A frail, ailing 85-year-old man announces he doesn’t have the strength to continue as the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people. With the humility of one whose entire life has been in service to God and his Church, he says he will retire to quietly live out his remaining years.
Cue the laugh track and gin up the scandal rumors. It was three weeks full of journalistic contempt for the Pope and the Catholic Church.
ABC, CBS and NBC have never been fans of Pope Benedict XVI. They saw the former Cardinal Ratzinger as a “hard-liner” for “strenuously condemning divorce, homosexuality, and abortion,” as ABC’s Dan Harris put it in 2008. But the broadcast networks’ coverage of Benedict and the Catholic Church in the weeks since he announced his retirement has been bizarre – relentless negativity punctuated by often inappropriate humor and personal attacks.
From Benedict’s Feb. 11 resignation through the evening of Feb. 27, the day before it took effect, the networks referred to the Catholic Church as a troubled institution 122 times and aired the word “scandal” 87 times in 112 reports. Anchors and reporters suggested that the Church must modernize (32 times) and pressed for change in issues regarding women (7 times) and gays (13 times). At times, they trivialized the first resignation of a Pope since the 1500s as “worthy of a Dan Brown novel.”(ABC’s Harris again.) and sensationalized it by entertaining theories about other reasons Benedict might be stepping down.
The night before the Pope’s resignation took effect, ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos said he was “known as God’s Rottweiler.”
The networks also aired jokes from late-night comics about the Pope and the church, and even asked a comedian for his thoughts on the resignation.
Network bias against the church and traditional Catholicism has never been so clearly apparent as in these few weeks ending Benedict XVI’s papacy.
Laughing the Pope Away
Christians have long suspected that most of what media types know about the faith comes from comic monologues and satirical TV shows. Over the last few weeks, the networks have done their best to confirm it, choosing to air seven jokes about Benedict and the Catholic Church from late night comics.
The most inappropriate injection of comedy into the story came from CBS “This Morning” on Feb. 22, during an appearance by comic George Lopez. Lopez, although a Catholic, has repeatedly cracked pedophilia jokes about the church in the past. So of course CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell treated him as an authority on Catholicism, asking, “Do you think we’re going to have a Hispanic Pope?” Lopez had hope, because, after all, “There’s enough room for his children [in the Vatican].”
Lopez only went downhill from there. He gnawed at the Pope’s resignation saying, “But first of all, with the Pope now, you don’t quit. Listen, there’s no crying in baseball.” At O’Donnell’s prompting he went on, “There’s no quitting in Catholicism.” Lopez then said he didn’t believe the Pope’s health was the real reasons for his resignation. “You can’t throw in the holy towel and say, listen, I’m concerned about my health.” Instead, Benedict is “being squeezed out by some bad cardinals.”
Over at NBC’s “Today” show February12, the hosts expressed a particular appreciation for Jimmy Fallon. They aired a Fallon spoof of a Twitter war between the Dalai Lama and Pope Benedict XVI calling each other names. Willie Geist summarized one of the Pope’s “tweets:” “My hat is dope says the Pope.” Natalie Morales immediately added, “We love Jimmy Fallon. We love it. He’s so creative.”
Both CBS “This Morning” and “Today” aired a piece of “Saturday Night Live” concerning the Pope’s resignation on February 18. CBS showed a greater extension of the clip, beginning with a man declaring, “There is no God.” SNL’s Jason Sudeikis replied, “Hey, hey, there is a God. He has not abandoned us, OK. All right. Let’s see what’s in the news. The Pope resigned. Oh, lord.”
Jimmy Fallon material turned up again on “This Morning” February 12, saying that for Lent, “Some Catholics will give up chocolates. Some Catholics will give up alcohol and one Catholic is giving up being Pope.”
The next day, “This Morning” showed a clip of Jimmy Kimmel quipping about Benedict’s next occupation: “What will the Pope do for – for work from now on? He could become the most over qualified Wal-Mart greeter of all time …”
“This Morning” featured Conan O’Brien twice, on February 12 and February 21. In the first clip, O’Brien commented on the Pope’s surprising resignation, “Yes, a pretty dramatic change. It means he’ll go from wearing a robe all day to wearing a robe all day.” The second clip showed him turning the papal conclave into a baseball game: “It’s being reported that the next Pope could be a cardinal from Boston, which means the Vatican may soon endorse birth control but only for Yankee fans.”
