An Honest Journalist

John Allen does not demand his readers’ agreement. That may be why he commands their respect.

Commonweal’s editor Paul Baumann has an article in that magazine’s June 6 issue discussing the Catholic experts tapped by the media to comment on Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the US. Interesting is his suspicion—or, if that is too strong, unease—concerning the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen.

An alarming degree of coordination, as well as mutual admiration, exists among many of these players. Shortly before the Pope’s arrival, and with Allen at his side, [George] Weigel informed a gathering of reporters that “John Allen is the best English-language Vatican reporter in history.” (Next he’ll be calling him John Allen the Great.) How someone can be both the left-teetering NCR’s man in Rome and the neoconservatives’ favorite American Vaticanologist surely raises the gospel’s question of whether it is possible to serve two masters. Yet somehow Allen manages to keep both his NCR readers and the neocons happy. (In addition to his many journalistic talents, Allen also seems to possess Padre Pio-like powers of bilocation, since he now covers the Vatican while living in New York City.)

John Allen is, let us agree, an excellent reporter. Everyone is rightly impressed by Allen’s knowledge, and especially by his extraordinary access to what seem like all the important players in the Vatican. Still, I am a little wary of that access. Like any good political reporter, Allen has to cultivate those he is writing about. (The Vatican, too, has a story line it wants to get out; as Allen has characterized it, the mantra is “affirmative orthodoxy.”) Like a marriage, the relationship between a reporter and his sources is bound to be complicated.

Baumann’s article is intended to be light-hearted, and his “alarm” is partly facetious. But only partly. There’s certainly a shadow of dismay in Baumann’s account of John Allen’s increased sympathy for Joseph Ratzinger and his largely positive take on Opus Dei. Likewise the half-jocular suggestion that the neocons are one of the two “masters” Allen serves goes beyond friendly spoofing. Polite but edgy.

Baumann insinuates that Allen may have purchased access to Vatican sources by deciding to write largely favorable pieces about the Holy See. It’s true that Allen’s early journalism was more conventionally liberal in perspective and that, after he moved to Rome, he began to report more sympathetically on orthodoxy and the orthodox. Baumann does not consider the possibility that Allen, having observed Wojtyla and Ratzinger at close hand and studied their writings, changed not in order to advance his career but because he came to believe they were on to something. Affable equanimity

In addition to the sheer energy of his curiosity, Allen has two personal characteristics that serve him well as a journalist. First, it seems that he really wants to know what other people believe and why they think as they do. Second, his interviews convey the impression—extraordinarily rare in his business—that he genuinely likes those he’s speaking with: right, left, or waffling. If, in fact, Allen ever dislikes those he interviews, his aversion doesn’t come through in the transcript.

On issues of controverted theological conviction, Allen usually plays his cards face up, and, while I find many of his opinions deplorable, he is to be commended for letting his readers know where his biases lie. I have commented on Allen’s fair-dealing in the past, and I am not alone. Father John Zulhlsdorf, Rome correspondent for The Wanderer, has gone out of his way to praise Allen for his affable equanimity.

But John Allen’s chief professional virtue is accuracy. Persons I’ve known who have dealt with him admit invariably that they recognize in what shows up in his column that which they tried to communicate to him. Given my circle of acquaintance, these are conservative Catholics. I’d be interested to learn from Baumann or others whether leftliberal Catholics have the same experience in their dealings with Allen. I’m willing to suggest that the NCR’s Rome correspondent is widely esteemed not because he serves two masters, but because he’s that rarest of journalistic creatures: a reporter.

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