Reuters’ misrepresentation of Francis’ remarks on Trump will fuel further distrust

We need essential media coverage that can be trusted, but it’s increasingly hard to trust mainstream media outlets to do such basic journalistic work.

A protester is seen outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection building in Washington June 19. (CNS photo/Kevin Fogarty, Reuters)

I was in my early twenties when I began to figure out that many mainstream media outlets badly skewed, distorted, and simply misrepresented the basic facts of a story. I saw it, for example, in how so many stories depicted President Reagan as completely clueless and incompetent, and I certainly saw it when various Evangelicals and Catholics—especially those involved in the pro-life movement—were portrayed as angry, mean, and ill-educated rubes who clung to their guns, Bibles, and unenlightened morals while refusing to ever help minorities, the poor, and so forth. This sort of nonsense has been going on for decades and has only intensified, of course, in recent years.

However, there has been a general sense, I think, that certain things can be accepted at face value, especially interviews. Sure, interviews can be cut, chopped, and processed, with the end result of a sort of hot dog journalism. But if a journalist landed an interview with an important figure—the President, the Pope, a Prime Minister—that journalist would usually have the decency to get out of the way and let the interviewee have their say.

So when I first read Philip Pullella’s June 20th Reuter’s piece titled “Exclusive: Pope criticizes Trump administration policy on migrant family separation”, I gingerly accepted that what I was reading was accurate. I say “gingerly” since the Holy Father, as is well known by now, is not always clear or exact in interviews, having a rather mixed history of uttering puzzling, ambiguous, or surprising things, especially when on a plane. But when I read this in the Reuter’s piece, it sounded about right:

One of his most pointed messages concerned President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, in which U.S. authorities plan to criminally prosecute all immigrants caught crossing the Mexican border illegally, holding adults in jail while their children are sent to government shelters.

The policy has caused an outcry in the United States and has been condemned abroad as videos emerged of youngsters held in concrete-floored enclosures and an audio of wailing children went viral.

U.S. Catholic bishops have joined other religious leaders in the United States in condemning the policy.

“I am on the side of the bishops’ conference,” the pope said, referring to two statements from U.S. bishops this month.

“Let it be clear that in these things, I respect (the position of) the bishops conference.”

Francis’ comments add to the pressure on Trump over immigration policy. The pope heads a church which has 1.3 billion members worldwide and is the largest Christian denomination in the United States.

One problem, however, is that there isn’t much in the way of quotes here. Is this all that Francis really said on the matter?

As it turns out, it wasn’t. Thomas D. Williams, in a June 21st piece for Breitbart, provided a more detailed and rather different account (ht: Fr. Z) of what was said:

In an exclusive interview with Reuters obtained by Breitbart News Wednesday, Pope Francis refused to take a position on the current immigration debates taking place in the United States, but insisted that they pre-date Donald Trump.

The pope said that he stood behind the U.S. bishops but did not have a personal opinion on the matter. “Not to wash my hands,” he said, “but because I don’t know the situation there very well.”

In his interview, Reuters reported Phil Pullella pushed further, asking Francis what he thinks of “the current situation where in the last months some 2000 minors have been separated from their parents and families at the border with Mexico.”

Once again, the pope declined to answer, repeating that he stood with the bishops.

The pope then went on to add: “During the Obama years I celebrated Mass in Ciudad Juárez while on the other side of the border 50 bishops concelebrated and in the stadium there were many people. The problem already existed there. It’s not just an issue with Trump but goes back to prior governments.”

And, yesterday, Williams further reported:

In one of the most egregious cases of journalistic deception in recent memory, Reuters has spun Pope Francis to literally say the opposite of what he said regarding President Trump and immigration.

Veteran pope-spinner Phil Pullella, who famously lured Francis into calling Trump a non-Christian in 2016, was back to his old tricks, trying futilely to get the pope to criticize the U.S. president. Having failed to do so, Reuters simply went with the story anyway, carefully selecting which papal quotations to insert in the story and which to omit to back up their pre-conceived narrative.

This is, put bluntly, the essence of #FakeNews—and it happened in an exclusive interview with perhaps the most universally recognized and influential figure alive today. It has all the hallmarks of arrogance, incompetence, and raw ideological intent. As Williams writes:

Reuters made the mistake of sending a group of journalists a large section of the original Italian transcript of the interview ahead of publication, which allowed Breitbart News to break the story of the incongruency between what Reuters published and what the pope actually said.

