Friday, April 8, 2005

God Help Us

Is the coverage of the pope as "leader to all" the latest sign of journalistic apocalypse?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2005 at 4:00 AM

We know that God speaks to and through certain Memphis newspaper and television reporters and columnists. We know because they tell us. What some of us didn't know, until The Commercial Appeal told us in a front-page headline, was that Pope John Paul II was "Father to some, leader to all."

The death of the pope, obviously, is a big story. The pope was a leader in a way that, say, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton were not. But the leader of the Roman Catholic Church is not "leader to all," if a leader is someone who moves followers to a mutual goal.

In Memphis, there are churches, temples, and mosques of many different religions and denominations, and there are Jewish, Southern Baptist, Episcopal, and Evangelical Christian schools, as well as Catholic schools. What distinguishes Memphis and Shelby County from other parts of Tennessee, however, is the number of children who attend public schools. With a combined enrollment of nearly 160,000 students, Memphis and Shelby County have more than twice as many public school students as consolidated Nashville and Davidson County, which has approximately the same population.

Calling the pope leader to all or, as some newspaper and television commentators did, a "rock star," is a symptom of the modern media's cloyingly familiar treatment of "newsmakers" as stars, whether they be Pope John Paul, Terri, Jacko, J-Lo, Charles and Camilla, Pau, or some contestant on American Idol.

The CA's star treatment of the pope was magnified by its redesigned front page emphasizing white space and a single story and color picture. A large photograph and one story about the pope, along with a column by David Waters, filled almost the entire front page of the newspaper on Saturday and Sunday. Not until Monday did the CA run a story giving the barest outline of the controversies in the Catholic Church over sexual abuse scandals, abortion, celibacy, the declining number of priests, and the role of laymen.

Compare that with the one-column headline and subheads on Pope John Paul's death in Monday's Wall Street Journal: "In Changing World, Church Faces Choice Over Pope's Role" and "John Paul's Charisma Made Up For His Hands-Off Style; Insider or Non-European?" and "Leading 1.08 Billion Faithful."

All of that in exactly four square inches.

The almost-all Pope John Paul front pages of the CA were inevitable. In the previous two weeks, the paper had already given star treatment to UT women's basketball coach Pat Summitt ("880!") and the Memphis Grizzlies' injured forward Pau Gasol ("Gasol's Back"). But sports, at least in the minds of some people, is still less serious than death. Therefore, the death of Terri Schiavo on March 31st got an even bigger color picture under the biggest headline ("1963-2005") since the 9/11 terror attacks. The death of the pope two days later demanded nothing less.

The other trend at work in the print and broadcast media is a variant on the old television news adage, "If it bleeds, it leads." A little tweaking, and that becomes "If it believes, it leads."

Face it. Disturbing pictures of crime and war and stories by nasty naysayers are not a good way to bond with readers and viewers in a competitive business. Some of us were too slow, stubborn, and thick-skulled to recognize the role that churches and faith play in daily life. In January, a page-one story in the CA about a woman who died at her husband's funeral was headlined, "Prayers answered: God grants wish to reunited husband and wife -- in death." It was a sweet story, despite the headline, and it took fresh eyes to do it that way.

There is a line, however, between compassion and pandering, and nowhere is it more apparent than on the sports pages, which is an anachronism because sports often winds up on the front page. It is well known that God and Jesus Christ favor certain athletes and teams. On Saturday, television viewers of the NCAA men's Final Four saw a player for the University of Illinois pointing skyward at the end of the Illini's win over Louisville. The Commercial Appeal explained that the player was not proclaiming that his team is number-one. He was "pointing to Jesus" who apparently favored the Fighting Illini to the godforsaken Cardinals. Pointing to Jesus is as commonplace in sports as slapping hands. What would really be worth a story would be a player who walked off the court smiling and pointing to the sky after losing.

That didn't happen. On Monday, Illinois lost to North Carolina, whose players made do with hugs and handshakes. The headline in the CA: "Tar Heel Heaven. May powers UNC to the promised land that coach pursued for so long." n

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