Let's try a thought experiment to test the bounds of fair commentary and editorial responsibility. A film reviewer detests a film that pushes values he sees as un-American in some fashion or other, and notes that the director is Jewish. The reviewer deduces from that one fact that the director's religion is what produced the the film's disagreeable values, and then deduces that Jewish control of the media is what allowed the movie to reach theaters in the first place. The reviewer then implies to his readers that Jews should not be allowed in positions of power in the entertainment industry lest a Zionist hegemony result.
Would any editor of a mainstream media outlet publish such an essay? And would any editor defend such a piece as "fair commentary" when criticism arose over the decision to publish it?
The obvious answer should be no to both questions — but US News and World Report would beg to differ.
Last week, the venerable news magazine ran an article by Jamie Stiehm objecting to the temporary stay granted by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor that suspends enforcement of the ObamaCare contraception mandate on the Little Sisters of the Poor of Colorado. The stay only suspends that enforcement while the case is being resolved by the courts. It's a minor moment in a much longer drama that has almost no substantive impact on the eventual decision on the constitutionality of the contraception mandate.
Stiehm, however, didn't bother to research just how little this stay means. Leaping to the conclusion that Sotomayor had single-handedly ruled against the mandate, Stiehm launched a tirade against Sotomayor for betraying her gender, aghast at not being able to "trust [her] on women's health" and accusing her of "dropping the ball on American women and girls." The stay is "is tantamount to selling out the sisterhood."
Apparently Stiehm expects Sotomayor to rule on routine legal motions based on her own personal characteristics rather than the law. Or, more accurately, only those personal characteristics that Stiehm shares with Sotomayor. Stiehm latches onto Sotomayor's Catholicism as the only possible explanation for this gender betrayal. "Maybe she's just a good Catholic girl," Stiehm writes, and points out that Catholics occupy six of the nine spots on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor "is a Catholic who put her religion ahead of her jurisprudence," she continues — again, based on no evidence whatsoever.
Stiehm then suggests that Catholics in general can't be trusted to act independently as Americans. Oh, she does cite Nancy Pelosi as an exception, but otherwise casts Catholics as the vanguard of "Vatican hegemony." "Catholics in high places of power have the most trouble, I've noticed, practicing the separation of church and state," Stiehm writes.
Stiehm sees a grander conspiracy at work:
The seemingly innocent Little Sisters likely were likely not acting alone in their trouble-making. Their big brothers, the meddlesome American Roman Catholic Archbishops, are bound to be involved. They seek and wield tremendous power and influence in the political sphere. [US News]
All the "seemingly innocent" nuns did in this case is oppose the requirement to facilitate contraception and sterilization services for their employees, which go against their religious precepts (and which nuns don't really need anyway). Stiehm couldn't be bothered to research her piece enough to come up with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which does indeed oppose the HHS contraception mandate, but which isn't a party to this case. Stiehm them invokes the ghost of Thomas Jefferson to champion her argument, apparently unaware that Jefferson once promised another order of Catholic nuns — the Ursulites — that an American government would guarantee that "your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority."
Unfortunately, this is a renewal of a long-dormant slander against Catholics in America. When immigration shifted into high gear in the mid-19th century, especially from Catholic areas of Europe (led by the Irish migration after the Potato Famine), a political movement called the Know-Nothings arose to argue that Catholics should be denied civil rights. Otherwise, the argument went, the Pope would end up ruling America, since Catholics' ultimate allegiance lay with their religion.
Stiehm almost explicitly reaches back to the days of Thomas Nast in arguing that "[m]ore than WASPS, Methodists, Jews, Quakers or Baptists, Catholics often try to impose their beliefs on you, me, public discourse, and institutions." Amusingly, she provides no proof of this either, and is apparently ignorant of the fact that Catholics tend to split their vote between Democrats and Republicans and liberal and conservative policies, while the other denominations she cites are usually much more in one camp or the other.
Finally, as anyone who follows the Supreme Court knows, the Catholics on the court routinely split on ideological dogma rather than on religious doctrine. If there is a Catholic conspiracy on the Supreme Court, it would be so incompetent as to merit very little concern.
Know-Nothingism is certainly the right term for Stiehm's essay, exposing her irrational hatred as well as her inability to perform even cursory research. If this appeared on a writer's blog, it would mean little except for the exposure of the writer's own bigotry and incompetence. For some reason, though, US News and World Report, known for decades as a legitimate news magazine with a reputation for intelligent commentary, chose to publish this. How did this end up under its banner? Did no editor bother to check the assumptions made by Stiehm about the stay, or notice the blatant and ill-informed Know-Nothingism?
So far, we don't know what happened. After days of criticism and nearly 500 comments castigating US News on its own website, editor Brian Kelly offered a non-response late on Friday night. "Perceived bias on the court is a legitimate issue," Kelly begins, and declares that "Jamie Stiehm's piece is within the bounds of fair commentary." Kelly justifies this by proclaiming that US News is "committed to publishing a diversity of views on a variety of topics," a rather ironic declaration considering that Stiehm implicitly argues that Catholics should be excluded from public debate.
Kelly offers a non-sequitur rather than a response. Perceived bias on the Supreme Court is certainly a mainstream concern, but that's an ideological issue. Stiehm blames Catholicism without providing even a shred of evidence in support. Surely the editors didn't miss Stiehm's acknowledgment of that when she wrote, "Of course, we can't know for sure what Sotomayor was thinking." Stiehm gets the law wrong, gets Jefferson hilariously wrong, and constructs an elaborate fantasy of Catholic conspiracies — and the editors considered this "fair commentary" worthy of inclusion in a major media publication?
Jamie Stiehm is entitled to her opinions, as factually ignorant and bigoted as they may be. But Brian Kelly and US News provided her a platform for her ignorance and bigotry, and should answer for that decision.