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Deconstructing Media Coverage of Pope Francis

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 19th, 2013 · On Second Thought
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After Benedict XVI quit and before cardinals began voting for his successor, daily news-free news stories left us as ignorant as the day before.  

Until Francis’ election, nothing really happened. That’s one reason NPR received 200-plus complaints, its ombudsman reported, mostly about 47 stories running during the four weeks between popes. 

As a friend and longtime Rome resident and journalist reminded me last week, “Italy’s the only place on earth where a lot happens without anything ever happening!” Francis might prove that old adage wrong. Reformers prayerfully hope so. 

My favorite nonstory was the March 11 New York Times list of Top Contenders. It suggested why each man “might be pope” or “why he might not be.” The Times included 55-year-old Luis Antonio G. Tagle — a cardinal since Oct. 24 — but said that “conservatives might question his work on the Second Vatican Council.” 

I should hope so. Liberals, too. 

Maybe “his work” was fetching espresso e` cappuccino o te con doppio brandy. Tagle was seven or eight years old when Vatican II closed in 1965.

Unlike seasoned Vatican/Rome correspondents at National Catholic Reporter and NPR, many news media relied on “consultants” for translations and a lot of time/space fillers during the interregnum. Then something happened: white smoke and a cardinal announcing, “habemus papam.” 

Francis finally emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to gushing reporters and cheering thousands in Piazza San Pietro and Via della Conciliazione. I watched CNN and listened to NPR and BBC. All apparently went well until Francis recited the Lord’s Prayer/Our Father and Hail Mary. That created an “oh, shit!” moment for BBC; its translator couldn’t turn those familiar prayers into coherent English.  

Within hours, moreover, media bliss began to evaporate. Inescapable attention turned to Francis’ actions during Argentina’s “dirty war” (1976-83) when the military dictatorship murdered possibly 30,000 real and accused opponents. 

That didn’t surprise me. My immediate reaction to the election of an Argentine cardinal was to wonder what he did during the Dirty War when the military even gave kidnap victims’ newborns to politically correct families  … after murdering the birth mothers. This was old stuff in Argentina and the answer was clear and complex. During the dictatorship, Francis led Argentine Jesuits from 1973 to 1979 and headed their seminary after that. He was and is accused of doing too little to oppose the military and to protect activist Jesuits from violence by the dictatorship. Francis has passionate defenders; the normally reticent Vatican quickly issued rebuttals. It said Francis did what he could to protect Jesuits and others. The Vatican blamed the slanders on omnipresent Latin American leftists and anti-clerical critics. 

That the first Jesuit pope came from Latin America was no surprise, given centuries of work among poor and indigenous peoples there. I’m grateful to Jesuit father and XU President Michael Graham for an Enquirer column confirming my second immediate response to the excitement over Pope Francis’ name choice. 

Yes, St. Francis (of Assisi) was a reformer in the early 13th century who turned his back on Florentine family wealth for an austere, simple life. His example still draws followers, including those whom we call Franciscans. 

But XU’s Graham recalled another Francis who came to my mind when I heard the pope’s choice: St. Francis Xavier. He was a 16th century Basque nobleman who was a founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, and whose Asian priestly ministry made him patron saint of missionaries. That said, did Francis’ name choice confuse local broadcasters? They interviewed local Franciscans although the pope is a Jesuit? Cincinnati Jesuits aren’t hard to find at St. (Francis) Xavier Church downtown and (St. Francis) Xavier University. 

Finally, a curmudgeonly grumble: Is the news media’s conventional wisdom about a “humble” new pope wrong? Did reporters confuse “humility” and “simplicity”?

As cardinal/archbishop in Buenos Aires, Francis lived simply: public transit instead of a limousine and an apartment instead of episcopal palace. He cooked his own meals and, in Rome last week, picked up his luggage and paid his own hotel bill.

Humble? He publicly challenged Argentina’s current president over same-sex marriage and free contraceptive initiatives, defended Catholic teachings on artificial contraception and abortion and, before becoming a bishop, headed the Argentine Jesuits and their seminary. 

Humility won’t discipline bishops who shield sexual predators or Vatican bank officials synonymous with corruption. God help Francis if reporters are right; Vatican insiders will eat him alive.


CURMUDGEON NOTES:

Amanda VanBenschoten’s reporting on both sides of the river has won her the new position of Northern Kentucky news columnist at the Enquirer. We’ve been friends since she was an undergrad in my ethics class. I had the pleasure of holding up a copy of the NKU’s paper, The Northerner, and showing our class her first page 1 byline. She was editor of NKU’s paper, The Northerner, and worked for a Northern Kentucky weekly where she regularly broke stories ahead of daily reporters. I warned the then-editor of the Kentucky Enquirer to follow Amanda’s work because, “she’ll eat your lunch.” Soon after, that wise editor hired Amanda. I’m looking forward to Amanda finding her own voice after years of quoting others. 

