A return to respectability for Know-Nothingism?

If nowhere else, that’s certainly the case at US News and World Report. A week ago, the news magazine published a column from Jamie Stiehm that demonstrated ignorance on many levels — the law, history, Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on the role of government among them. Mostly, though, Stiehm made the assumption that a Supreme Court justice issued a temporary stay in a challenge to the HHS contraception mandate based not on the case nor on law but solely on the basis of her Catholicism, and spun that into a rather paranoid fantasy about Catholic conspiracies to pursue “Vatican hegemony,” implying that Catholics shouldn’t be trusted in public office or even in the public debate solely on the basis of their faith — with exceptions for “good Catholics” like, er, Nancy Pelosi.

This echoes a long-discredited and bigoted nativist movement in mid-19th century America called Know-Nothingism. It relies on the notion that faithful Catholicism is inherently disloyalty to America, and the Know Nothing Party platform called for the restriction or outright denial of civil rights for Catholics. That movement passed away a long time ago, although one sometimes hears the same argument made against Jewish Americans who support Israel.

In any case, after an avalanche of criticism last week, US News and World Report editor Brian Kelly defended the publication of Stiehm’s column as “within the bounds of fair commentary” — and a positive step for diversity, of all things. After writing updates to this issue in the Green Room, I decided to address it in my column at The Week with a thought experiment:

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.

The issue no longer is Stiehm’s column, which was easily shredded by a number of commentators. Nor is it the “firing” of Stiehm from either US News or Creators Syndicate, because she doesn’t work as an employee at either.  The issue here is the editorial choices made at US News in publishing this piece, because Kelly’s response was a non-sequitur. No one is demanding that Stiehm be muzzled, but US News chose to run this despite its obvious fallacies, leaps to conclusions without any supporting data, and obvious bigotry.

How did that happen? Has Know-Nothingism returned to “the bounds of fair commentary” and ignorant and bigoted rants good enough for publication in mainstream news magazines? My conclusion:

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.

The commenters at US News on both the Stiehm piece and Kelly’s response aren’t fooled by the non-sequitur, and it should not stand unchallenged.

USA Today’s editors have another take entirely on what Stiehm calls “the seemingly innocent” Little Sisters of the Poor and their challenge to the HHS contraception mandate.  They can’t believe the White House is seriously going to push this all the way to the Supreme Court:

The accommodation is more of a fig leaf than a fix: Although religiously affiliated non-profits do not have to supply birth control coverage themselves, they must sign a certification that allows their insurance companies to provide it instead. Some non-profits have acquiesced, but not the Little Sisters and others who argue that this makes them complicit in an act that violates a tenet of their faith. If the non-profits refuse to sign, they face ruinous fines — $4.5 million a year for just two of the Little Sisters’ 30 homes.

So far, the government is on a losing streak. In 19 of 20 cases, including the Little Sisters’, judges have granted preliminary relief to the non-profits, allowing them to press their claims. The administration should take the hint.

In several cases, even if the government wins, the whole exercise will not result in a single woman getting a single free contraceptive, because under a different law, the insurers themselves are exempt. So what exactly does the administration hope to gain?

None of this had to happen. Federal law has several constitutionally vetted religious exemptions. The administration should adopt the most expansive, such as the one that exempts employers who share “religious bonds and convictions with a church.” One of Obama’s most prominent Catholic supporters, John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, urged the administration to do just that in 2011 when it was formulating its policy.

Even this is nonsense, which is why the Little Sisters case is one of the weaker challenges. The issue is that this mandate forces employers to participate in birth control when there is no need for them to do so, and no pressing state interest for the federal government. The government’s own agency, the CDC, concluded that there is no problem with access to birth control for women who want it based on its own 20-year study of unplanned pregnancies. Without an urgent state interest, the government can’t impose on religious expression not just by religious organizations but by anybody, especially when other solutions exist — such as expansion of Title X funding, or the approval of birth control as over-the-counter medicine rather than by prescription.

The whole structure of the mandate is asinine, much like Stiehm’s column and Kelly’s defense of it.

Update: Deacon Greg Kandra highlights the column at Patheos, where he — as a former journalist for CBS — has been appalled by US News’ decision and its response.