Journalists—or Defenders of the Faith?

Originally published in Free Inquiry in Spring 1998.

For a few days in November 1997, telephone calls screamed into the office of the president of the University of Rochester. Local television stations and newspapers sounded the alarm of community outrage. University administrators called emergency meetings in which they mobilized the campus security forces, rehearsed plans A and B, and recruited plain-clothed police officers for strategic deployment. What accounted for the uproar? Something, it seemed, to perturb dispositions both heavenly and earthly: Christopher Hitchens had been invited to criticize Mother Teresa.

As the organizer of the event, I had been warned to expect trouble. I had asked Hitchens to speak about his 1995 book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. With her recent death, it seemed a fine time to hear his views, which looked with cold detachment upon the legacy of Calcutta’s Nobel Laureate. I knew that Hitchens, a brilliant polemicist, believed Mother Teresa had been a “thieving, fanatical dwarf,” a “right-wing demagogue,” and a dissembling fraud.

However one took the insults, The Missionary Position made devastating allegations, most of which had been ignored by the media. Hitchens challenged Mother Teresa’s belief that “poverty is a gift from God.” He disputed her contention that abortion and contraception are moral equivalents. He asked why she had cavorted with the leaders of murderous regimes in Haiti, Albania, and Guatemala. Why had she traded favors with the swindler Charles Keating? The press in Calcutta had written scathing obituaries, accusing her of leaving little more than hunger and exploitation. Other than proselytization, what had she accomplished with the tens of millions of dollars that had come her way? Hitchens was asking hard questions about philanthropy, poverty, celebrity, and religion. Here was iconoclasm at its best.

The advertisements for the lecture attracted some interest on campus. But this was overshadowed by the “community outrage” manufactured by Gannett’s Democrat and Chronicle, the city’s largest, most influential, and indeed only daily newspaper. What did the D&C tell its readers about Christopher Hitchens? Almost nothing worthwhile. Along with local television stations, it reduced the meaning of the coming lecture to a set of vocabulary words, then repeated them ad nauseum: “abortion,” “atheist,” “controversy.”

Three days before the lecture, the D&C announced on page one that Catholics were “enraged” at the impending speech and reported that a protest of “perhaps more than 200 people” was afoot. In fact, the threat of protest was the work of a small number of anti-abortionists who called themselves The Lambs of Christ. They planned to bus in protestors from the surrounding region. Many churchgoers seemed open to the idea of a fresh perspective on this issue. They included Bishop Matthew Clark, who insisted that universities were obligated to entertain dissenting viewpoints—hardly an “enraged” comment.

The D&C turned the lecture into an event, then into a lurid melodrama: an insolent atheist would speak at the university, offending all Catholics while furnishing nothing of substance to a properly hostile public.

The coverage following the lecture was dominated by depictions of the protests: colorful photos of middle-aged co-religionists standing athwart with lighted candles. Less than 60 had turned out, about 150 fewer “enraged Catholics” than the D&C had predicted. The coverage, moreover, lost sight of all the nuances in the lecture itself, attributing to Hitchens a pro-abortion agenda even though he explicitly confessed his ambivalence on this issue; it was Mother Teresa’s conflation of contraception and abortion to which he objected.

The newspaper’s most egregious offense against truth appeared in an editorial on November 12. Though it purported to be a stiff rejoinder to Hitchens, it bore hardly any relation to the ideas expressed either in his speech or in his book. I phoned the author for an explanation. In the course of our conversation he said that: (1) He had not attended the lecture; (2) He had neither read Hitchens’s book nor viewed the accompanying documentary; (3) Before Hitchens came to town, he had never heard of him; and (4) He claimed no particular expertise or insight into the meaning of Mother Teresa life. I expressed my surprise. He declined to concede that there was anything wrong with the editorial.

Was controversy inevitable? Probably. Then again, what if the local media had faithfully communicated Hitchens’s criticisms of Mother Teresa? What if they had trusted their readers to digest and assimilate unpleasant ideas? The city’s smaller, independent news outlets did just that. The Catholic Courier, the diocese’s own weekly, dispensed a truthful and fair-minded accounting of the lecture. It summoned an expert on Mother Teresa for an earnest refutation, but the piece left no doubt about the merits of Hitchens’s analysis and was refreshingly absent of hagiography.

The alternative weekly, City Paper, linked Hitchens’s evaluation of religious fundamentalism with the larger problem of charity, as did a local public radio program, which allocated him nearly a full hour of airtime. This program elicited a single recalcitrant caller, against more than a dozen respectful questioners. This was no surprise to Hitchens, who insisted that thoughtful people greet him virtually everywhere his work is treated with care.

Despite the negative publicity and the accompanying calls for a boycott, nearly 500 people filled the auditorium. Hitchens and his audience—some from campus, some from the community—debated complex matters like idolatry in a secular society and the politics of poverty. Nearly everyone was well behaved. The participants, by no means all convinced, nonetheless seemed to appreciate Hitchens’s forthright judgments, as well as his willingness to consider their disagreements. They stayed for more than three hours.

Hitchens’s prior appearance at the Johns Hopkins University suggests the same dynamics elsewhere. When word of his visit reached Baltimore’s conservative Catholics, reports Mark Crispin Miller—media critic and director of the film series in which Hitchens was scheduled to appear—Archbishop William H. Keeler and his conservative flock reacted in an “explosion of indignation.” Keeler organized a campaign of angry phone calls, threatened a protest, and denounced the entire affair as a simple-minded attack on the faithful. Like the D&C in Rochester, the Baltimore Sun smeared Hitchens on its front page.

The efforts failed badly. The event generated an “astonishing turnout,” says Miller. As for the protest, Miller told me that it was a “pathetic demonstration,” attracting few of the churlish callers that had earlier besieged him and his sponsors. Most pathetic, perhaps, was the Sun’s attempt at redemption. After the lecture, the Times-Mirror-owned paper new called the Hitchens visit a “blow for freedom of expression.”