Oddly, despite having access to the original Italian, most mainstream media outlets echoed the Reuters version of the story, not mentioning the pope’s efforts to contextualize Trump’s responsibility in the U.S. immigration crisis.

To date, Reuters has published at least three different articles on the interview with the pope, but the agency has failed to include the pope’s words on the immigration crisis predating Trump and has elected not to publish the full transcript to allow people to read for themselves what the pope actually said.

If anyone still had doubts as to why people universally distrust the mainstream media, including once prestigious news agencies, this umpteenth example of fake news should serve to allay them.

And so the narrative is set. And more gas has been thrown on the assertions, outbursts, tantrums, and social media meltdowns over what is or isn’t happening at the U.S.-Mexican border.

Over the past week I have read countless articles, tweets, and Facebook posts about immigration and the current situation. A few have been helpful; most have been unhelpful and quite depressing. Or worse. Apparently, we are now long past “virtue-signaling”; it is now simply a matter of presenting oneself as a light-bearing angel who has been personally chosen by God to smite the hordes of dark forces who are on the cusp of destroying everything that is good, right, and on “my side”. The question that comes to mind as I’ve waded through so many rants and rages is simply: “Where are the adults?” More specifically, where are the people who will set aside their knee-jerk, emotional reactions to photos (real or contrived) and stories (accurate or misleading) in order to work prudently and calmly toward solutions, however difficult and arduous that will be?

Here at CWR we have run some articles presenting background and context for those wanting to better understand what is undoubtedly a complicated and sensitive topic. While no one doubts that innocent families should never be pulled apart and separated, no one should doubt that applying judicious prudence and good reason to thorny immigration situations is going to be always easy or obvious. This is not to deny injustices; it is to eschew demagoguery.

My main point here, however, is two-fold. First, we need media coverage and commentary that can be trusted to provide as much information as possible, even when it isn’t advantageous to the particular perspective of a journalist, editor, or publisher. Secondly, it’s increasingly hard to trust mainstream media outlets to do such basic journalistic work. And that is putting it kindly. There are, without doubt, many problems besetting society today. The one that keeps jumping out at me is the breakdown in basic trust. What leaders can be trusted? What pundits and commentators can be trusted? What information is trustworthy? What principles and beliefs are worthy of trust?

This matter of trust, without doubt, now haunts the current pontificate, especially after the inept and often embarrassing handling of the Chilean sex abuse scandal. To Francis’ credit, on this particular point of immigration in the U.S. and Trump’s handling of it, he offered prudent and vital qualifying statements. The suppression of those statements and the misuse, all too often, of the Holy Father’s statements by certain journalists and media outlets raises plenty of questions, not least how certain networks and journalists are provided access despite their questionable intentions.

In the meantime, as distrust grows, it becomes more and more difficult to actually converse and communicate as a people, a nation, and, most importantly, as a Church. Emotional rants and hyperbolic accusations aren’t the answer. “Fact and argument,” said John Henry Newman, “are the tests of truth and error.” And it is by such tests and through those tests that trust is earned and renewed.

About Carl E. Olson 1086 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

27 Comments

  1. So even when the Pope was being circumspect (let us give him credit for this), the MSM will nonetheless try to use him to protect their narrative. Let us recognize them as the opposition that they are.

    • “Let us recognize them as the opposition they are.”

      Well said, but permit me to amend that to “Let us CONTINUE to recognize them as the opposition they are.”

  2. excellent. with so much more that could be said. We need reporters of integrity before we need activists of intensity. quite obviously.

  3. At the first White House Press Association dinner of the Obama administration on Saturday May 9, 2009, the president stepped up to the dais and said “I’m Barack Obama. Many of you covered me and ALL ((emphasis mine) of you voted for me.”

    The response was laughter and applause.

    Source – White House and I’ve seen it on you-tube.

    Which brings up a question – What do you call someone who votes not once, but twice against mandatory medical coverage for infants who have the audacity to survive an abortion?

