Reporting from the Trenches:
The New Catholic Media

My friend Dave is an American scholar of Eastern Europe. A few years ago he went to Poland for a year. Upon his arrival back in the States, he sighed contentedly and said, "It's so good to come back to the country where there are only two sides to every question."

Ouch. But he's got a point. We Americans have been used to casting things in simple, bifurcated terms. And this way of doing life has, of course, played out in our politics but it has also played out in our media. For decades, you and I got our news from ABC, NBC and CBS and from a relatively few print outlets whose marching orders came from a few rich men and women who lived and worked within a few miles of each other. Not surprisingly, the news took on a certain homogeneous quality that was often openly scornful of any viewpoint the vendors of the news did not share. That's why voices who live in the alleged mainstream are called "Peter Jennings" or "Barbara Walters" or "Dan Rather" but voices who don't share the biases of the alleged mainstream are called "Conservative John Stossel" or "Conservative Rush Limbaugh" or "Conservative Ann Coulter". For the major networks and editorial boards (aka "Old Media), there are Normal People Like Us and then there's Them.

But that hegemony is starting to experience significant loss of structural integrity, as demolition engineers say about the subjects of their work. That loss is due, in very large measure, to New Media, especially the Internet.

With the advent of the Internet, the proliferation of voices and viewpoints has skyrocketed. In particular, a new technology called "blogging" gives anybody with a computer and a modem a chance to make a serious dent in public discourse.

So what's a blog? "Blog" is short for "Weblog". It's a piece of technology (offered by such outfits as www.blogger.com or www.movabletype.org) which allows you to post your running commentary (including links to whatever Internet materials you like) to the World Wide Web anytime you like. You can start your own editorial page, magazine or newspaper! And with video and audio links, you can even do a little TV or radio for a rather small investment of capital. Best of all, if you can write well and have something to say which Dan Rather doesn't care about and the editorial board of the New York Times does not wish people to hear, that's tough luck for them. You can now speak directly to a potential audience of millions. This remarkably simple idea means that a whole new generation of writers and media types are suddenly in reach of the globe in ways that no previous generation has ever known.

On the Catholic front of this infant media revolution, a number of Catholics have been beginning to make their presence felt. I got involved in blogging myself due in large part to the impact of the delightful writer/blogger Amy Welborn (www.amywelborn.blogspot.com). By the time I discovered her blog, she had already attracted enough of a following that the Washington Post, National Review Online and MSNBC had all spotlighted her. Welborn's insightful, smart, faithful, and orthodox commentaries on everything from The Situation (as she refers to the priest abuse scandals) to life as a Catholic parent to whatever else strikes her fancy are always on target. So, for that matter, are those of her husband, Michael Dubruiel (www.michaeldubruiel.blogspot.com), whose daily offerings are a great balance between commentary on the news and deep refreshing draughts from the Church's spiritual tradition. And with a readership of 2000 people a day, Welborn's circulation has been equivalent to a monthly magazine with a readership of 60,000. Very respectable in the world of the Catholic press.

I started my own blog (Catholic and Enjoying It! - www.markshea.blogspot.com) in April 2002, when the Situation was becoming acute and much nonsense was being spoken ("It's all because of celibacy!") Such nonsense is frequently due to a simple fact: many Old Media reporters appear to refuse to familiarize themselves with the basics of things in which they have no interest, like basic beliefs of the Catholic Church. So, for instance, an allegedly educated reporter for the Albany NY Times Union can still write, in March 2003, of the "weekly Catholic ritual of Communion, in which churchgoers partake of blessed wafers and wine that represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ". This sort of fundamental ignorance makes it hard for Catholics to trust that reporters know what they are talking about when it comes to the Church. On the other hand, the distrust of Old Media by many Catholics made it difficult to convince some that there was a real problem in the way bishops had handled the problem of sexual abuse and that this was not merely a media pogrom against the Faith. So it seemed good to me to pitch in with a public forum written by somebody who has some background (and faith in) in Catholic teaching so that Catholics could process the information and try to sort wheat from chaff in user-friendly language.

