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Before entering the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to begin the conclave to elect a new pope, Catholic Cardinals attended a Mass at St. Peter's Basilica.

Andrew Medichini, Associated Press

Conclave media circus: Why this reporter's staying home

  • Article by: Jeffrey Weiss
  • Real Clear Religion
  • March 12, 2013 - 2:06 PM

I feel sorry for most of the reporters who have thronged to Rome this week. I’ve seen estimates that as many as 4,000 are there to “cover” the selection of a new pope.

The truth is that, for about 99 percent of them, they’re a hunting pack with hardly a prayer of finding prey. Whatever importance there is in the choice of the man who will follow Benedict XVI is a story that can best be explored far from St. Peter’s Square. And yet, even in these budget-strained times, many media companies want to have somebody there for every puff of pope-ballot smoke.

I feel their pain because, in 2005, I was part of the pack. At the time, I was a religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News. The Dallas diocese is among the nation’s largest, with more than a million members. So after John Paul II died, my bosses wanted a presence in Rome.

I spent ten days abroad. Wrote seven stories with Italian or Vatican City datelines. Some of them still read fine. But did I uncover a nugget of news about the process of papal selection? Of course not. And neither will the vast majority of the current frantic 4,000.

There are exceptions, of course: Those are the few reporters like, say, National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen who have long experience and deep familiarity with the men who will pick the next pope. And the Italian papers that cover the Vatican like a home sports team have been somehow publishing what amounts to a daily play-by-play of the Cardinals’ closed meetings. (If you can’t trust a Cardinal to keep an oath of secrecy, who can you trust? It’s not like any of them have a history of duplicity over important issues, right?)

But most of that 4,000-member horde of journalists could no more identify a random Cardinal than they could pick an individual bird from a flock of cardinals. Who is going to talk to them who knows anything about what’s actually going on?

Ann Rodgers is the truly excellent religion reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette whose analysis of American Catholicism (among other topics) is always worth reading. This week, she was reduced to writing a story -- also covered by many others -- that the American cardinals would no longer be giving content-free “news” conferences. She mentioned in the same piece that the Vatican’s official “news” conferences were given in Italian. And only reporters who regularly cover the Vatican were allowed to ask questions.

Worth the time and money and stress of travel, with the pressure from back home to produce news? I’ll ask her when she gets back.

On my trip in 2005, I wrote a perfectly nice color story about John Paul II’s funeral. A short piece about the security for the event. A description of the Sistine Chapel as set up for the conclave, from a short tour given to some of the reporters. A musing about the deep influence of Christianity on Italian culture, based on a day trip to Assisi. A food story about a visit to a wonderful Roman deli, highlighted by a taste of cheese that, back then, was more than $50 a pound.

And by total coincidence (or Providence, depending on your theology), I had been booked to attend a conference in Rome that very week, presented by an American interfaith organization, where the reporters would gain access to some high-level Vatican officials. That event went off almost as planned, so I was able to toss together some reasonably informed speculation from some pretty good sources.

For grins, let’s see how my experts did:

“The next pope will need to think about Islam, Buddhism and Pentacostalism as he guides the Roman Catholic Church into the 21st century, a top Vatican interfaith leader said this week.

“’It’s the church in a pluralistic world. How do we deal with that?’ said Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald.”

Fitzgerald was John Paul II’s president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue -- the Vatican’s official link to all other faiths, except Judaism.

The next pope will likely focus some attention on the growth of interest in Buddhism -- not so much in Asia as in Western countries, the archbishop told me.

Buddhism, he said, appeals “to people in a post-Christian world...who are looking for something spiritual and see that in Buddhism. We see that as a challenge to our community. Why are they [onetime Catholics] going to other communities?”

What happened? Benedict XVI stepped in an early cow patty with Muslims and didn’t make a point of talking about Buddhism, far as I know.

“The new pope will have to work for a ‘general fostering of Catholic ethos’ in Catholic schools and universities,” said Archbishop Michael Miller, then the secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education.

That’s still an issue the next pope will be dealing with, I’d say.

“One concern that will be on the next pope’s list, though perhaps not near the top, the archbishop said: Whether celibate homosexuals should be allowed to attend seminaries and become priests.”

Hm. “Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation,” wrote Benedict XVI unambiguously in his book Light of the World.

“The next pope will need to be even more media savvy, and in ways John Paul II couldn’t have imagined at the start of his papacy, said the Rev. Steven Lopes of San Francisco, a graduate student at Rome’s Pontifical North American College.”

This one’s another clear winner: Benedict XVI became the first Tweeting pontiff. Betcha the next guy gets even more digital.

But the truth is that I could have done much the same talking head story from Dallas. And the truth is that the most important issues -- why and how the papacy matters -- are much more easily detailed back home and a long way from the mob.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be reporters there. If, perish the thought, something evil happens, the world will be well served by having journalists in place. And there is some value for beat reporters to hang out with the penumbra of characters, sources and experts who gravitate to an event like this.

But in 2013, anything that happens in public will be streamed live to anybody with a smartphone. Maybe it still matters to readers and viewers to see a familiar name covering an event like this in situ. But if there ever were a journalistic justification, it’s mostly long gone.

I’ll be looking for a story by a visiting reporter in the next week or so that has actual news that couldn’t have been as easily gleaned from any seat in the world with wifi and phone. If you spot one, let me know.

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Jeffrey Weiss is a veteran religion reporter based in Dallas. He wrote this column for Real Clear Religion.

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