Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Patrick Kennedy's Orders from the Vatican and the Abuse Scandal

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

The Bishop of Rhode Island has told Congressman Patrick Kennedy not to take Communion at Mass any more. They are now publicly feuding about whether or not the bishop ordered his priests not to give it to him. Forty-nine years after JFK promised not to take orders from the Church hierarchy, that hierarchy is sanctioning his nephew for not taking orders. The nominal issue is abortion. The underlying issue is the Church's sexual abuse scandal.

It's no accident that the vogue for Catholic bishops denying American Catholic politicians Communion, or announcing publicly that Catholic politicians should not take Communion, began in 2004, during the first national election after the abuse scandal came to light in the Archdiocese of Boston during 2002 and 2003. Nor is it any accident that the first major target of ecclesiastical ire, Senator and then-Presidential-candidate John Kerry, was from the Boston Archdiocese, where the . It might seem strange that the Catholic hierarchy would decide to strike the tone of moral condemnation shortly after epic revelations of child abuse and serial coverups, but at least some of the hierarchy reputedly came away from the national scandal furious that the Church had not been given more political cover by Catholic politicians. And the fall of Bernard Cardinal Law, who has since risen again in Rome, seems to be regarded by at least some bishops as a grievance.

To be fair, the Church has put some needed and belated reforms in place, as a safeguard against future child abuse. But those reforms do not extend to the mindset of the Catholic magisterium, which is very much a top-down, self-replicating hierarchy, and which has become far more traditionalist and far more centrally controlled during the Papcies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (John Paul served so long that most Catholic bishops, and virtually all of the power players, were appointed or advanced by him, and reflect his own conservative and hierarchical mindset.) They certainly don't want anything like the scandal to happen again, and of course think child molestation is terrible. But the idea that their own autocratic approach to leadership, their lofty unaccountability, might be near the root of the problem is beyond them. The tacit principle that the bishops are to judge and not to be judged is deeply embedded in the institutional culture of the current Church. They mourn the suffering of the victims, but are still far from anything like insitutional humility or repentance.

This can be gleaned from the pattern of high-profile Church promotions since 2003, in which bishops who were fairly unresponsive to the abuse victims have been advanced, and many who were sympathetic to the victims have not. The most glaring example is Bernard Cardinal Law, leader of the conservatives among the American bishops, who presided over Boston's pervasive enabling of sexual predators and was forced to resign in 2002. In 2004, just before some American bishops decided John Kerry wasn't fit to take Communion, Law was appointed to a lucrative and prestigious sinecure in Rome (as cardinal archpriest of a basilica), and given even more administrative power in the Vatican than he had held before. In 2005, during the election of Benedict as Pope, someone apparently cast a vote for Law. As in, a vote for Law to be Pope. It came on the last ballot, when the winner was clear, and was therefore a strictly a symbolic vote. But since Cardinals may not vote for themselves, the symbolic gesture was not Law's own. (But could easily have been a gesture by Benedict XVI himself, who could only vote symbolically by the same rule.)

If Benedict and his Vatican have been warm and forgiving toward Bernard Law, they have been just the reverse to the Boston Catholic politicians who preferred the law rather than Law, and most of all to the Kennedys. Benedict was notably chilly after Ted Kennedy's death. And in 2005 the Vatican even took the spiteful step of overturning Joe Kennedy's annulment, granted in 1996. (This doesn't affect the legality of Kennedy's second marriage, which is governed by civil rather than canon law, and so late after his remarriage it's primarily a symbol of displeasure.) Time magazine even allowed one Vatican official to trash Ted K anonymously after the funeral:

One veteran official at the Vatican, of U.S. nationality, expressed the view of many conservatives about the Kennedy clan's rapport with the Catholic Church: "Why would he even write a letter to the Pope? The Kennedys have always been defiantly in opposition to the Roman Catholic magisterium." (Magisterium is the formal term for the authority of Church teaching.)


"Here in Rome, Ted Kennedy is nobody. He's a legend with his own constituency," says the Vatican official. "If he had influence in the past, it was only with the Archdiocese of Boston, and that eventually disappeared too."

That blind quote is absolutely delusional as an assessment of Kennedy's political influence, except his influence with the Catholic hierarchy itself. And the blindness of the quote is an enormous problem, since the American official at the Vatican is either Bernard Law's close colleague and compatriot or else Bernard Law himself. But the talk about lack of influence makes sense if the Mystery Cardinal is thinking of Kennedy's inability to shield the Boston Archdiocese from the consequences of its misdeeds.

Of course, the idea that Catholic politicians could protect the hierarchy from the abuse scandal is deeply unrealistic. Any elected official who seemed to sympathize with the coverup, even remotely, would be political toast. But it's only slightly more realistic to insist that pro-choice politicians, elected by pro-choice voters, abandon their supporters because a bishop told them to. But abortion isn't the whole story here. The point is for Patrick Kennedy, and other politicians like him, to be taught obedience.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Palin Mania and the Triumph of Narrowcasting

Sarah Palin may be very unpopular by any traditional polling standard. However, pundits are eager to explain that the important thing isn't how many people like her, but rather the intensity of her followers' enthusiasm for her. Sure, she may poll like Herbert Hoover in 1932, but the thirty-to-forty percent of the country that approves of her includes a hard core of fanatical support. That intensity, we are repeatedly assured, will give her political power, no matter how many people oppose her. Sarah Palin is officially popular, whether the rest of us like it or not.