I also started the blog (and this is a common reason for many writers) because blogs are sociable places which provide a certain amount of cyber-companionship and conversation throughout a lonely day spent locked in a room by yourself, writing stuff for Old Media. One common feature of many blogs (including mine) is the "comments box", a (typically free) piece of software that allows readers to comment on something you've blogged. This turns a blog into a sort of lively cyber-pub where readers can argue with or add to something the blog author has said and, in turn, argue and converse with one another. As a writer, I find this extremely stimulating and a fertile source of material for my work. In addition, it permits some remarkable connections to be made.

One memorable day in October 2002, for instance, I found a conversation on my blog had prompted a question I wished I could ask of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who does not know me from Adam. I took the bull by the horns and emailed him my question, with a request to blog his answer and to my surprise, he graciously replied. I blogged our correspondence and the ensuing discussion in the comments box was long and fruitful.

This suggests some of the possibilities for "networking" which the New Media unleash. In my own case, I quickly discovered there were lots of people with the blogging bug and just as quickly found that bloggers were happy to carrying on interlinking conversations with each other--completely unsupervised by the editorial constraints and agendas of network TV or the New York Times--around the globe. From Spain to Norway to Australia to Argentina my blog has been linked and I have linked to others, as well as to lots of other media. And this is typical for blogging.

In addition to variety among countries of origin, blogs vary widely in subject matter, emphasis, religious and political affiliation, and style. While my own blog is sort of a running Catholic commentary on culture and theology sparked by current events, others are clearly more newsy. One of the best I know is Domenico Bettinelli's "Postcards from the Net" (www.bettnet.com). Bettinelli is an editor for Catholic World News and has oodles of connections with Catholic and secular media that frequently make him first out of the gate with breaking stories. Besides that, his political and theological insights are very useful in sorting fact from hype when it comes to Catholic-related issues.

In contrast, the "Heart Mind and Strength" site (www.exceptionalmarriages.com/weblog/), while it includes glances at the news also casts a much wider net for discussion. Partly this is due to the fact that the site owner, Greg Popcak, is a family therapist whose principal interest is in strengthening marriages and raising healthy kids. But also it's due to the fact that Popcak has a wide range of other writers, ranging from homeschool moms, college students, theologians and magazine editors, all making their own contributions in a rather freewheeling interactive atmosphere.

Not all Catholic bloggers are focused on blogging about Catholic things. One of the most prominent parishioners at St. Blog's is Rod Dreher, whose blogging is done for "The Corner", a feature of the National Review website (www.nationalreview.com/thecorner/corner.asp). Dreher is not a "Catholic blogger" per se but is rather a blogger who is Catholic and whose beat extends well beyond Catholic issues to film reviews and conservative political punditry. A more curious resident of St. Blog's is the mysterious "Nihil Obstat" (www.nihilobstat.blogspot.com) whose sole mission in life is to proofread and puckishly point out the errors in grammar and spelling on all the other St. Blog's sites. (As with Pee Wee Herman or Jim Carrey, Nihil's audience breaks down very neatly into two camps: those who cannot stand him and those, like me, who can't help but enjoy the guy and his quixotic mission in life). Another offbeat guy is St. Blog's Resident Deranged Genius, Victor Lams (www.victorlams.com/etc/), whose interest in the arts and humor has produced an odd "all robot-themed" CD called "Robot Love" and has led to the first pioneering steps toward taking "vlogging" (video web logging) and creating "plogging" (puppet web logging starring "Randy Racoony"). ("Stunned silence" was the pithy review left by a reader in Lams' comments box..)

Lams isn't all fun and games. In December 2002, Planned Parenthood offered a Christmas card on their website which read "Choice on Earth". The wonderful thing about the interactive nature of the Internet is that it allowed a whole raft of bloggers and satirists like Lams to put together a "Planned Parenthood slogan and poster contest" that out Heroded these Herods in their blasphemous celebration of child killing on the Eve of the Birth. The gallows humor of the contest sent an encouraging signal: the Culture of Death now has to face a generation of media-savvy satirists who can beat them at their own game.

