The Pope and the Press

Is the Love Affair Here to Stay?

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By Teresa Tomeo

DETROIT, Michigan, MAY 22, 2008 (Zenit.org).- In watching and reading various media outlets days before the Holy Father arrived for his historic U.S visit last month to Washington D.C. and New York City, one could have easily gotten the impression that it was going to be nothing but more of the same media bias and misrepresentation.

One expected the media to round up the usual suspects, the unorthodox authors, so-called scholars and commentators who are Catholic in name only and cannot accept Church teaching on abortion, contraception, and the male priesthood, and put them on the air or quote them in print so they can once again attack the Church for not following the whims of American culture.

Whether it was HBO’s Bill Maher’s irreverent and downright sacrilegious remarks calling Benedict XVI a Nazi, and referring to the Catholic Church as a cult that houses and protects child molesters -- which he did later apologize for -- or the major broadcast networks of ABC, NBC and CBS referring to the Pope as a conservative, hardliner and traditionalist, the view from the media front did not look good.

That was, of course, until the Holy Father himself hit the media with a very pro-active one-two punch. Not only was it the Pope who first addressed the fallout from the priest sex abuse scandal here in the United States, but he did it before even landing on American soil. He discussed the sensitive and embarrassing issue during a question-and-answer session with reporters on Shepherd One. And then later in the week he met privately with several victims of the sexual abuse scandal.

Gentler reporting

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, explains it was the Pontiff’s humility and directness concerning the biggest white elephant in the room that may have forced the press to take a closer look at this Pope and make at least some effort to cover him more fairly and at least a bit more gently.

The Virginia-based center was formed more than 20 years ago to prove through research that liberal media bias not only exists, but undermines American values.

“Addressing the sex scandals on the plane [..] warmed up press coverage, and meeting with victims was even more helpful. It is encouraging how Benedict seeks as a theme of his pontificate to build hope, and you can see everyone from abuse victims to media commentators feeling more hope on this front as well,” Graham said.

Graham adds that the tone was also gentler than most expected because the media were aware of polls showing Catholics in America were favorable to Benedict XVI, and because the Holy Father didn't push politics. He did not mince words when it came to following the teachings of the Church, but as Graham says, the Pontiff stressed the theme of hope and repentance, topics that don’t exactly excite American secular journalists.

According to the Media Research Center, surveys dating all the way back to 1978 show that those working in the media in America are much more liberal than the rest of the country, with one poll showing that the majority of journalists admit that religion is not an important part of their lives.

“One, the media’s polls showed American Catholics were overwhelmingly favorable to Benedict, which makes it hard to paint him as unpopular or villainous. Two, the Pope stressed religious themes and not political ones, a recommitment to Christ and to evangelization, which secular reporters find either boring or harmless. Apologizing deeply for the sex abuse scandals also soothed the tone of the media coverage,” Graham added.

"We'd love a priest"

There were also some positive elements leading toward a kinder, gentler press that were going on behind the scenes months before the Papal coverage began in earnest. Lisa Wheeler is the executive vice president of the Maximus Media Group. Maximus is a Catholic communications and marketing company that provides orthodox Catholic spokespersons for media interviews.

“The secular media appeared to be more prepared for this major Catholic world event. We were getting calls from the major networks as early as January for various specials they were preparing in connection with the Papal visit. We were responsible for about 75 major placements on CNN, FOX, CBS, USA Today, AP, Reuters, New York Times, Newsweek and the BBC in connection with the visit,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler adds she has seen a noticeable shift in the type of experts in the mainstream media representing the Church’s views.

“For the first time we had an orthodox priest anchoring Christmas Day coverage on a major network. The requests that come in to Maximus from the major networks are typically for religious -- they want priests or nuns in their clerics to speak as commentators. During this Papal visit the majority of the commentators on mainstream television were priests. Monsignor Lisante on MSNBC, Father Morris on FOX, Father Fessio on CNN. Almost every first request from the media has been, 'we’d love a priest.' That is a huge shift in the types of requests we used to get.”

What happens now?

But it still remains to be seen whether the attempts for more balanced reporting during a special event such as the papal visit will carry through to the general coverage of faith matters, especially those dealing with the Catholic Church.

Wheeler says she could share plenty of stories to show that the liberal bias is still alive among members of the secular media, including one about a particular network who asked for “a Catholic who will talk about how if the Pope really wants to heal the victims of sexual abuse he will change the Church’s position on same-sex marriage.”

“First I was stunned. I wanted to say, 'Are you serious?'” What a way to take five giant steps backward. My response was, 'Do you want an accurate story of this issue, or do you just want to start controversy. There is no authentic Catholic who will speak with any authority on that topic.' Needless to say we had to pass on assisting them with that particular segment,” said Wheeler.

Overall, even though it doesn’t seem like the folks at the Media Research Center or Maximus will be out of a job any time soon, Wheeler stresses that she is encouraged by what she says has transpired in that last three years with regard to the secular media.

She finds them more open and more receptive to covering topics critical to cultural change, and covering them with an authentic perspective. And she reminds us with God all things are possible, especially when Christ and the Church have such a powerful and humble witness as Benedict XVI.

“My feelings, based on the reactions that I have heard behind the scenes from members of the media are that Pope Benedict really surprised the secular media," said Wheeler. "They have found him authentic, unscripted, and unrelenting in his candor about issues that affect the country and the world.

"My own hope is that many secular members of the media who covered this visit, read, and wrote about the addresses of the Holy Father, will have their own hearts transformed so that a renewal of the media can occur.”