He is, by some accounts (Newsweek), “the world’s most recognizable person.” To others (USA Today) he is “the leading player on the world stage.” In 1994 Time named him “Man of the Year.” Wherever he goes—and he has traveled more than any pope, and perhaps any person, ever—his presence dominates media coverage, and for a very good reason. In Manila in 1995, five million people assembled to hear him say Mass, reported to be the largest gathering of human beings in world history. Wherever he goes, people pour onto the streets just to catch a glimpse of him, and the cameras are there to record it.
He has transformed the papacy by understanding the power and the limitations of the modern media. He is everywhere, yet remains remote. His image flashes across a billion screens, yet he retains the mystery and the dignity of his calling. Perhaps as no other figure before him he uses the media without being used up by their voracious appetite. He accomplishes this because he is media-savvy without being media-obsessed. For him, media coverage serves a purpose, and he uses it as he would a tool or an instrument, for the purpose for which it was designed. When the demands of the media are outside or beyond that purpose, he ignores them.
His insouciance in this respect can be baffling to the media themselves, accustomed as they are to celebrities and politicians hungry for their approval. When Time was about to name him “Man of the Year,” its editors contacted the Vatican, expecting that the Holy See would want to join the magazine in a joint press conference, where perhaps the first issue could be presented personally to the Holy Father. To their amazement, they were politely rebuffed. The pope, it seems, wasn’t interested.
I feel a little sympathetic toward Time’s editors for their minor faux pas, because anyone in the media knows how easy it is to become confused about one’s own importance. Media people are romanced, catered to, and treated as mini-celebrities in their own right; it’s only natural that they begin to feel that what they do is actually important. But of course the messenger isn’t really that important; it is the message that counts.
In the jargon of the new media, the pope is the ultimate content-provider. To him the media are just that: media. They are channels of distribution. These channels are open to be filled. They can be filled with the moment’s news, or with numbing banality, or with filth. They can also be filled with the good news.
It is, of course, time-honored practice for politicians and celebrities and social do-gooders, including many conservative do-gooders, to grouse about the media, to complain about their shortcomings, and to bemoan their infatuations. The pope never does. Quite the opposite, he seems to revel in the possibilities of what the modern media can accomplish. Far from being frightened by their power, he seems invigorated by it. After 21 years of being the most photographed, the most videoed, the most written-about person on the planet (is it possible that he has read even a tenth of the millions of words that have been printed about him?), John Paul II still approaches the subject of the media with a robust enthusiasm for its possibilities. L’Osservatore Romano quoted him on the media earlier this year (italics in original):
The Church’s culture of remembrance can save the media culture of transitory “news” from becoming a forgetfulness which corrodes hope; and the media can help the Church to proclaim the Gospel in all its enduring freshness. . . . The Church’s culture of wisdom can save the media culture of information from becoming a meaningless accumulation of facts; and the media can help the Church’s wisdom to remain alert to the array of new knowledge now emerging. The Church’s culture of joy can save the media culture of entertainment from becoming a soulless flight from truth and responsibility; the media can help the Church to understand better how to communicate with people in a way that appeals and even delights.
Note that the Holy Father addresses the modern media in their totality, as conveyers of news and information and entertainment. His definition is all-encompassing, as applicable to an Internet Web site as to a network soap opera or Time magazine. But also note what the Holy Father doesn’t say. He makes no reference to reporters, or editors, or producers. The traditional gatekeepers and interpreters, he seems to have recognized from the first, have been swept aside. The first McLuhanesque pope sees the world as McLuhan’s “global village,” where mass media are the connecting tissues. The challenge he presents, and the challenge he has set for himself since the night he first stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s, is the message that will flow through these tissues.
The McLuhanesque Pope
Where did he learn it? After all, he grew to maturity as a man and as a leader behind the Iron Curtain, deprived of newspapers that printed real news and isolated from the media-saturated world of the West. Yet from the first moments of his papacy he seemed to have an instinctive grasp of how to parlay his youthful vigor and telegenic looks into an image ready-made for mass media. He is, of course, an accomplished actor; before entering the priesthood he was a rising star in the Polish national theater. Like Ronald Reagan, he was trained in how to communicate with a smile, a gesture, and a glance. He is also a poet, deeply imbued with the effect and power of words. But his work as a bishop in a communist-controlled country seems to have been the formulative experience. In reaching his people, in keeping the faith alive, and in instilling a quiet hope for freedom he learned how to reach over the heads of the gatekeepers and interpreters, the minor apparachiks whose only jobs were to keep truth from being spoken and hope from gaining a voice. He found ways—in letters to be read from pulpits, in religious tracts, in diocesan newspapers—to reach around the gatekeepers and to talk directly to his flock.
