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Television news gave us wall-to-wall gushing by reporters and anchors, some of it embarrassing for a reporter to watch. Meanwhile, the print press, albeit with an occasional splash of irrational exuberance showing here and there, by and large provided balance and nuance and full-blown information. Such was the coverage of the election of a new shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI.
It is of course old news that television journalism has become the medium of spectacle, catastrophe, emotion, and entertainment, while the print press remains the primary—and often lonely—conveyor of in-depth, grown-up coverage. But as I watched the elevation of the new pontiff on television and read about it in newspapers and on news websites, it occurred to me that this dichotomy had reached new extremes.
Television exists these days on showbiz hoopla and raw feelings—people weeping, people cheering, people wrapped in blankets outside their burning house. And of course “reality” shows—people competing to eat the most live maggots. Good newspapers and news websites also like drama, but not at the expense of other information important to the honest telling of a story—they do both. In the extravaganza at Vatican City, television news organizations swept nearly all the critiques of the popular John Paul II—born Karol Wojtyla in a town near Krakow, Poland, who died on April 2 at age 84—and of his successor, Joseph Ratzinger, from the Bavarian region of Germany, under the ecclesiastical rug.
A CNN anchor, in a typical TV snapshot, prompted a woman in St. Peter’s Square for her reaction to the smoke and bell ringing and pomp of Cardinal Ratzinger’s elevation. “Did it take your breath away?” he breathed urgently. “Yes, yes,” she answered, “that’s what it was.”
A Fox anchor took the heavy breathing a little further. Saying that he had covered a lot of big stories in his time, but referring to that moment when the new pope came out on the balcony, arms outstretched to the crowd below, the Fox fellow exclaimed: “I don’t think I’ve seen anything in my life as magical as this!”
(Fox also gave us one moment of unintended typecasting humor when one of its commentators with knowledge of the new pope described him thusly: “He’s a German. When you see him give a mass, he is organized, calm, well prepared . . . like a well-working German machine.”)
President Bush, a born-again Christian in the Protestant tradition, quickly came out on the White House lawn to greet the cameras and praise the new pope. Bush, putting his hand over his heart, said: “He’s a man who serves the Lord.” The screen gushed all over the president; that’s what television does.
In contrast, what most of the mainstream print press did with the papal story was to go into detail and present a more complex and realistic portrait of the lives and philosophies of Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor.
The new pope was limned candidly in print as a church intellectual, linguist, and writer who was beloved by many elders in the church but who had troubled a great number of lay Catholics across the world with his rigid stance on all church doctrine. As cardinal, he condemned the idea of having women priests or married priests. He similarly opposed birth control. He said that homosexuality is an “intrinsic moral evil” and that homosexuals suffer from an “objective disorder.” In sum, he is a church hard-liner.
The pope he succeeded, John Paul II, was also an unbudging traditionalist on doctrinal issues, and he was very close to the Bavarian-born Ratzinger. But he, unlike Ratzinger, seemed to please Catholics and other people worldwide with his openness, his charm, his love of children, and his obvious humanity. John Paul was a significant pope, but he was no church progressive. His pontificate quietly but steadily drew away from the more liberal sentiments of the Vatican Council II in the ’60s, which had led to the growth of the democratic theosophy that all constituents of the church—both laity and clergy—were united as the “people of God.”
Returning to the press coverage, obviously there are exceptions to the television news industry’s descent into froth. There are individuals and investigative units in the networks that still do, or try to do, fundamental, professional journalism, but they are exceptions. Their budgets have been shrunk. The network profits don’t go into informing the public.
Newspaper budgets for serious journalism have also been cut, mostly in the major chains, who still insist on profit margins of 20 to 30 percent. No other comparable business in this country makes that kind of money. Family-owned papers don’t make that kind of money. The New York Times newspaper, for instance, is believed to earn less than 10 percent net profit (figures aren’t provided for the individual components of the company), and that’s because a big chunk of the profit is poured back into the news-gathering budget.
The news business has not been all that bright of late. For one, circulation has been dropping in the print world, and messengers of doom have begun predicting an early end to the newspaper era. Still, isn’t it odd that the major national and regional papers continue to be the main source for news in the United States? Television and radio newspeople acknowledge that they get most of their story ideas by reading their morning paper. So I wouldn’t be too hasty with these parlous visions.
Quote of the week
Karl Rove, who runs both politics and policy for President Bush and is probably the country’s most accomplished spin-meister, gave a lecture on April 18 at Washington College in Maryland in which he indicted the press for more than an hour. The title of the speech was “Polarized Press: Media and Politics in the Age of Bush.”
Rove said it wasn’t Bush but the press itself that had created all the polarization:
“Reporters now see their role less as discovering facts and fair-mindedly reporting the truth and more as being put on the earth to afflict the comfortable, to be a constant thorn of those in power, whether they are Republican or Democrat.”
Note: The White House, always eager to assist reporters in “discovering facts,” would not release the text of the Rove speech. This quote comes courtesy of Dana Milbank’s Washington Post story.