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Holy Bad PR! Vatican Changes Pope's Press Remarks About AIDS and Condoms

By Ben L. Kaufman · April 1st, 2009 · On Second Thought
The Vatican doesn’t get it.

I don’t mean condoms, Islam or a Holocaust-denying bishop. I’m talking about the Internet.

When Pope Benedict XVI asserted that condoms worsen Africa’s HIV/AIDS plague, bumbling Vatican aides corrected him, either ignoring or unaware that accurate news coverage was everywhere forever on the Internet.

The unwitting opera buffa began when Benedict told reporters accompanying his first papal visit to black Africa that AIDS is a “tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”

Whatever he meant to communicate, he outraged a lot anti-AIDS workers, not least because most AIDS deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s also a dogma of AIDS prevention that condoms block the sexual transmission of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus blamed for AIDS about 90 percent of the time.

Responding to uncommonly frank international criticism of the pope and his statement, bureaucrats back in Vatican City amended his remark in ways that would make Reagan and W’s White House presidential explainers blush.

First, the Vatican altered its official Internet version of the papal statement to say condoms “risked” aggravating the problem. Then it changed the Italian word Benedict used for condom from common “preservativi” to the more general “profilacttici.” And then it changed the official Internet text back to “preservativi.”

The Times of London reported these changes in detail, saying, “Reporters who recorded the interview on the flight said the recordings showed that the pope had used the word ‘preservativi’ and not ‘profilattici.’ In addition Benedict had not said that reliance on condoms ‘risked’ aggravating the problem, as the amended version had it, but rather that it ‘even aggravated/aggravates it’ or, as some media translated his Italian, ‘increased’ it. … The Pope’s speeches and homilies as released by the Vatican are usually regarded as sacrosanct. He is deemed to have delivered the officially released written version even if he does not do so for any reason or if he omits parts of the written text.”

In all fairness, we have no idea of the fullness of what Benedict hoped to say, but his comment to reporters reflects Roman Catholic teaching that all forms of artificial contraception — including the use of condoms for that purpose — are morally illicit; heterosexual intercourse is meant to lead to procreation.

That opposition to condoms might be less absolute than commonly assumed, given the subtleties and nuances of Roman thinking. According to a knowledgeable friend, “There are differences of opinion within the Vatican as to whether condoms might be acceptable when used by married couples trying avoid disease, such as AIDS. There apparently is a study of this issue going on right now which will lead to a document. I presume the argument in favor of that position would involve secondary effect — the user’s intention is not contraception but to avoid disease.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• Thirty years ago, Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty, and I wanted to cover the first return of captured Arab land at the Sinai town of El Arish. It was a story that spoke to my every instinct. Enquirer Editor Luke Feck, who sent me to Panama the year before to cover butterfly collecting for the zoo, again found money, and I was on my way to the Middle East for six weeks.

At dawn on the day of the handover, journalists boarded military buses at the government press center in Jerusalem. Anyone with a camera had to point it at themselves and fire off at least one shot. My old German cameras — no motors, no flip-up mirrors — were so quiet that an officer had to lean down and listen as I cranked off two or three frames.

Hours later, we walked around dusty El Arish — southwest of the Gaza Strip — and assembled in a press area to watch the official ceremony. The Israel Defense Force lowered Israel’s flag and Egyptians raised theirs; 12 years of occupation ended.

IDF buses took us back to Jerusalem, where we filed our stories and images by cable in that pre-digital, pre-satellite era.

A footnote: I hoped to reach Cairo by bus once the border was open at El Arish. It didn’t happen. We were told that neither government could find anyone who wanted to work there for customs/passport control. So I took the old way, by air through a third country; Cairo-Tel Aviv flights weren’t possible yet either unless you were a “highly placed State Department official with a heavy German accent,” as one reporter described Henry-who-may-not-be-named-Kissinger during shuttle diplomacy.

Before I left Cincinnati, I drafted a wish list of other stories to justify three weeks on assignment and three weeks on vacation in Israel and Egypt. This included a day with Cincinnati political scientist Wasif Abboushi at the Palestinian Bir Zeit University and Sadat’s visit to Beersheba. As an environment reporter, I interviewed Israel’s water commissioner about water issues and he said he planned to pump the occupied West Bank dry; that brought two Israeli “diplomats” to our home, asking how I got the inflammatory story. I told them, “Go ask him.”

I returned to the Sinai three times. The lovely Israeli seaside town of Yamit — also being returned to Egypt — included a planned meeting with a cantor from Amberley Village and a chance encounter with a housewife from Finneytown.