He came to the throne of St. Peter’s—inheriting a much larger flock—in 1978. His election presaged the peaceful revolution that would topple the Berlin Wall, but it also coincided with another revolution that would have consequences as profound as the fall of communism. At the time satellite technology had just been applied to television signals; by 1980 CNN was launched via satellite as the first 24-hour news channel. Apple introduced its computer in 1979, and IBM followed in 1981; almost simultaneously Hayes introduced the first modem. By 1989 more than 8,500 cable systems in the United States were broadcasting 40 new cable stations to 50 million households.
The media’s traditional gatekeepers stood placidly by their gates, secure in their power, seemingly unaware that all around them huge gaps had been opened in the walls and the gates were being bypassed. The circulations of America’s major newspapers has dropped like a stone; in a decade, the network news broadcasts have lost more than half their viewership.
They didn’t see it coming, and they didn’t seem to grasp it while it was happening. In 1979, on the occasion of the Holy Father’s first visit to the United States, the gatekeepers seemed quite confident about their duty and their privilege. Their duty was to explain the phenomenon of this Polish pope to the American reader; their privilege was to explain sophisticated American attitudes to this provincial Polish cleric. For many reporters and editors, the pope’s visit was their first encounter with Catholicism as a news event. They knew, of course, that the election of a Polish pope had been of historic importance (after all, they read their own wires). And Solidarity’s emergence had generated countless stories in their papers and on their broadcasts. But the pope’s visit allowed domestic reporters their first glimpse into this mysterious creature called the Catholic Church. To their surprise and delight they discovered it contained people who were enlightened and modern and broad-minded—just like them. Now that was news: Catholics who were pro-abortion, Catholics who were for a married priesthood, and nuns—nuns!—who were educated and bright and openly arguing against a male hierarchy. Poll numbers showed, when the questions were asked the right way, that a majority of Catholics agreed with them. (To take one of my favorites, a CNN poll from the period found that 67 percent of American Catholics said “abortion is not morally wrong in every case.” This was trumpeted as earth-shaking, even Church-toppling, news. Actually, it is Church dogma; see Thomas Aquinas.)
Those were heady days for the American media. A curtain had been lifted on the subterranean world of Catholicism. This remarkably vital and astute pope made for good copy; he might be handicapped by the provincialism of his Polish background, but he’d soon catch up with the rest of the modern world. The American media were there to help, the New York Times leading with seven separate pieces by such writers as Anna Quindlan and a series by Kenneth Briggs on the American Catholic Church and her problems. The networks were inclined to be even more helpful, running extensive interviews with spokesmen of various causes at odds with the Church’s Magisterium.
But the media were respectful. The size of the crowds that greeted the pope, and their evident joy and warmth, were convincing demonstrations of an authentic phenomenon, whether one understood it or not. Editors, especially in the cities the pope visited—New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago—were not about to go out of their way to alienate their Catholic readers. On the other hand, the dissidents made good copy better. Conflict and controversy are the meat and potatoes of news, and the dissidents seized the opportunity of the pope’s visit to grab their 15 minutes of fame.
The dissidents got more than 15 minutes, actually. They captured so much attention in 1979 that they overexposed themselves. By the pope’s fourth visit to the United States in 1996 the “Standard Paragraph” had been born. Everyone knows this paragraph by heart. It recites a litany that has become numbing in its familiarity, citing the pontiff’s “inflexibility” or “authoritarianism” (direct quotes) on priestly celibacy, contraception, abortion, and female priests (the only variance in the paragraph is the order of the listing; this one comes from USA Today). It may in some cases quote poll numbers; in others it quotes a dissident, usually Notre Dame’s Richard McBrien or a dissatisfied nun. The shorthand of the Standard Paragraph allowed the editor to genuflect in the direction of the dissidents without boring his readers with a repetition of their complaints. In USA Today’s 1996 headline story (“Pope Comes to USA With Eyes on Future”), it made a brief curtsy in paragraph four, showing up in full in paragraph twelve. (In an accompanying story, “Pope Rides Wave of Popularity to U.S. Visit,” it was rendered unnecessary by a sidebar, “Poll: U.S. Catholics Disagree with Pope’s Teachings.”) The Standard Paragraph was a mnemonic device, to remind readers that controversy still bubbled and to keep the newspaper from reading like a papal press release. Clearly, though, the fizz had gone out of the story, and it was revived only by a kind of ritualistic shaking.
