MILWAUKEE — Both Catholics, both journalists, Anne Thompson of NBC Nightly News and Jesuit Fr. Matt Malone, editor-in-chief of America Media, have much in common. Yet, due to the nature of the media for which they work, there are also key differences.
For example, Thompson, environmental affairs and Vatican correspondent for NBC, described herself as first and foremost a journalist and then a journalist who is American, Catholic and a woman.
Fr. Malone, however, said he looks upon himself as a Catholic who works as a journalist. He looks upon his work as a ministry of the Jesuits and the church, and doesn’t claim to have an unbiased perspective. Rather, he said, he believes passionately in the faith, in social justice and “we advocate for that in all our work.”
The two shared their thoughts on journalism and Catholics in the media during the Pallium Lecture held last Thursday, Oct. 6, at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Milwaukee.
Moderated by Deacon Michael Bowen, retired attorney and member of the ministry team at St. Monica Parish, Whitefish Bay, their discussion was titled, “Catholic Media: Reporters or Teachers – Prudently Countercultural or Indiscreetly Accommodating?” and drew an audience of about 175 people.
The journalists agreed the church needs to share its story through the secular press.
“The church needs the secular press,” said Fr. Malone, explaining it’s best for the church to be transparent with the press because “they are going to tell the story anyway.”
He encouraged people with responsibility in the church to cultivate personal relationships with journalists because, as he learned from a congressman for whom he worked, “You don’t talk to the press, you talk to individual reporters; you don’t negotiate with Iran; you negotiate with the Iranians in front of you.”
Fr. Malone said that some people within the church make the mistake of trying to keep as far away from the press as possible.
According to Thompson, it’s important to understand the role of the press.
“The press is not there to be a public relations arm and it’s also not going to (engage) in a gotcha game,” she explained. “My job is to get as close to the truth by 6:30 or 7 or whatever my deadline is. I’m trying to give you the best information I can and get as close to the truth as I can. Some people have misunderstandings about the press. It’s not to promote or tear down, and if you understand that, it helps the relationship immensely.”
Pope Francis and his approach to the media has been a breath of fresh air for both journalists.
Since 2013, Thompson has traveled on the papal plane with the pope following his international trips. She admitted, she’s wondered why the pope chooses to talk to the journalists who accompany him.
“He would not have to talk to us. He could ignore us, but he talks a lot of creating a culture of dialogue,” she said, adding, “He knows we will tell the story anyway, but (by talking to the journalists) we can help tell the story he wants to get out.”
Calling his airplane press conferences that could last 81 minutes or so, “remarkably refreshing,” Thompson said she’s noticed such a huge difference in the coverage the Catholic Church has received from the world media because of the pope’s openness.
“To hear from the ultimate source, there’s no more trying to figure out three tea leaves,” she noted.
Fr. Malone also described Pope Francis’ approach as “refreshing.”
“To see a pope speaking so freely – a lot of people might wish he’d answer fewer questions – but in some way to a fault, he is trying to be transparent. That kind of fearlessness is an approach that is so refreshing,” he said.
He shared a story about a visit he recently made to the former editor in chief of America. “Before you, I was the youngest editor in chief of America Magazine but none of that matters because you are luckiest, because you have Pope Francis,” the former editor said to Fr. Malone, noting that during his time, he had Vietnam and Humanae Vitae.
The journalists agreed they saw no conflict between being Catholic and being a journalist.
For Fr. Malone, a duty to his faith commitment informs the work he is doing, and he said he will have failed if he doesn’t approach it in that context. Thompson said that as a Catholic, her faith can help provide context to her fellow journalists.
“One of my roles as a practicing Roman Catholic in the newsroom (is to bring perspective) so that we can walk through misconceptions and eventually decide whether or not to cover (something,)” she said.
The moderated forum approach to the Pallium Lecture marked the first time the lecture took on this format. The free, public presentation was initiated in 2003 by then Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, and continues, under Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, to feature national, international and local speakers.