He is a white male priest in his early 60s with sandy blond hair and steel blue eyes, which make him look much younger than his age. Upon first glance, Fr. Michael Pfleger is the last person you would expect to be leading a largely black Catholic parish on the southwest side of Chicago, but he has turned his advocacy for the poor into a national phenomena that has caught the attention of news media across the country.
To his supporters, he is a tireless voice for the disadvantaged. To his detractors, he is a shameless self-promoter who is more interested in getting his face on television that doing anything else. To me, he is largely the creation of a compliant Chicago media, which has done everything in its power to create this white inner city folk hero.
In Chicago, he is a regular media figure because there seems to be always some kind of controversy surrounding the politically active priest. This time, the controversy involves whether or not Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, will be able to convince Fr. Pfleger to leave Saint Sabina Parish, where he has been pastor for just about 30 years, and take a leadership position at Leo High School. Leo is a long-standing Catholic high school located in the same neighborhood as Saint Sabina. It has had enrollment problems in recent decades, and its alumni association is doing what it can to keep the school open in what is an economically depressed inner city community.
In working for the Archdiocese of Chicago as Director of Media Relations for almost nine years, I came to know a lot about the priest and believe him to be a sincere social activist. I actually sat across a conference table or two from the infamous cleric. After a short time talking to him, you have no doubt that he genuinely believes in his causes, but the problem I have had about his activism doesn’t really involve him, it involves the Chicago media, which, in my opinion, has invested a substantial amount of its collective credibility in creating Fr. Michael Louis Pfleger, as champion of the downtrodden black man. They created him; they cheer lead for him; and they have done just about anything to defend him even if it involves not reporting everything they know about him.
I am not suggesting that there is something inherently wrong with some in the media creating Fr. Pfleger as some heroic figure, but a problem can arise when you expend so much of your credibility in that creation that it affects you ability to report fairly and accurately on controversial subjects involving the person. I know from professional involvement in the coverage of Fr. Michael Pfleger that this has happened. It reflects a problem when so-called journalists become advocates instead of reporters. How can you be a watchdog if you have become somewhat of a lapdog for anyone? From my experience, it appears that many in the Chicago media have become lapdogs for Fr. Pfleger.
An example of this advocacy for Fr. Pfleger took place in 2002. On Monday, February 11, the Chicago Sun-Times had a front page story that basically reported that Cardinal George told Pfleger he was no longer going to be the pastor of Saint Sabina, citing the pastor term limit policy of the Archdiocese of Chicago. That afternoon and evening, every radio and television station in Chicago followed suit and reported extensively on what reporters believed was a sudden turn of events.
Fr. Pfleger had been pastor at Saint Sabina since 1981, and anyone who didn’t understand the policies and procedures of the Archdiocese of Chicago would probably think that the Cardinal should leave him there. After all, he was well loved by the parishioners, and the vocal ones all said they would probably leave the parish if Fr. Pfleger was removed as pastor.
On Tuesday, February 12, the Chicago Sun-Times ran another front page story on the subject, declaring that Cardinal George had given Fr. Pfleger a reprieve. According to Fr. Pfleger, he had a meeting with Cardinal George at the Cardinal’s residence, which he did, and the Cardinal told him that he would not give Fr. Pfleger a new term as pastor, but he would allow him to stay at Saint Sabina indefinitely, so that he could finish the projects that he had started at the parish.
The problem with the February 11 and 12 stories is that Fr. Pfleger gave the media the impression that these decisions by Cardinal George had just been made. The truth is that Fr. Pfleger knew the previous November that Cardinal George didn't believe the term-limit policy would allow him to give the pastor another term, and that Fr. Pfleger could stay pastor to finish his current projects.
The intense media focus moved the Archdiocese of Chicago to hold a news conference on the subject on Ash Wednesday, February 13, immediately after Cardinal George distributed ashes during the noon Mass at the famous Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. The news conference took place in the small side chapel of the Cathedral, and the print and electronic media filled the chapel to capacity.
Cardinal George began by describing the term limits for pastors. He noted that Pfleger was very supportive of the term limits when he was a young priest. He also had to point out to the assembled reporters that the term limits are periodically voted on by the Prysbyteral Council, which is the representative body of the priests in Chicago.
Cardinal George was not acting out of some executive fiat, he was just following a policy that had existed since long before he became Archbishop of Chicago. By the way, the priests have repeatedly approved renewal of the policy since then.
A very interesting thing happened that evening after the news conference was completed. Two reporters called me at home at separate times. One was a newspaper reporter while the other one was a television reporter. Both had suspected that Fr. Pfleger manufactured the entire media scenario on his departure from Saint Sabina and his sudden reprieve, and both were correct. They pointedly asked me when Fr. Pfleger first knew that Cardinal George was not intending to grant him another term. I told both of them that Cardinal George met with Fr. Pfleger in November 2001 and informed him that Archdiocesan policy prohibited him from granting Fr. Pfleger any additional terms as pastor. Both reporters asked me during our separate conversations when Fr. Pfleger knew that he could stay as long as he needed to finish the projects that he had started at the parish. I told both that Fr. Pfleger knew he would be staying there for an indefinite period in November of 2001. Both asked me if I was sure, and I told both that shortly after Cardinal George met with Fr. Pfleger in November 2001, Cardinal George told me about his meeting with the pastor, so I was prepared for media calls should Fr. Pfleger go to the media back then.
Neither one of the reporters ever went public with what I told them. Months later, I had a conversation with the print reporter about another subject, and I asked why the reporter had not gone public with what I disclosed about the timing of the Pfleger controversy. That reporter acknowledged that if the truth about the timing was reported, Pfleger would probably deny access to that reporter in the future, and that would put the reporter in a bad position with the newspaper's editor.
I have not revealed the reporters' names because both are very good reporters who I admire, and I don't wish to embarrass them. Nevertheless, this scenario demonstrates how even the best of reporters can be compromised by a major news maker, especially if they have invested so much of their credibility in helping to create the news maker.
Since then, Fr. Pfleger’s final term has obviously been extended indefinitely. When I was still working in the Archdiocese, I can remember Cardinal George saying that the media will give him hell when the final day of his pastorate at Saint Sabina occurs, so maybe the Cardinal has decided it is just not worth the grief until now. I know from my experience in Chicago that Cardinal George has done everything he could to make any transition for Fr. Pfleger as easy as possible because, despite some false media caricatures, he really is sensitive to the activist priest and his supporters.
The problem with news makers, such as Fr. Pfleger, manipulating reporters is nothing new, but it has become worse in recent years. The news makers for whom I have worked often do the same thing. When reporters go along with such manipulation by refusing to report the truth for fear of losing access, they compromise their credibility.
As far as I am concerned, the news makers that cut off access to reporters who don’t report everything the way they want are just as guilty as the reporters, themselves, of creating an atmosphere where truth loses out. I’ve worked for a few news makers who do nothing but complain about how reporters get it all wrong, but then they won’t take the time to engage in any attempt to correct the record because of fear of not having everything precisely reported their way. I think that is a coward’s way out. If you are truly a leader, you should have no problem standing in front of a group of critics or television cameras and explain why you made any tough decision. Those who can’t do that should never become leaders in the first place.