With the pope’s 1999 visits to Mexico and St. Louis, the Standard Paragraph was an endangered species, not extinct but rarely spotted. A review of more than 500 articles finds only a few scattered mentions, mostly in articles about protestors in St. Louis in which the few dissidents who showed up were lumped together with assorted other cranks (“Jesus Was a Vegetarian,” boasted one sign, presumably held by the discoverer of a Fifth Gospel). The change of tone was telling, ranging from courteous to enthusiastic (“Pope Sparkles in St. Louis,” said the San Francisco Chronicle). The headlines trumpeted the pope’s messages (“Pope Asks Americans to Seek Higher Moral Vision”) or noted the adoration of the crowds (“JPII Brings Tears, Cheers”).
Accentuate the Positive
The generally positive treatment of the pope in 1999 is all the more unusual because reporting will forever seek out conflict. The best stories are good guys vs. bad guys, stick-in-the-muds vs. innovators, tradition vs. change. But the old categories of black vs. white never quite captured this technicolor papacy, and soon the media began to realize it. The pope remained firmly unenlightened, holding to and pronouncing the truth of the Catholic faith with a fervor and insistence that seemed to increase as the years went on. And the public seemed almost as obdurate. No matter how many times the media bought whatever the dissidents were selling and tried to pass it along to their readers, Americans seemed not to hear, responding to their pope as to a shepherd’s call. They may not follow it, but they heeded it. By 1996 U.S. News &World Report reported that 83 percent of American Catholics endorsed John Paul’s leadership of the Church. In other words, his support among his flock in the United States was nearly unanimous.
Meanwhile, the great changes in the media world were being felt, and the gatekeepers were no longer so secure in their privileges. If it seemed in character in 1979 for the New York Times on its front page to lecture a new pontiff on such matters as the American temperament and modern feminism, in 1999 such advice from a newspaper would appear supercilious even to the reader who might agree with it.
With changes in the media came also a change of mind, a discernible shift in attitudes toward this pope and the Church in general. The very people who once thought it their place to lecture a pope began to discover they had much to learn from him. The collapse of communism brought immeasurable prestige personally to John Paul II and to the Church. But the world travels—beamed by satellite into newsrooms as well as living rooms—had their effect, too: Catholicism displayed its diversity in great swatches of multiethnic and multinational colors while reveling in its unity in the presence of its pope. To Protestant and secular America, that this great cacophony merged into a single voice was an education; the universality of the Catholic Church, and her adulation of its pope, came as a revelation. Nowhere was it clearer than in 1998 in Cuba. The American media converged on Cuba for the pope’s visit because it was nearby (fewer viewers means smaller expense accounts) and because it promised to be a great story (good vs. evil, John Paul vs. Castro, in the traditional black and white of great stories). The confrontation never happened, because Castro—appearing in a suit and tie—was so visibly moved himself by the pope’s presence (and so desperate for his approval). But the American media saw firsthand what the rest of the world had seen for themselves: the pope not as a curmudgeon holding on to old doctrine but as a messenger of ever-fresh good news in a beleaguered land.
If that didn’t fit with the black-and-white stories of the early years, neither did the pope’s messages. In Mexico, once again, he attacked the disparity of wealth between North and South. In the United States, he launched a blistering attack on the death penalty. These were not new themes to this pope, but they were enough to confuse whatever members of the media were still caught up in the categorical thinking of past years. If he’s a conservative, why is he against that? If he’s a liberal, why is he for that? The complexity of it is more than a media-mind is trained to bear.
Meanwhile, the Holy Father could not care less whether the interpreters and gatekeepers keep up with him or not. He broke through them years ago. He has a message to deliver, and the globe is his village. In the age of technology we are just now entering, he may be looked back on as the world’s first modern man.