Scott Aiken died this month. We’ve been colleagues and friends for more than four decades. My wife and I moved to Cincinnati in 1967 and subscribed to the Enquirer. I called Scott to compliment the analyses of foreign events for which he’d been hired on the Enquirer editorial page. After swapping tales about our work overseas and people we knew there, he offered to introduce me to Bob Harrod, the local editor, who hired me for weekend reporting. It was the perfect antidote to grad school. That began 30-plus years at the Enquirer for me. Scott and I stayed in touch after he left daily journalism for corporate public relations.

Our friendship survived my reporting of accusations of illegal wiretapping by Cincinnati Bell; Scott was head of the telephone company’s public relations. Our last lunch shared stories of his and Anne’s visit to Rome. Sheila McLaughlin’s obit on March 9 covers his career admirably, including Scott’s accidental matchmaking for a young reporter/colleague. 

•  Urbi et orbi. Accusations of omission and commission by Pope Francis when he was a priest and Jesuit leader during Argentina’s murderous “Dirty War” demonstrate how religious leaders risk charges of collaboration when a dictatorship falls. Recent examples taint the Russian Orthodox Church and South Africa’s Dutch Reform Church. But it’s a rare priest who rises to the modern papacy without the historians, news media and others questioning their careers. Pius XII is accused of being too close to Nazi Germany as diplomat Cardinal Pacelli before World War II. John XXIII was the subject of debate whether, as a chaplain sergeant in World War I, he gave Italian troops the order to leave their trenches, “go over the top” and attack. Fourteen-year-old Joseph Ratzinger was drafted into the Hitler Youth near the end of World War II, something everyone learned when he became Benedict XVI. 

The 200-plus complaints about papal coverage moved NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos to admit he, too, was “pope-ed out.” One listener wondered if NPR stood for National Papal Radio? Schumacher-Matos blogged that “NPR aired 69 stories since Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation Feb. 11 and Pope Francis was selected as his successor Wednesday. That averages out to about two radio magazine or call-in segments per day, not including the steady drumbeat of shorter items delivered by hourly newscasts that are not transcribed. Most of the complaints have concerned the 47 stories that aired in the four weeks between the day after Benedict announced his resignation and the morning before Francis was announced — a period during which there was less major news about the subject and more ‘horse-race’ speculation about who might be selected.” 

Of course, there was a Cincinnati connection to the papal election: Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a contributing writer to Article 25, Cincinnati’s street paper dedicated to human rights, was detained by Italian police for demonstrating at the Vatican for women’s ordination. The French news agency, AFP, missed her connection to Article 25, identifying her only as “an excommunicated female priest” from Lexington, Ky., and a member of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. It was unclear whether Sevre-Duszynska was arrested or removed as a distraction when cardinals assembled to elect a new pope. AFP did not respond to CityBeat questions about her detention. She was dressed in liturgical robes and carrying a banner, “Women Priests are Here.” AFP quoted Sevre-Duszynska as saying, "As the cardinals meet for their conclave to elect the new pope, women are being ordained around the world! There are already 150 female priests in the world. The people are ready for change."

Much as I would have loved to be back in Rome covering the election of the pope, there was an even better assignment that kicked my envy into overdrive. The Economist sent a reporter on 112-day road trip through and around Africa. I once hoped to travel the mythic Cairo Road from Capetown to Cairo. Not going to happen. The Economist’s reporter did that and more. He found more cause for cautious optimism than is reflected in typical stories of rebellion, massacre, poverty, disease and stolen elections. 

Why did Cincinnati Business Courier take down its online story about Henry Heimlich’s attempts to save his reputation and that of his Heimlich Maneuver? Granted, it wasn’t flattering, but it didn’t go beyond what Curmudgeon has reported.  Reporter James Ritchie forwarded my request for an explanation and editor Rob Daumeyer responded, “Thanks for asking, but we don't have anything to add for you.”

I like the tabloid Enquirer. I worked on daily and weekly tabloids overseas; it’s a familiar format. Whether readers enjoy turning pages to find stories promoted on section covers is uncertain; with logos, ads and visuals, there’s little else.  Inside, long stories jump from page to page to accommodate reduced page size. I hope Enquirer editors recognize the power of the back page in each section and treat it as prime news space.  And I’m looking forward to reporters and editors learning to produce sharp, short stories suited to tabloids; it still reads like the old Enquirer

Curmudgeon Notes on Feb. 20 shouldn’t take credit for Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster over Obama’s assassination by drone. However, the Kentucky Republican echoed Curmudgeon’s anxieties whether Obama will use drones to kill Americans in our country.  To his credit, Paul’s almost 13-hour standup routine forced an answer from prevaricating Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder’s letter repeated and answered Paul’s question: "Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer to that question is no.” Perfectly clear? No. Who defines combat? Deadly confrontations with feds at Ruby Ridge, Wounded Knee, or David Koresh’s Branch Davidian Ranch near Waco, TX?  

