eager death watch, I have found myself wondering whether I was the only one curious about what Cardinal Bernard F. Law must be thinking.
It's now been 17 years since that spring day when Law, frustrated by the news media's intensive coverage of a former priest, James R. Porter, who was a serial pedophile, called for divine intervention. In one of the most famous lines Law ever uttered, he said, while speaking at a Roxbury church, "By all means we call down God's power on the media, particularly the Globe."
In the years since, that quote has been twisted (I often hear people say that Law called down the "wrath of God" on the Globe) and, Law argued, misinterpreted (he later claimed that "power" was a relatively benign word). Here's an exchange Law had with attorney Eric MacLeish about the 1992 remark in a 2002 deposition:
Q: Do you remember saying those words, words like that?
A. I don't remember saying words like that, but, you know, calling down God's power is not calling down God's wrath.
Q. I'm not suggesting it is.
A. Yes. And I don't think that would be a bad thing to do, even today, to call down God's power on the news media, including even the Globe, yes. I think that would be good.
I think what Law meant at the time was that he wanted God to influence the Globe, but it's been widely interpreted as Law seeking to punish the paper, and now, with our cash-strapped corporate parent, The New York Times Company, threatening to shut us down if we don't slash spending, apparently I'm not the only one recalling that quotation.
The inestimable Rocco Palmo, blogging over at Whispers in the Loggia, revels in the irony for all it's worth (including the fact that the supposedly make-or-break negotiations are taking place at a Catholic parish in Weymouth (one that, by the way, is rich with metaphoric potential -- it burned to the ground a few years back (act of God?) but had good insurance (miracle?) and has now been rebuilt (reborn?)). Here's Rocco:
"In 1992, Cardinal Bernard Law famously called down "the power of God" on the Boston media, "particularly the Globe," over its dogged coverage of the region's first public case of a predator priest.
Nine years later, the paper's "courageous, comprehensive" reporting on abuse in the Beantown church itself opened the floodgates of the most devastating scandal American Catholicism had ever known, paving the way to Law's resignation in disgrace and earning the broadsheet the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
These days, however, in the direst sign of the state of newspapers everywhere, it's the 137 year-old Globe that faces the ax, with its owner demanding $20 million in union concessions and negotiations continuing past a midnight deadline at -- of all places -- a suburban parish.''
I have to say I've had lots of kind e-mail from Catholics and other religious folks saying they're praying that the Globe will survive, or just thinking caringly about those of us who work here. But of course my blog, like others around Boston.com, has had its share of comments from people who claim they just can't wait for us to die (but first they want to post one more observation....). And although all the archdiocesan leaders I've spoken with, including Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, have been sympathetic, at least one church employee is not so sure -- Domenico Bettinelli, who works in fundraising for the archdiocese, blogged:
"Perhaps the Globe outpaced the populace and went further left faster than the people could be brought along. Oh sure, the glitterati and the politicians that the Globe is supposed to cover have all come out of the woodwork to lament the possible loss of the newspaper. But the people have been voting with their pocketbooks for years, dropping their subscriptions to the newspaper with every bizarre anti-Bush screed or anti-Catholic editorial cartoon. Herald columnist Howie Carr has gleefully filled up not one but two recent columns full of the Globe's follies, including some shoddy reporting in which the desire to advance a liberal cause resulted in retractions because they just didn't get the story right. After a while, the people began to notice.
Will it be the end of the world if the Globe shutters its doors? Competition is always better for the consumer, so I'd prefer two healthy competitors in this market to one, even if the one I prefer was the winner. On the other hand, if the business can't offer a product that the consumer wants, then let another take his place."
And even my former colleague, David Warsh, gets into the act, delivering what strikes me as an outrageous kick-when-down to the Globe:
"The pedophile priest story reflected a familiar tactic in building newspaper circulation. Newspapers are often described as an essentially two-sided market, meaning that both readers and advertisers each pay a share, but there is a significant third side to newspaper markets as well, a non-pecuniary one that influences readers' and advertisers' willingness to pay for the product. This is the realm of peer opinion in the newspaper industry, reflected in prizes, medals and general reputation. There is always some risk when seeking the good opinion of the profession of seeming to appeal over the heads of readers...It is hard to evaluate what the vigor of the Globe's pursuit of the story of the church's tolerance of sexual abuse by priests cost the paper in good will."
I don't actually believe the Globe is going to close, and, if it does, I don't believe our coverage of clergy sexual abuse will have had anything to do with it -- our problems are financial, and they are shared by all kinds of papers with all kinds of journalistic histories -- and I find it slightly shocking that a blog about economics would even suggest otherwise. I also think it's kind of insane, and insulting, to imply that the abuse story was aimed "over the heads of readers" -- I've never been involved with any story that provoked more engagement and reaction from readers, or one that readers said was more significant to their own lives. But whatever one thinks, the story has clearly become a defining part of the paper's history -- I noticed in an NECN story about the Globe's past yesterday that sex abuse and busing were the only two stories mentioned -- and, whatever our future holds, it will be part of our legacy.
(Photo by Stephan Savoia/AP.)