    Answer – Barack Obama

  4. Associated Press…Microsoft news…NYTimes….TIME…no one is even vying for objectivity. CNBC for stock market denizens is slanted against Trump sporadically during the day at their app. Pope Francis though could take a half hour to correct the media…but then…will he lose their attention which can be an ego drug that is totally legal. If he campaigned against media distortions, would he suddenly be un-pestered by them unlike Trump who refused them most access from the get go. The nytimes has writers ( Blow, Krugman,Goldberg,Bruini ) that every single day are dedicated to anti Trump…an admittedly easy target except not as easy as they hoped….90% approval ratings now among republicans and that’s in the midst of a trade/tariff battle. Who’d a thunk. Trump has overt lies…the media lies by omissions which are far more difficult to spot. 2020 will be the most interesting election….imaginable. I’m hoping Warren against Trump…but that’s the shallow laugh side of me. Who needs an entire campaign based on whether she has Indian blood.
    Trump stands at times for what the stoics called…severitas…severity. I’m surprised he’s not a vocal death penalty advocate. The liberal world is for non severity….in illegal immigrating…in empty hells…in late night comedy….except the MeToo movement swiftly decapitated many of their liberal own…with stoic severitas.

    • When objectivity pays their bills, Mr. Bannon, the media will be objective. Until then steel yourself against clickbait and TV teasers to draw in your eyeballs.

      My advice is throw away your TV and maybe your Internet connection too.

  5. Thank you for a balanced report. The willingness to hate and to resort to almost violent, and certainly uncivil, behavior is certainly the result of propaganda that seeks to generate such.

  6. Journalists like brother historians inevitably interject a viewpoint the best leaving the reader some identity of the author’s signature. Today it’s the art of the slant. The difference in the facts from the slant of Francis’ remarks is both refreshing and disturbing. Driving this a fearsome hatred of truth that Carl Olson touches. Certainly money and embrace by the popular media drives fake news. My sense is a more vehement evil. Progressives cannot bear the fact that a rakish knave can redeem himself. Especially if he opposes infant death factories and the dictatorship of unbridled liberty. What will unite our Nation if not conversion to he who is Truth?

    • Some see him ‘a rakish knave’, others as a lewd degenerate. I prefer your rakish knave — and a reforable one at that! I feel history might show that Trump was precisely the sort of leader America — and the West in general — needed in these times.

  7. This also goes for many Catholic news sites, bloggers, and such. They readily ate up this idea that Francis had bashed Trump and repeated lies such as that the family separation happened only under Trump, which fact could have been easily checked.

    • I don’t survey the entire Catholic blogosphere but I do visit many of the credible sites there. I encountered few who “ate up this idea that Francis had bashed Trump”. Most were very critical of Pope Francis’s naiveté about the press and of the press’s carelessness in reporting what the Pope said, especially their failure to put it into context. Context, of course, tends to ruin The Narrative of the political Left and the “Pope Francis is a socialist!” narrative I see developing in reaction among the political Right.

  8. Great article. Unfortunately, the “fact and argument” espoused by John Henry Newman seems to be a thing of the past.

  9. “I was in my early twenties when I began to figure out that many mainstream media outlets badly skewed, distorted, and simply misrepresented the basic facts of a story.”

    You forgot to mention Trump’s lambasting, among many other institutions, of the “FAKE NEWS” organizations. We have lost track of the more than 3,000 times Trump has lied since taking office. Real Christian.

    Yes, the southern border must be protected even if it costs taxpayers, not Mexico, $25 billion. Once that money is spent Trump may want to look northward to the Canadian border. It is totally porous and he might “work out a deal with Trudeau to build that $150 billion wall. Trudeau is ready for him!

    • “Real Christian.”

      If you’re referring to me, I’m not sure what you are trying to say. If you are referring to Trump, I’ll simply note that this editorial wasn’t about Trump, pro or con.

      • No it wasn’t about Trump per se. It’s about the church and their acknowledgement and praise of those of a lesser God. Trump fits that image, so does Gingrich, Conway, Hucklebee-Sanders, and her Preacher father Mike. The media of choice to the ultra right is Hannity and Fox News who Trump refers to a “friendly news”. You use the words “further distrust”. These folks are all lightning rods in politics and I would label them “maximum distrust… liars all.

        • “It’s about the church and their praise of those of a lesser God.”

          Whose praise? What do you mean by a lesser God?

          “Trump fits taht image…”

          Fits what image? What are you talking about?

          “These folks ae all lightning rods in politics…”

          I see: you think that anybody who is a conservative, and Fox News, are liars, but you seem to think that nobody on the left is, because you got all snippy because Mr. Olson pointe out that “many mainstream media outlets badly skewed, distorted, and simply misrepresented the basic facts of a story.”