Palin is popular in the way Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are popular. Not many people watched them, or ever did, but their tiny audiences are loyal and enthusiastic enough to make those shows into profitable franchises. Not profitable enough to keep Star Trek on NBC's prime time, of course, but profitable enough for a cable-TV environment with dozens and dozens of channels. Palin, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is a phenomenon in a fragmented media world where broad audience appeal is no longer necessary.

If the current media is fascinated with her, that's because they are themselves the creatures of the new and more fragmented national media, where the goal is not broadcasting but narrowcasting: getting a minuscule slice of the audience pie. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC have small audiences. Several of their, ahem, "major stars" draw audiences in the hundreds of thousands; the most successful get a few million viewers. The talk may be about, say, Katie Couric's ratings being low, and Bill O'Reilly's being high, but bad Katie Couric ratings are still easily higher than good O'Reilly ratings. Of course, it's relative. Cable news is only expected to pull in half a million to three-and-a-half million, and network news is still expected to pull in between six and ten million. Of course, the exact demographic slice of viewers CNN or FOX or MSNBC pulls in may be more lucrative for advertisers. Of course, the small cable audience may be growing by double digits and the big network audience is declining from its old eight-figure ratings. It is very natural for media figures, like the media executives to whom they answer, to view popularity in this sophisticated, relative framework. But relative popularity is only relative. Ignoring order-of-magnitude differences in popularity numbers is a mistake. The top news program in America is still 60 Minutes, which rates on a scale that dwarfs MSNBC, CNN, and Fox combined.

The news media, taking its cues from the entertainment media of which it is a component rather from the world it ostensibly covers, has grown to overvalue the same secondary numbers and measures of "intangibles" that determine news products' values to the corporations that own them: momentum, enthusiasm, brand loyalty, growth. And those measures have their importance, but older, less sexy forms of measurement shouldn't be ignored. Obama's poll numbers may have slipped, relatively speaking, but the difference between fifty-something job approval for Obama and around fifty percent disapproval for Palin is, ah, not trivial.

On the other hand, one can make enormous piles of money in the current media environment by getting the attention of only part of one percent of the national audience. Narrowcasting is how big media conglomerates make their profits. Sure, there may not be that many Star Trek fans as a percentage of the population, but by current standards you can have very successful Star Trek films and excellent DVD sales. You can make excellent money with prime-time soap operas for teens on, say, the CW network, because a small slice of faithful female teenaged viewers is enough to sell advertising. Palin evidently sold 700,000 copies of her book last week, which is an enormous and lucrative number in absolute terms but still represents than 0.25% of the population buying her book. (Okay, let's say everyone lends it to three friends who read it diligently. We're up to a whole percent.)

Narrowcasting expalins why the newer media covering politics tend toward hyper-partisanship. It's not that there's a broad appetite for talk-radio ranting. In fact, those ranters turn most of the audience off. The point is that the radio host, cable news head, angry columnist or partisan blogger is only shooting to reach a minority in the first place; getting a small segment of the population to pay faithful attention is all you need. Cable news has precisely the same business model as the Science Fiction Channel: the people who want to watch this are a tiny minority, but they have an enormous appetite for it, and so that tiny slice is profitable.

To a narrowcaster, Palin Mania looks stupendous. The fans are so hard core! She's so fresh! And twenty percent of the country looks enormous when reaching only six-tenths of a percent suffices to print money. But American politics is still first-past-the-post, and that means national politics demands keeping support wide as well as deep. Presidential politics is inevitably broadcast politics: old school, like the MGM Lion, Cary Grant, and NBC Blue.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Palin's Window of Opportunity

So, the rollout of Sarah Palin's book has led to a flurry of speculation about whether she will someday run for President. That conversation, in itself, is evidence of how little the American political media listens to what it's saying.

Palin is an unpopular politician who badly botched her Vice-Presidential run. But on the other hand, she badly botched her Vice-Presidential run and is unpopular. She will never make a serious run for the White House, because she can't.

Is she running? Or just cashing in on the media ride? The answer, of course is both and neither. Palin's job is now Potential Presidential Candidate. Her media value depends on the perception that she may be running. It is in the media's direct interest to keep her valuable, so that Sarah-related stories and interviews get lots of lucrative attention. Naturally, they encourage the speculation that she's a candidate. And that's in Palin's interest, too, because she profits directly from that media value.

Palin is going to make a lot of money for as long as the press treats her like a serious political player. But her ability to command top prices ends the moment it becomes clear that she isn't running for President. It also ends if she actually runs.

If Palin runs, she will cease to be a potential contender and become just another defeated candidate. Her national stature will vanish. And after she gets drubbed at the polls, her standard speaking fee will plummet. She'll still be highly paid, but not at anything like the rates she currently demands; you don't get a $5 million book deal after you've been humiliated in New Hampshire.

Maybe Palin understands this consciously, and maybe she does not. (For the record, I believe that Sarah Palin is crazy like a fox. A delirious, rabies-maddened fox.) But she has a window of opportunity in which to build a large personal fortune. The amount of money she makes while that window is open will probably determine her lifetime wealth. When she runs for President, or refuses to run, the window will close. So it's time for her to make her money now.