A visit to the U.S. Sinai Field Mission monitoring station revealed how buried sensors detect movement through strategic mountain passes between the desert and the Suez Canal. A third trip brought me to St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

In Cairo, Egypt’s lonely ambassador to the Arab League bought me a Coke at the Nile-side hotel bar, asking what I’d seen and heard in Israel; Arab League ambassadors had quit Cairo in protest over the treaty, and his official sources were untrustworthy. The minister of state for foreign affairs offered insights into Egypt’s frustration over Arab rejection of the peace treaty and his country’s historic leading role in the region. The minister of tourism laughingly said he planned a resort at El Arish; he wanted to water ski where he fought in the first Israeli-Arab war.

Of course, there were local angles. In the Upper Egypt Christian village of Akhmim, the Loveland-based Grail movement created a workshop where young women earned unheard-of incomes weaving and embroidering wonderful cloth.

Bill Foley, Cairo AP photographer and former Enquirer intern, was a wise guide: Beware of restaurants with refrigerators (that often work sporadically) and meat we didn’t hear killed, he said. Four years later, Foley won the Pulitzer Prize for photos of the Christian militia massacres of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.

• A local cautionary note from research at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs: “Do Newspapers Matter?” The study, released last month, says that in the year after The Cincinnati Post closed “fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the suburbs most reliant on The Post, incumbents became more likely to win reelection, and voter turnout fell. … (N)ewspapers — even underdogs such as The Post, which had a circulation of just 27,000 when it closed — can have a substantial and measurable impact on public life.”

• Among the ideas floating in the sea of newspaper despair: Fill the local daily with local news that readers can’t get elsewhere and let them find their national and international news on TV and the Internet (where they say they get it now). If people subscribe, advertisers will come.

The New York Times’ discovery last week of GlobalPost.com trails CityBeat (On Second Thought, Jan. 21) while The Wall Street Journal embraces The Enquirer’s ancient mantra of immediacy, “write for the web, update for the paper.”

GlobalPost is an American for-profit venture that offers freelancers’ free in-depth stories to complement traditional news services’ “deadline every minute” reporting. GlobalPost plans to add paid subscriptions for special features.

Elsewhere in Manhattan, Rupert Murdoch’s Journal tells reporters their performance reviews will include stories posted on Murdoch’s Dow Jones news wire and updated for The Journal. This isn’t crazy. A successful Internet news site must offer something competitors don’t, won’t or can’t. The Journal has the people and the content. The crunch will come as daily paper reporters and editors accommodate the wildly accelerated pace demanded by the Internet. Good luck, mates.

• An Enquirer banner headline says, “Mental health a teen danger.” You think health’s dangerous? Try mental “illness.”

• Recent Enquirer changes to Sunday Forum section allows Sharon Collidge to pursue Cincinnati’s dilatory lead cleanup. On March 29, she hammers the health effects of health department ineptitude. And take a look at the back page for fine photos: Gary Landers’ image of ailing child, her parents and health commissioner in the background and Michael Keating’s portrait of a man with peeling toxic paint that’s the most common threat to young children.

• Here’s a tip for a graduate thesis: Compare and contrast Enquirer coverage of the Fairfax drunk driving charges against then-UC coach Bob Huggins and Cincinnati Symphony’s Paavo Jarvi. Class, not race, is our last great bias.

• It’s so Cincinnati (Enquirer): Women of the Year, chosen by the paper in large part for their volunteering, get elegant full page presentation announcing their selection. A few days later, a smaller, plainer presentation in a Sunday business section announces the YWCA’s career women of the year. It’s like the old putdown, “She bought her silver.” Makes me nostalgic for the Blue Book and Enquirer Society page, which identified those to whom we owed deference; that was news I could use.

CityBeat colleague Kevin Osborne reports that The Enquirer plans to use bloggers, Facebook and other “social” sites to supplement local coverage and build audiences. It extends the practice of providing news however audiences want it, and using other people’s stuff makes sense if the editors have the energy to screen what they embrace. The downside is the risk of becoming doorman to a load of crap. I also wonder about local news if reporters are busy servicing faux relationships on social sites.

• A story tip: What have the economy and competing demands for public works done to Cincinnati Park Board plans to build a restaurant and expanded parking in Burnet Woods? If anyone looks into this, ask for the economic/social/recreational justifications for the loss of green space and adding a restaurant to the culinary-rich Ludlow Avenue business district. The park board has great graphics for the proposed site along Clifton Avenue.

