The Vatican’s D.C.-based media operation offered a common deal to eight or nine news organizations this week: We’ll give you the details on an important Vatican position paper on biomedical ethics, so long as you agree to embargo the information.
The embargo time was a bit unorthodox, to be sure: 6 a.m. today—a time that coincided with the 12 p.m. release of the position paper in Rome.
So just about all of the media outlets on the Vatican’s short list kept the story out of their Friday print editions. The Washington Times, however, went ahead with the piece, right on page A1: “Vatican Condemns Cloning, In Vitro.” The story by Julia Duin detailed how the church had come out strongly against “common biomedical innovations.”
The church saw an outright violation of media doctrine. “I haven’t had anyone pull anything like this in my whole history of working here,” says Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It’s utterly reprehensible.” Asked what recourse the organization had with respect to the Washington Times, Walsh responded, “I can’t imagine ever risking giving them anything embargoed,” she says.
John Solomon, the Washington Times‘ top editor, says compliance with the embargo was a huge concern of his staff. The piece didn’t debut on washingtontimes.com until 6:01 am, he says. And the staff concluded that if the story ran only in the late edition of the paper, which leaves a Baltimore printing plant at 5 am, its distribution would comply with the embargo. Solomon says the paper should have done more to clarify just what a 6 a.m. embargo means for print copies, and regrets not having taken up that issue with Walsh. “I’m a Catholic myself, so I’ll take an extra confession round this week,” says Solomon.
Those exchanges between layman and clergy, however, won’t help Washington Post print subscribers, the real victims here. The paper, after all, left the story out of all of its editions. Says Metro chief Robert McCartney: “The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told our reporter that the 6 a.m. embargo meant the story could not appear in morning editions of the newspaper. The conference also told us it said the same thing to The Washington Times. We put the story on our Web site at 6 a.m., in line with the embargo.”