Infamous Scribblers: Virtue Signalers on the Warpath

From October 22 to November 30, in 1878, a large fair was held in the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in New York City before its dedication. It took advantage of the magnificent open space before pews were installed to the distress of the architect, James Renwick, who objected that Protestant furniture had no place in a Catholic shrine. Renwick was a Protestant himself, but also an aesthetic purist and an Anglican, and no Puritan; however, Archbishop McCloskey needed money and, as with having a fundraising fair, renting pews out was a way to get it.

Six months earlier, and exactly one block north in her huge mansion on the same side of Fifth Avenue, Madame Restell had reclined in her bathtub and slit her throat. She left a fortune of over twelve million dollars in today’s money, after a career as the nation’s most notorious abortionist. Not unfamiliar with prison, her dismal career had been haunted by what we would now call investigative journalists in the employ of The New York Times. Founded in 1851, the “Gray Lady” became the journal of the new Republican Party and helped with the demolition of the corrupt Tweed Ring.

Times change, even for The New York Times, which over more recent years has abandoned its foundational moral rectitude. Although not proud of its whitewashing of the Ukraine famine and Stalin’s show trials by the complicit reporter Walter Duranty, the newspaper has not yet renounced his Pulitzer Prize, nor has it demurred from the praise heaped on it by Fidel Castro when he visited their editorial office in a gesture of thanks for their support. There was also that problem with Jayson Blair’s plagiarism, and the misrepresentation of the young men falsely accused of sexual violence at Duke University. The latter bears some resemblance to the recent incident in our nation’s capital when youths from Covington Catholic High School were accused of racist bullying. But The New York Times has had the decency, along with some others, to regret the haste with which it moved to condemn the innocent.

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Unlike Mark Twain who noted that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, those who now say that journalism is dead may have a good case. Thus one should not expect much from those who report the activities of others and by so doing arrogate to themselves the importance of the actors. Despite the fact that he was a journalist himself, G.K. Chesterton said that writing badly is the definition of journalism.

When hieroglyphics were the best, if static, medium of telling the news in the thirteenth century BC, Rameses the Great advertised himself as the victor of the Battle of Kadesh, although truth-tellers knew that he had lost. The city of Trent spread a “blood libel” against Jews in 1475 that led to a massacre, and not even Pope Sixtus IV could stop it, though he tried.  In 1765, Samuel Adams, whose only worthy legacy is beer, falsely claimed in print that Thomas Hutchinson, a Loyalist, supported the Stamp Tax, with the result that the helpless man’s house was burned to the ground. In 1782, five months after Yorktown, Benjamin Franklin produced a hoax news release during his sojourn in Paris, claiming that King George had induced American Indians to commit atrocities, and he also forged the name of John Paul Jones to another libel. And, of course, Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake” (actually it was “brioche”), but those who wanted to believe it did so. George Washington had enough of journalists, and told Hamilton that he was quitting public life because of “a disinclination to be longer buffitted [sic] in the public prints [sic] by a set of infamous scribblers.”

There is no need to recount the details of the latest incident in our nation’s capital, when the high school boys were defamed by journalists with the accusation that they mocked an elderly Native American who was trying to calm a confrontation with a radical group of anti-white, anti-Semitic racists. Videos proved that there was no truth to this, but a flurry of demagogic “virtue signaling” berated the boys without giving them a chance to testify. In the eyes of the secular media, the lads were at a portentous disadvantage, being white Catholic males, some of whom were wearing MAGA hats. The “Native American” was described as an elderly Vietnam War veteran. But few 64-year-olds today would qualify as geriatric. And in the last year that any US combat units were stationed in Vietnam—1973—he would have been 18 years old. Mr. Phillips, a professional “activist” for the Indigenous Peoples March, also claims to be a marine veteran, which may be the case, but to have been a Marine veteran in Vietnam when the last Marine combat divisions left in 1971, he would have been 16 years old. This information has been ignored in some quarters. Journalists were supposed to expose hoaxes pretending to be facts, but now they prefer to call facts hoaxes. I speak without prejudice; having been born in New Jersey, I can also claim to be an Indigenous Person. Besides that, as a teenager, I was schooled in a college originally established for the education of what used to be called Indians.

This brings up a contiguous complaint. As soon as this incident was reported, The Washington Post, in its role as the intemperate sibling of The New York Times, ran an essay decrying “the shameful exploitation of Native Americans by the Catholic Church.” For secularists, any missionary venture must have been exploitative and destructive of native culture, even though Christian evangelists have thwarted infanticide, human sacrifice, the cremation of widows, polygamy, caste systems and, yes, slavery.  The article in the Post made no mention of the Jesuit Martyrs who endured torture and death to bring the Gospel to dejected tribes and peace to internecine tribal slaughterers. Absent was mention of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who was exiled by her own tribe, the Mohawks, for her love of Christ, Saint Junipero Serra who transformed the fortunes of the indigenous “gatherer” culture, Saint Katherine Drexel who donated her vast inheritance to establish fifty missions among the native peoples, the heroic Bishop Martin Marty who brought science and literacy to the Dakota territory, or Father Jean-Pierre DeSmet who fashioned the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and so befriended Chief Tatanta Iytake (“Sitting Bull”) that the venerable chief,  impeded from his own reception into the Church by having two wives, wore a crucifix to his dying day and saw to it that Buffalo Bill Cody was baptized the day before he died. Defamation by journalists is unethical in the professional sphere and sinful in the economy of God, but to submit saints to detraction is blasphemous.

The scene of Pope Leo XIII applauding the Wild West Show of Buffalo Bill and Chief Sitting Bull on tour in Rome would probably confound journalists at The Washington Post. Buffalo Bill and his entourage were wined and dined at the North American College there, an event that might have been inaccurately reported by CNN. But these are facts, and Catholics who do not know their history are accountable for letting it be maligned.

The incident with the Covington boys may be more significant than some transient scandal.  One remembers Senator Joseph McCarthy using the media to his advantage, and to this day his foes will not admit that he did indeed expose some real threats to the nation. The young Robert Kennedy was his assistant attorney and McCarthy was godfather to Robert’s first daughter, Kathleen, although he died four years later and obviously had no catechetical influence. But when his actions became extravagant, the Army attorney Joseph Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency?” Therewith the whole deck of cards collapsed. Perhaps the media are beyond a sense of shame now, wallowing as they are in destructive polemics, but fair-minded people may be moved by this Covington incident to recognize the indecency of political correctness. Such correctness is most demeaning when it cloaks itself in an affected moralism which agnostic subjectivism has otherwise displaced from social discourse.

Our Lord condemned “virtue signaling” in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple. “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like this sinner.” There are Pharisees in every corridor of society, but they find a most comfortable berth in the Church. So it was that the very diocese of the Covington students, without interviewing them or asking for evidence outside the media, promptly threatened to punish them. There was no reference to the hateful racism and obscene references to priests chanted by the cultic Hebrew Israelites as they threatened those Catholic youths. Instead, bishops issued anodyne jargon about the “dignity of the human person” without respecting the dignity of their own spiritual sons. The latest advertisement of the Gillette razor company portraying examples of “toxic masculinity” did not accuse any bishop, but only ecclesiastical bureaucrats would consider that a compliment. Pope Francis, off-the-cuff and at a high altitude in an airplane, once asked, “Who am I to judge?” There might at last be some application of that malapropism to shepherds who jump to judgment and throw their lambs to the wolves of the morally bankrupt media in a display of virtue signaling and in fear of being politically incorrect.

(Photo credit: Wikicommons)


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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