Journalists have a duty to ‘point the finger’ when there is scandal

Raymond Arroyo has given some of his best years to being an anchor on a Catholic television network. And when you meet him it becomes clear that he has made a choice to prioritise Catholic television when he could have had his pick of jobs on secular television, as anything from producer, director, presenter or even actor.  

Not many people realise that Arroyo, the lead anchor of EWTN News, is also a gifted actor, tried and tested during four gruelling years studying under Stella Adler at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. When I ask what it was like to be one of Adler’s pupils (others include Marlon Brando, Judy Garland and Robert De Niro), he sighs and says: “There were originally 30 people in the class, and at the end, there were four left, because you had to audition to get in each year, and Stella would routinely send people away. On a day-to-day basis, when you came into class to perform a scene, she would stop you and say: ‘Get out, you’re lying. Get out!’” 

Arroyo goes into role as Stella, wagging a sharp finger and talking in a flinty voice. “You’re not walking into a bar, you’re walking into an acting studio,” he mimics. “Stella sat on a type of throne, with a microphone and she critiqued you constantly as you rehearsed.”
Adler was trying to get the actor to identify how he was inserting himself into the character and failing to serve the play. “We were taught to serve the play,” Arroyo says. “It wasn’t about self-aggrandisement or an ego trip.” 

Arroyo reminisces that on one occasion when he was playing Biff Lowman in Death of a Salesman, Adler made him leave the stage and come back in seven times. He was only granted entry when he entered as if it was a real bedroom in the Lowman home. 

Did Adler believe that being a practising Catholic was an impediment to training as an actor? “Stella was very insistent that we understand religious faith and that religious practice was important because it shaped the soul of an actor,” Arroyo says. “Without a huge spiritual reservoir, you really can’t play the big roles like Hamlet or Lear.”

After studying so hard to be an actor, he graduated and got high-paying work. His favourite role was Richard III. But he eventually gave acting up for journalism. “I found the repetition of playing the same character for a long run to be very boring,” he explains. “Saying someone else’s lines for many weeks: it became like painting a wall. I’m probably a better director than actor, because I like to inhabit all the roles.”
Arroyo worked with the Associated Press and on the New York Observer. When I invite him to talk about journalism, he switches from being the chameleon actor who can jump into any role to being serious and reflective. With a grave expression he says: “I’m not a Catholic journalist.
I am a journalist who is Catholic. There is a big distinction. I have to write the truth.” 

What is the fall-out for a journalist who has PR and spin as their priority?  “When a journalist fudges the truth or suppresses it, they do it to their own detriment, because you are not only hurting yourself and your credibility, but you also hurt your audience as well.” 

Does this mean that Arroyo believes in telling the truth even if it seems he’s letting down the Catholic side? “People who claim to love the Church must ask if they are doing their best for the institution, because had the sex abuse crimes come to light sooner it would not have metastasised into the present situation. Part of the reason that it happened was because people did not want to be the truth-teller, the one pointing the finger.”

This mention of the sex abuse crisis prompts me to ask if we have really learned the lessons of the crisis. Do we still think it’s better to cover up crimes so that we preserve reputation at the expense of justice? “You don’t keep the house standing by protecting the bad,” Arroyo says. “Our job as journalists is to challenge people to defend their positions and to dig out the uncomfortable truths.”  

At the same time, Arroyo is quick to dismiss “hit journalism”, where “it has become a hobby to destroy people in the public sphere, a cottage industry which is not in the interest of the public good”.
We discuss a disquieting trend, the confusion following Pope Francis’s warnings about gossip. Many journalists are doing their best to report news honestly, but sometimes that news is bad, and journalists are being emotionally blackmailed with the claim that they are “gossiping”. Arroyo comments: “What Pope Francis is talking about is idle gossip that is not done with the good of the public in mind.” 

One high-profile example of a public figure who did not live up to expectations is Fr John Corapi, an American priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) who was removed from public ministry following allegations of misconduct, though he maintained his innocence. Many people converted or reverted to the  faith after hearing Fr Corapi’s stirring addresses on EWTN. But his followers were perplexed in 2011 when the superior general of SOLT accused Fr Corapi of a variety of offences. 

