Monday, April 25, 2016

Michael Voris, Detraction, and “Reporter’s Privilege”

Michael Voris. (Image © St. Michaels Media.)
On “The Vortex” Thursday, Church Militant’s Michael Voris made an interesting confession:

… [F]or most of my years in my thirties, confused about my own sexuality, I lived a life of live-in relationships with homosexual men. From the outside, I lived the lifestyle and contributed to scandal in addition to the sexual sins. On the inside, I was deeply conflicted about all of it. In a large portion of my twenties, I also had frequent sexual liaisons with both adult men and adult women. …

Since my reversion, I abhor all these sins, especially in the world of the many[,] many other sins I have committed having nothing to do with sexuality. I gave in to deep pains from my youth by seeking solace in lust, and in the process, surrendered my masculinity.

I call it “interesting” because it’s neither shocking nor particularly scandalous. Since I began blogging, I’ve encountered a few gay Catholic apologists who, in the process of conversion or reversion, committed themselves to chastity after having been sexually active for some time. Openly (if modestly) revealing their pasts is an essential part of their apostolic efforts; it not only establishes their empathy but their street cred. If Voris has spent little to no time before this speaking of his bisexual past, it must be said in his defense that LGBTQ issues has not been his particular focus: he’s had other fish to fry.

Since then, kudos have been pouring out for Voris from all over the blogosphere for the bravery and honesty of his revelation. Says Melinda Selmys, “Michael absolutely has my prayers right now, and I will happily be defending him against any detractors in the days to come.” Steve Skojec agrees: “The folks at Church Militant and I do not see eye to eye on some very important things. But today, I stand with Michael Voris against those who would use public detraction to destroy a man’s reputation [bold type in original].” Artur Rosman, Robert at Sorry, All the Clever Names are Taken, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf — many bloggers, many of whom don’t always agree with Voris or the approach he takes, have added their names to the well-wishers list.

“On Very Good Authority From Various Sources”

I would stand with Voris, too … if I weren’t concerned about this part of his confession:

We have on very good authority from various sources that the New York archdiocese is collecting and preparing to quietly filter out details of my past life with the aim of publicly discrediting me, this apostolate and the work here.

Words matter. Semantics means calling a spade a spade because it isn’t a shovel. Note that Voris says “the New York archdiocese” … not “an official with the archdiocese”, not “a person connected with the archdiocese”, not “an office of the archdiocese”. The entire chancery, all the way up to Cardinal Tim Dolan, is implicated in this skullduggery … by “various sources”, who may be in the chancery or who may be only second- or third-degree connections feeding back rumors.

According to the bio on the Church Militant site, Voris was a reporter, anchor, and producer who won four Emmys during his time with CBS News. On the one hand, one may hope this means he has the experience and the knowledge to suss out good sources from dubious sources, and to distinguish good intel from bad. On the other hand, the “very good authority from various sources”, translated from reporter-ese, means: I’m not going to reveal where I learned this information … and I don’t have to reveal it!

There’s the rub: In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (376 US 254 [1964]), SCOTUS effectively disemboweled defamation and libel laws by imposing a standard of actual malice. The “actual malice” standard requires that plaintiff show the defendant knew the statement was false, or that he acted “with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false”, even if the statement was made in a paid advertisement. “Actual malice” is such a high standard to achieve that, in practice, few defamation and libel actions prevail. As well, forty states and the District have “shield laws” protecting journalists’ sources; while SCOTUS hasn’t made a definitive ruling on the “reporter’s privilege”, it has been upheld at the circuit court level by nine different courts.

The Sixth Amendment gives the accused the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” in criminal proceedings. The media, however, can destroy reputations, businesses, careers, and lives through stories based on anonymous sources, with little fear of legal reprisal. Even reporters’ word choices, the way they frame their stories, can affect how the public perceives the stories’ actors, creating reactions out of proportion to the actual evidence presented. And in the fifty-two years since Sullivan, the news industry has changed in ways such that journalists no longer have the time or the inclination to wait until all the evidence is in and verified.

Who’s Detracting Whom Now?

Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury [cf. Code of Canon Law, Can. 220]. He becomes guilty:
— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them [cf. Sirach 21:28];
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them. (Catechism of the Catholic Church § 2477)

In an earlier draft of this post, I questioned whether Voris was prudent in revealing his past before any attack had materialized. For one thing, the Church’s doctrines do not require us to actively seek out martyrdom, whether it be the real chopping block wielded by Daesh or the virtual pillory provided by the Internet. For another, the bravery of such admissions is somewhat attenuated by the support one can count on from one’s virtual tribe; in the most egregious cases, it can become an exercise in what The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named calls “bravely facing the applause”. Third, even with the vocal support of your tribe, the Internet can give no assurance that your confession will never be used against you — one day, it may come back to bite you hard on the butt.

Now I believe an equally important question is this: Did Voris have a moral right — as opposed to a legal or constitutional right — to level such an accusation against the Archdiocese of New York, and by implication Cdl. Dolan, without exposing his sources? “To have a right to do a thing,” said G. K. Chesterton, “is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” According to the Catholic Herald, a spokesman for ADNY called the allegation “absolutely, 100 per cent untrue”; the burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused. Without substantiation, we only have Voris’ word against the archdiocese’s.

Cui bono? How could ruining Voris’ apostolate benefit the archdiocese in any meaningful, substantial way? Who stood to gain from his public humiliation, and how? Without answers to these questions, we have no reasonable motive, and therefore no justification to suspect such a move would be approved by Cdl. Dolan or any other archdiocesan official.

It’s possible someone connected with the chancery who has a dislike for Voris used archdiocesan time and equipment to gather the information for his own purposes. Such a case, however, would not warrant an accusation against the archdiocese as a whole. It’s even possible that Voris’ sources are using him as a sock puppet to defame the archdiocese, as likely happened with Rorate Caeli during the Fisher More College dust-up, or with the New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein and the Fr. Lawrence Murphy case. Charity and the respect due a successor of the apostles demand I presume the archdiocese’s innocence.

Detraction and the Public’s Need to Know

I can appreciate the pain and humiliation it cost Voris to admit his past sins publicly. Whether the confession itself was prudent is debatable, albeit understandable if someone had planned to expose his past first; in the end, though, it was his choice to make.

However, Voris did himself and us a disservice by not holding himself to a higher standard than that afforded the secular media by Sullivan and “reporter’s privilege”. His confession may have “taken the wind out of [the archdiocese’s] sails,” as Skojec says; however, he hasn’t shown to my satisfaction that their sails were hoisted in the first place. Voris could have made his confession without naming the archdiocese as his would-be persecutor. By not revealing his sources and their bona fides, he opened himself to the charge of detraction, if not calumny.

Melinda Selmys was right not to repeat the accusations against Voris she found in her combox; for that I definitely applaud her. It’s time that we who write and speak on behalf of the Church stop allowing the malicious to use us as tools to smirch the reputations of others from the safety and comfort of total anonymity, whether it be a single individual, like Voris, or an institution, like the Archdiocese of New York. Regardless of whether the public has a right to know X — such a right, if it exists, is not and cannot be absolute — we should be concerned with whether the public has a need to know X, and whether we have a moral duty to reveal it (vide CCC §§ 2489, 2492).

We have no need of shocking revelations to tell us that Michael Voris is a sinner, because our Church teaches us that all of us are sinners. Saint John Paul II called us an “Easter people”, and said “‘Alleluia’ is our song!” But our symbol is the Crucified Christ, and our prayer is Kyrie eleison.