former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

The Press Let the Pope Off Easy

In Blog on July 29, 2013 at 12:13 am

I am a Catholic, but even I thought that the coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil could have used a bit more hard-nosed journalism.

World Youth Day, occurring biennially, brings hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from all over the world to celebrate their faith and meet with their pope.  The fact that this event occurred in Brazil this year, early in the tenure of this new Latin American leader of Catholicism, gave the pope just the positive exposure that the Vatican PR machine must have hoped for.  Reporters like to cover events that are unpredictable, that evoke emotions, and that can be told with much drama.  In all aspects, the pope delivered. It didn’t hurt that the pope was visiting a country that had lost hundreds of thousands of Catholics, many to evangelical Christianity, adding a bit of political intrigue to the event.

There was nothing wrong about the chronicling of the pope’s dramatic  visit to Rio’s slums, and his eagerness to reach out to the poorest of the poor, or the millions flocking to hear him say Mass on the Copacabana beach.  

And the pope deserved praise for preaching social justice to a country that has been wracked by corruption and income inequality.  The pope is considered one of the world’s moral leaders, and his message of concern for the struggling and homeless, has been a powerful symbol of a new direction for the Church.  But that should not make him immune from scrutiny.

Many reporters seemed reluctant to criticize his decision to reject a pope-mobile and to open the windows of his Fiat sedan as it was mobbed by a crowd as crazy as a bunch of girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Indeed, the Associated Press enthused that this reckless conduct was a powerful symbol of recapturing “the dynamism” of the Church and going out into the streets. To its credit, The Wall Street Journal raised concerns about the pope’s decision to flaunt security protocols. But generally, the media was ready to blame everyone but the pope for the security problems, and focused more on the pope’s lack of fear than his heedlessness.

Again it isn’t that all aspects of the pope’s trip, including its roughly $50 million cost to the Brazilian government, weren’t covered.  It is just that they were asides. And protests from Brazilians about the costs certainly didn’t dominate coverage. For example, CBS’s Dean Reynolds did do a morning news report that included footage of the protests, but that story didn’t appear to make it to the nightly newscast:

It may be understandable that the media was enthralled by the moral force of the pope and his message.  But what was more concerning were the missed opportunities of this week-long coverage.

Nobody asked the hard questions.  Would the pope, whose simple lifestyle is certainly not reflected in the vast secret wealth of the papacy, actually show us the money?  Would he repay Brazil the millions spent to guaranty his safety?

What progress has the pope, who preaches openness and simplicity, made in cleaning up the mess at the Vatican bank?  Would the Papacy consider selling even a few of its treasures to bankroll new global poverty initiatives? Would the pope urge all Catholic parishes in the developed word to give 10 percent of their weekly Sunday collections to feed the world’s poor?

Interestingly, the week of the pope’s visit to Rio, the head of the Church of England offered more than talk to the poor.  Archbishop Justin Welby was embarrassed by an expose by the Financial Times that found that the Church had unwittingly invested in a U.S. venture capital company that had launched one of Britain’s largest providers of pay-day loans (short-term loans made to the unbanked poor at exorbitant interest rates). Welby reacted to the news by pledging to offer church facilities to non-profit credit unions, and thus expand their market share as affordable alternatives for cash-strapped Brits.

Finally, how does the pope’s concern about social justice tally with his theology on birth control?  How can a man so moved by the plight of the poor continue to oppose artificial contraception, a proven tool for improving incomes, reducing abortions, and elevating the health and status of women and children? The press had a perfect reason to bring this issue up. After all, only a year ago, in Rio, the Vatican’s lobbying helped persuade the United Nations global summit on sustainable development to remove all language on women’s reproductive rights in its final statement of goals.  That omission was considered a step backward for the empowerment of the globe’s poorest women.

The pope, for all his openness, is pretty savvy when it comes to dealing with reporters.  He spent a lot of time chatting them up on the plane to Rio.  But he refused to answer any questions, joking that “journalists aren’t saints.  “I’m here among lions.”

The pope need not have worried.  They turned out to be lambs, lionizing the leader of the world’s more than one billion Catholics.


*Postscript: On the trip back, the pope, perhaps happy with the trip’s coverage, did agree to answer questions and revealed a tolerance for gay priests. He also said that all options were open for his handling of the scandal-plagued Vatican bank.


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