In the wake of Fr Corapi’s troubles, his followers protested his innocence and were angry at journalists who quoted the superior general’s words. EWTN promptly stopped broadcasting shows featuring Fr Corapi. I ask Arroyo if he knows why Fr Corapi’s supporters were so enraged.
“I knew Fr Corapi for years,” he says. “Many people, especially men, had a conversion because Corapi was a tough, blunt speaker who spoke the truth without using gilded language. That arrested their attention. Now, when you tell them that a man who converted them, who awakened their conscience, was not who they thought he was, you will naturally draw their anger. Their reaction is: ‘How dare you reveal this about a good man?’”

Arroyo is not content simply to write non-fiction. He is deep in the throes of writing a seven-book children’s series. He is very widely read, but the children’s authors who are his role models are G K Chesterton, Tolkien and J K Rowling.  

What does he think about Catholics who think that J K Rowling promotes witchcraft? “That’s an opinion, but in the works of J K Rowling there is a battle between good and evil, and Harry fights on the side of good, and is sustained by his mother’s love. I’m not a theologian or a churchman, so I don’t know for definitive if part of the Harry Potter series is bad for souls, but if the moral universe is contiguous in a work of fiction and reflects the world that we live in, then it’s good because it’s true. There are a number of children’s books which disturb me. They distort and invert good and evil, so that evil becomes the good. What is the purpose of confusing a child’s inner moral compass? Is that the intention of the writer?” 

Arroyo has certain literary and cinematic tastes that some other Catholics might find unpalatable. His favourite film is The Godfather and a favourite television series is The Sopranos because “it shows unflinchingly that the wages of sin are death”. 

He says that one of his favourite novelists is Graham Greene because his characters are real people, often at a moral crossroads. “The priest in The Power and The Glory, is a drunkard and has a child out of wedlock. He’s not a pious hero yet he becomes a martyr. But so many people relate to him. They see themselves in the priest’s imperfections. It is one of our greatest Catholic novels.”


He also mentions the novelist William Peter Blatty’s work in glowing terms. “The Exorcist is an apostolic work. By highlighting the power of darkness inevitably you highlight the power of good. The Church does triumph, in the form of a priest who exorcises and frees a child from a demon, but there is a cost.” 

But is it really necessary for Catholic writers to concentrate on evil and darkness? 

Can’t we just write about the lives of the saints and exclusively cheerful topics?
Arroyo’s answer is stark: “The world is littered with pious, sentimental works that no one reads. You can’t show the light without showing the darkness. If you try to remove all the profane, you are left with the saccharine. The sacred will seem saccharine because you need something to offset it, because that’s the way the world is.  Fiction has to conform to the perceptions of the reader. If it doesn’t, you are telling a lie.”

Arroyo was born in New Orleans in the early 1970s. “As a young boy,” he recalls, “my grandfather would take me to the French Quarter in the mornings. They would be hosing down Bourbon Street. There would be prostitutes on the corner, women who worked in strip joints, the hawkers hanging around and the drunks stumbling out onto the street. Then we would walk past the cathedral and hear the choir singing the opening hymn of the Mass. So the sacred and the profane have always marched closely together in my mind. You can’t have one without the other.” 

While Arroyo is steeped in writing fiction at the moment, his most successful piece of writing is the uncompromising biography of Mother Angelica that became a New York Times bestseller. He is, as a result, an authority on Mother Angelica. They were close collaborators at EWTN in the 1990s and Arroyo has the utmost regard for her. But he encountered objections when he wanted to write a true-to-life portrayal of Mother Angelica’s dysfunctional family home and of her character.
“Some people didn’t like that I wrote about Mother’s capricious nature, her stubbornness or the mistakes she made,” he says. 

“Or the fact that her suicidal mother wanted to kill her father. But presenting her as human and flawed was the only way that people would relate to her. Mother understood this from the very first interview we did for the book.” 

Arroyo has impressed feminists with the fact that EWTN was the first non-profit television network that was founded by a woman. Mother Angelica launched it in the garage of her monastery and her humour and directness drew millions of viewers from all over the world. The highest compliment that Arroyo pays her is that “she was like the Pope Francis of her day: not afraid to cut through the dross, find the truth and show it”.


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