Friday, February 15, 2013

Making smoke and mirrors out of smoke and mirrors

The AP prepares a story about the upcoming conclave.
If you didn’t know by now, you’ll learn it eventually: Sometimes the media has to stretch whatever materials it has on hand to make a hit piece look like topical journalism.

For instance, if I wrote for, say, the Associated Press, I could scrape through a lot of history to pull together a story about Vatican secrecy.  A lot can be said about it, especially in contrast to various Scriptural texts that could be taken to mandate transparency.  It’s a good subject that deserves some discussion.  But it’s just not topical—Oh, wait!  They just revealed that Pope Benedict hit his head on a trip to Mexico last year.  And a couple of days ago, we learned that he had a “secret” operation to have batteries in his pacemaker replaced.  And haven’t they been building his retirement home for a while?

Now we’ve got TOPICALITY! Except that, as is baseline standard with the MSM, we still manage to get some things wrong.

For one thing, there was no attempt to cover up the fact that John Paul I’s body was discovered by a nun; nuns have been part of the papal household for centuries.  Quelle surprise!  For another, the head injury wasn’t “kept secret”; it was simply not worth mentioning at the time and would hardly be worth mentioning now if everyone weren’t looking for some dramatic explanation for Papa Bene’s renunciation.  Third, “Papa Bene’s retirement home” is also known as the Monastery Mater Ecclesiae, which has housed nuns whose job was solely to pray for the Pope and the Church, and has been under renovation since November.  So far all that’s been said is that Benedict will spend a period of prayer and reflection there after his stay at Castel Gandolfo; if that’s where he’ll spend the rest of his life, it hasn’t been said in so many words.  Whether the nuns will be there too — shrug?

The secret battery change?  Perhaps we needed to know that; perhaps not.  Pacemaker battery replacement is actually done on an outpatient basis, and the patient is usually not even knocked out for it.  Nevertheless, had something gone wrong, it would have been very embarrassing for Fr. Federico Lombardi, who has had more than his share of goofs during his tenure at the Vatican Press Office.

“On the day of the announcement,” the AP thunders, “the Vatican cast it as a bolt from the blue, saying almost nobody knew but Benedict himself.  Soon, however, prominent clergymen — one not even Catholic — began changing the tone and saying they were not surprised.”  

And ... ?  This matters how?

 As the cliché reminds us, hindsight is always 20/20, and people are never surprised or shocked in the past tense when all the clues are right there.  The fact is, though, that no one expected it because we expect popes to die in office; the thought of a pope quitting was up until Tuesday as unthinkable as flying a jumbo jet into a skyscraper was prior to 9/11/01.  Now, can we really make this post-hoc omniscience part of the culture of secrecy? Seriously?

In short, what could have been an interesting and thoughtful story about Vatican and papal secrets is botched from beginning to end because the authors wanted to tie it to Benedict's abdication, most likely because, without that topical relevance, it wouldn't have been printed at all.  That, unfortunately, is the problem with a free press: you get what you pay for.