Enquirer’s Cliff Peale is probing the costs of post-secondary education and how many recent debt-burdened college grads can’t find full-time employment requiring their costly degrees. Coincidentally, Cincinnati Business Courier reports how local vacancies for skilled workers threaten the region’s economy. Is the conventional wisdom — everyone must earn a BA or more — undermining our economic security? Maybe Peale can probe high school curricula and counseling to see if capable students are being steered away from well-paid blue collar careers and into crippling debt for degrees of dubious value. Maybe it’s time to interview welders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, etc., to find out what their ROI (Return on Investment) is. 

It’s an old problem: courtiers mistaking their privilege of emptying the king’s chamber pots for royal power. Poynter.org reports this example from the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service:

Dana Rosenzweig, a staffer for Vice President Joe Biden, ordered Capital News Service student reporter Jeremy Barr to delete photos he took at an event in Rockville, Md., when Biden announced an anti-domestic violence initiative

Barr quoted Rosenzweig, saying, “I need to see your camera right now.” She called Barr’s presence in the non-press area an “unfair advantage” over the other members of the media (whatever that meant). Rosenzweig watched him delete the photos, Barr said, and then she looked at Barr’s iPhone to make sure no photos were saved there. 

“I assumed that I’d violated a protocol,” Barr told Capital News Service. “I gave her the benefit of the doubt that she was following proper procedures.”

J-school Dean Lucy Dalglish complained in a letter, saying, “Rockville is not a third-world country where police-state style media censorship is expected.” Biden press secretary Kendra Barkoff responded with an apology to Dalglish and Barr. 

My comment: Dalglish is a lawyer. Before taking the dean’s job she was executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It’s ironic that her student reporter didn’t know there is no “protocol” or “proper procedures” that required him to give up his images. He should have held on to his images and phone and told Rosenzweig to fuck off.  

Intimidating a student reporter (above) wasn’t a first for Biden’s staff, jimromenekso.com added. “After the vice president made a remark during the presidential campaign that Republicans would put voters ‘back in chains,’ Politico’s Jonathan Martin reported the veep’s staff ‘tried to edit media pool reports for any potential landmines that could be seized on by Republicans and even hovered at close range to eavesdrop on journalists’ conversations with attendees at Biden rallies’.”

Republicans evince an unnatural fascination with our dead ambassador at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Often, in their frenzy of blame, Obama critics mistakenly call the torched facility the “Embassy.” Ignorance now appears to be nonpartisan. Maybe repetition has warped liberal minds.  For instance, in her blog on the thedailybeast.com, Caitlin Dickson repeated the error. In Libya, our embassy is in Tripoli, the capital.  

Jimromenesko.com says media worldwide were suckered by a satirical column on the Internet about Nobel-winning economist, professor, columnist and blogger Paul Krugman declaring bankruptcy. 

The Boston Globe’s boston.com wasn’t immune. Under the headline, “Paul Krugman Files Chapter 13 Bankruptcy,” someone using the nom de plume “Prudent Investor” wrote that “Paul Krugman, the king of Keynesianism and a strong supporter of the delusion that you can print your way out of debt, faces depression at his very own doors.  According to this report in Austria’s Format online mag, Krugman owes $7.35 million while assets to his name came in at a very meager $33,000. This will allow the economist and New York Times blogger to get a feel of how the majority of Americans feel about their dreadful lives . . . “

Romenesko says Globe editor Brian McGrory told Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, “The (Krugman) story arrived deep within our site from a third party vendor who partners on some finance and market pages on our site. We never knew it was there till we heard about it from outside.” The paper, McGrory says, did “urgent work to get it the hell down” from boston.com. McGrory adds, “The idea that we’d have a partner on our site is actually news to me” and the Globe plans to “address our relationship with that vendor.”

My comment: the editor of New England’s dominant daily has a “third party vendor” who provides content for business  pages and the editor doesn’t know what that content is? 

Paul Krugman, who isn’t bankrupt (above), responded tongue in cheek on his New York Times blog, The Conscience of a Liberal. “OK, I’m an evil person — and my scheming has paid off. On Friday I started hearing from friends about a fake story making the rounds about my allegedly filing for personal bankruptcy; I even got asked about the story by a reporter from Russian television, who was very embarrassed when I told him it was fake. But I decided not to post anything about it; instead, I wanted to wait and see which right-wing media outlets would fall for the hoax. And Breitbart.com came through! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go give a lavishly paid speech to Friends of Hamas.”

Weekly Standard senior writer Matt Labash’s March 18 column suggests he’d be a great guy to meet in a bar. Here’s a sample: “ . . . there are enough headline-hunting researchers making enough questionable discoveries (about health) that the four shakiest words in the English language have come to be, ‘a new study shows’.” And here’s another:  “I am a professional journalist. It’s my job to pretend to know things that I don’t.”



CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com




 
 
 
 

 

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