• The February edition of LFI (Leica Fotografie International) includes a teaser for the next issue with a photo of the I-75 Jesus in Butler County. In response to my email, the photographer, Nina Berman, wrote, “The Leica portfolio is being done in conjunction with the recent publication of my book Homeland, which has the Monroe Jesus (day and night) version in it, and draws from a series I did called Megachurches.”

• Juan Williams remains a problem for ethically challenged National Public Radio as he continues to offer his opinions on both NPR and Fox. At embarrassed NPR’s request, Fox is dropping references to NPR. Williams has done double duty for nine years, and NPR rarely mentions Fox when it offers his “analysis” for public radio audiences. NPR apparently thinks it solved its ethical relations problem by asking Fox to drop Williams’ NPR affiliation. Wrong. As NPR’s ombuds says, “Williams tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox.”

• We need a “transparency watch.” The Federal Aviation Administration says it wants to block public access to records of bird strikes, including those less damaging than the one that brought a jetliner down on the Hudson River recently. Andrew Malcolm reports in The Los Angeles Times that Obama barred the news media when he was honored by black community newspapers in the National Newspaper Publisher Association as newsmaker of the year. Jim Romenesko at the Poynter Institute posts a note saying that Al Gore barred anyone with a press pass from a recent speech to a trade group convention. “Special Notice: Photography, recording, web casting and any other reproduction of Vice President Al Gore's speaking appearance is strictly prohibited.” Maybe the global warming maven should just chill.

• Environment journalists mused online about the unintended effect of newspaper closures: nothing to wrap fish and chips, insulate houses, pad college Care packages, line bird cages, paper train puppies, tear into strips for crafts projects, start fires, polish silver, clean windows, mulch gardens, wrap/pad dishes/glasses or make Girl Scout sit-upons or printers’ and others’ paper hats.

• Will reporters tell us who this guy is when they quote him? Republican millionaire Rick Scott is spokesman for Conservatives for Patient Rights’ opposition to Obama health care reform. Politico.com and The Nation identify Scott as the exec who built the Columbia/HCA for-profit hospital chain and quit after federal agents raided company offices. Scott never was charged, but the company defrauded us of hundreds of millions of dollars and paid an $840 million criminal penalty and a $1.7 billion civil penalty.

As The Nation notes, however, “In Washington there’s no such thing as permanent disgrace. … Scott has established himself as a go-to source for reporters looking to hear from the opposition. He’s been quoted in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. He’s been on Fox, of course, railing against President Obama’s efforts to control healthcare costs. He appeared on CNN, where (as MediaMatters.org noted) host Jessica Yellin never saw fit to notify viewers that the man she introduced as running ‘a media campaign to limit government’s role in the healthcare system’ once ran a company that profited mightily from ripping off that government.

“Congressman Pete Stark, a veteran of the last bruising round of fighting over healthcare reform … recently sent his colleagues a letter hoping to refresh their memories. Calling Scott a ‘swindler,’ the letter said, ‘If he is the conservative spokesperson against healthcare reform, there is no debate.’ ”

• Update: The 1st Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston won’t review a decision that upsets centuries of defamation law. The case began when Staples fired Alan S. Noonan and the company executive vice president e-mailed the approximately 1,500 colleagues: “It is with sincere regret that I must inform you of the termination of Alan Noonan's employment with Staples. … A thorough investigation determined that Alan was not in compliance with our [travel and expense] policies.”

Noonan sued for defamation under a Massachusetts 1902 law that says truth is no defense if malice is proved. He didn’t challenge the email’s truth but instead claimed it was motivated by malice. That bizarre law apart, truth has been an absolute defense for almost three centuries. That’s why this case worries the news media even if it’s a private dispute and doesn’t involve any news medium.

Noonan’s case is in federal court because Noonan and Staples are from different states. U.S. District Court Judge Morris E. Lasker dismissed the defamation claim, saying that irrespective of the 1902 state statute, “truth is an absolute defense to a defamation action under Massachusetts law.”

Noonan appealed, and a three-judge federal appellate panel told Judge Lasker to try the defamation claim under the 1902 state law. Staples then asked all of the active judges on the 1st Circuit to reconsider its panel’s decision as a group. A majority refused, leaving the case in Judge Lasker’s court for trial.

Basically, the appeals court faulted Noonan’s arguments rather than a flaw in the 1902 law.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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