The Planned Parenthood Slogan and Poster Contest which swept of St. Blog's did not remain within the confines of Catholic blogdom. The slogans and posters were soon turning up in other corners of the Internet and being greeted by the normal applause and opprobrium that prolife work always generates. The extreme interactivity of the Net means that things tend to get around quickly. This has both its good and bad sides. On the darker side, rumors tend to be baptized as truth with unseemly haste. This has led to some rather unfortunate conclusion-leaping on occasion. And, of course, it's not all populist sweetness and light simply because there are more voices out there. It has been famously said that the Church is "Here comes everybody." The Internet is "Here comes everybody--and they don't necessarily have the Holy Spirit." The Net suffers from all the problems of pure democracy, notably the Any Idiot With a Keyboard (AIWAK) Syndrome. Just because somebody pipes up and says, "I'm Catholic and I speak for the Church!" does not mean they know what they are talking about, or even that they are reasonably sane--as Fr. Bryce Sibley rejoices in pointing out. His Saintly Salmagundi site (www.britius.blogspot.com) surfs the web looking for sites about the Lizard Creatures Who are Posing as Vatican Curia Officials or the man who says the seeds from his banana squash are trying to communicate with him. It's a solid reminder that all you need to get published on the Internet is a computer and a modem. Journalistic credentials, mental health, basic moral sense and intelligence are all optional. So the caution, as always on the Internet, is "Let the user beware."

On the other hand, the libertarian and laissez faire culture of the Internet has also led to frequent moments where information you just can't get anywhere else has empowered laypeople to take steps toward the reform of the Church in a moment where holy lay activism is desperately needed.

One such moment where the cry to "unleash the power of the blog!" resulted in concrete change was when it was noted in blogdom that the University of San Francisco (an allegedly Catholic school) was posting links to Planned Parenthood and other abortuaries on their "student health" website. An intrepid reader of the blogs posted the information on the "Free Republic" website (www.freerepublic.com) along with email contact information for the Bishop, Province, and President of USF. A flood of email to all three resulted and suddenly the links vanished! And yes, there was a feeling of satisfaction in cyberspace that day.

This is part of an ongoing trend which has been growing right along with the Internet, of course. Old Media discovered the potential of laissez faire webheads to upset their absolute hegemony in January 1998, when Matt Drudge posted a story about a woman named Monica Lewinsky that Newsweek had spiked. Since then, the Net has continued to make inroads, not least because web heads are often not as constrained by the financial and ideological constraints that Old Media operate under. Many people operate blogs out of their spare time and have "real jobs" doing something else. They simply want to talk about issues that nobody in the mainstream media is discussing. And they are finding that others are interested.

One example of this is an up and coming cartoonist named Chris Muir. By day, he's an industrial designer, by night, a cartoonist whose web-based strip is available in no newspapers but is running like wildfire through the internet and creating an audience that will take Old Media editors by surprise when one of them wises up and agrees to publish it. The strip is called called Day by Day (www.daybydaycartoon.com) and represents the viewpoint of the "other half of America" that doesn't get noticed by the Old Media editors who think a political strip begins and ends with Doonesbury.

Another example of the New Media's power to re-shape culture and public discourse is found in the work of Barbara Nicolosi, who writes a blog called "Church of the Masses" and who directs an apostolate called "Act One: Writing for Hollywood". Nicolosi's mission is to teach Christians how to become a force for the culture of life by writing in the media of film and television. An accomplished screenwriter herself, Nicolosi now shares her Old Media savvy in the New Media to encourage and help a new generation of Catholic culture warriors in their mission. Her work has been getting more exposure in a series of articles she has penned for Catholic Exchange (www.catholicexchange.com). This is due in large measure to the fact that the President of Catholic Exchange, Tom Allen, is himself interested in the transformative power of the visual arts and has had a hand in a number of film projects in the past. Deep calls to deep in the networking world of the New Media.

And, if you've a mind to try, it calls to you. Despite the problems of AIWAK Syndrome, the minor technical learning curve, and the sometimes crazed speed of discourse that can lead to privileging rumor over fact, it is still a good thing for a greater diversity of voices to be heard giving a variety of perspectives beyond What Dan Rather Thinks You Are Smart Enough to Understand. For the first time in history, journalism is not the wholly-owned subsidiary of a few rich people. Anybody who can write well, has an interesting perspective, or access to sources, can make his voice heard by a global audience. So surf on in and start your own blog!

Copyright 2003 - Mark P. Shea