    • I doubt that Trudeau is ready for anything; he’s too busy informing women that they aren’t allowed to say “mankind.”

    • “You forgot to mention Trump’s lambasting, among many other institutions, of the “FAKE NEWS” organizations. We have lost track of the more than 3,000 times Trump has lied since taking office. Real Christian.You forgot to mention Trump’s lambasting, among many other institutions, of the “FAKE NEWS” organizations. We have lost track of the more than 3,000 times Trump has lied since taking office. Real Christian.”

      Here is an idea: include verifiable facts when you make these posts, otherwise you come off as over emotional and not very bright

      • If you are not emotional also given the fact that Russia aided in Trumps win, you are on a different planet where Trump, Putim and the Christians don’t rule.

        • There you go again, condemning Trump as a Russia agent, before any evidence to support such a damning statement.

          Let go of your hatred of Trump; hate is unbecoming of a Catholic.

  10. Undoubtedly we cannot trust the MSM.
    Undoubtedly we cannot trust Pope Francis to not speak out of both sides of his mouth.
    Why does the Pope deny his reception of critical documents such as the letter regarding Barros handed over by Cardinal O’Malley. Why does the Pope deny reception of the Dubia hand delivered to the Casa Sanctae Marthae and the CDF by Cardinal Caffarra? Why does the Pope refuse to address the scandal of Bishop Ticona, accused of concubinage.
    Why does the Pope continually speak with Scalfari who has brought destroyed the credibility of this pontificate.
    But in reality, the Pope does not require the MSM to undermine his credibility. He himself is his own worst enemy. A Pope who undermines the perennial Magisterium of the Church has achieved that result all by himself. And it leaves you to wonder if that is not his objective — to eradicate the credibility of Catholicism and the Chair of Peter.
    I have little doubt that that is indeed the objective of this pontificate, this Pope, and the ecclesiastics who engineered his election with his cooperation.
    It is way beyond time to take the blinders off.

    • Yup. It is.
      The bishop of Rome and his lieutenants play for keeps.
      No mercy for any who do not tow his line. Bet on it.

  11. This is a welcome correction. However, it has to be acknowledged – and the author here has just about said as much – that it is Pope Francis’ own “style” of communication and tendency to contradict himself (and established Catholic thought) every 15 minutes that makes it so incredibly easy for him to be the target of “fake news.” The fake comments attributed to Francis are scarcely more bizarre than the documented and accurate comments.

  12. “Veteran pope-spinner Phil Pullella, who famously lured Francis into calling Trump a non-Christian in 2016….” Except Pope Francis never did that at all. Like so many others, Thomas D. Williams seems not to know the difference between “Christian” as an adjective and “Christian” as a noun.

  13. All due respect to the Pope being Catholic but what exactly is his agenda? He keeps clamoring for Italy and Europe to take in these migrants and upsetting their whole social structure without considering the threat that many pose. Instead he should speak out against the powers governing these regions and how they should clean up their acts instead of having people flee from their lands. He keeps finding fault with Trump who is trying to secure our borders and restore Christian values to our country. Why doesn’t he speak out against the disrespect shown to him by many on the left, nor does he speak out against Hollywood where many times the actors that are played as villains are wearing crosses in these movies. What is the message given here? That Catholics and Christians are bad people? He said lets see how Trump does before he judges him yet he says who am I to judge gays.

  14. Thank you for the correction. I am glad that at least on this point the outrage in my source of information (La Nuova Bussola quotidiana-Italy) was not justified. But the other points of that inteview still leave more than perplexed.
    I try to be as respectful as I can toward Pope Francis, in spite of all that Jorge Mario Bergoglio does to demean his office. Should I say that he sounds far from what I learned about being Christian and Catholic by the main theologians of the past century, and of the ones before, including Joseph Ratzinger? This latter gave me the clue to understand my uneasiness about his successor in the papacy. At a certain poi of his Introduction to Christianity, he asxcribes to Luther a “secularization of love”. He means that Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith sepatates men’s relation among themselves from their relation to God. Here is what embarasses me when Jorge Mario Bergoglio speaks of moral matters (form ecology to immigration): it doesn’t bear any relation to the Christian message of redemption.
    What am I supposed to think? Doesn’t Jorge Mario Bergoglio realize that the collapse of civil discourse (as the pitiful state of the MSM denounced by the article shows) is the main evil that plagues our western countries?

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