David Letterman also made an appearance on “This Morning” in a clip where he said “The Vatican is already holding auditions to see who might be the next Pope. And we – we have one of those auditions…” The clip ended before proceeding to Letterman’s Vatican audition skit, which turned the cardinals’ conclave into an acrobatic exhibition.
The jokes themselves were mostly inoffensive, and they’re entirely appropriate for late-night talk shows. But to choose to feature them on news programs shows a lack of seriousness and respect. It’s difficult to imagine those shows yucking it up about an important event in any other faith – especially Islam. The Pope is the spiritual father of Catholicism, beloved by the faithful. He, and they, deserve more respect from “news” organizations. Continues after the video.
ABC, Stranger than Fiction
The media don’t think much of the real Church and the real Vatican, but they’re wild for the fictional and fantastic depictions of Catholicism that author Dan Brown specializes in, especially ABC.
Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” which he maintained was “90 percent true,” brutally attacked the center of Christianity and painted the Church as a sinister, patriarchal conspiracy to cover up the fact that Jesus wasn’t God, was married, and had a lot of dopey New Age ideas about something called “the sacred feminine.” No wonder it’s a touchstone for ABC’s journalists.
Back in September when a slip of ancient papyrus surfaced that supposedly quoted Jesus talking about His wife, ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas breathlessly touted the fragment: “Real-life ‘Da Vinci Code.’ Christianity’s biggest mysteries about to be solved. The tiny scrap of paper that could prove Jesus had a wife. Why this faded fragment might solve an age old question.” Diane Sawyer cooed that it was an “ancient clue … right out of the ‘Da Vinci Code.’”
The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” turned out to be a forgery. What’s not fake is ABC’s enthusiasm for referencing Brown and his fable in coverage of the Church. On Feb. 12, “Good Morning America’s” Dan Harris likened the Pope’s resignation to “The Da Vinci Code,” saying, “Benedict’s surprise decision has provoked Vatican intrigue worthy of a Dan Brown novel.”
Showing the intellectual and verbal laziness viewers have come to expect from TV news, Harris did it again the next evening on “World News with Diane Sawyer.” “The local papers here [in Italy] read like a Dan Brown novel, teeming with unsubstantiated talk about Benedict being driven out by internal intrigue.”
Harris’ colleague David Wright caught the Brown Bug on February 25. During “Good Morning America,” Wright noted without irony that the Vatican accused the press of “bringing political intrigue into what should be a sacred process.” In the next sentence, stated the how the “Italian papers read like a Dan Brown novel …” Later, on “World News with Diane Sawyer,” he commented on the Vatileaks investigation, declaring, “This is beginning to sound like a Dan Brown novel.”
Trouble and Scandal as Far as the Eye can See
Sadly for the gang at ABC, the church is nothing like a Dan Brown novel. On the bright side, they’ve been able to console themselves with the institution’s real problems – an opportunity the networks rarely failed to grasp.
In the three broadcast networks’ 112 reports since Benedict resigned, there have been 122 mentions of a church in trouble. Reports have referred to “scandal” 87 times. By network accounts, nothing happened in the church during Benedict’s eight-year papacy except scandal, dysfunction and failure.
CBS correspondent Allen Pizzey stressed on the “Evening News” that, “[Pope Benedict XVI] leaves behind a Vatican beset by troubles…” Anchor Scott Pelley endorsed Pizzey’s comments, saying, “Whoever that successor is, Allen Pizzey tells us he will be inheriting a church in turmoil.
Despite the Pope’s clear explanation that his health is the reason for his resignation, the networks couldn’t help speculating on whether the sex abuse scandals, the Vatileaks or other unseemly situations had brought it on.
CBS’s Norah O’Donnell and Georgetown College Dean Chester Gillis also provided insight on February 11’s “This Morning.” When O’Donnell asked if the Pope’s resignation linked to the sexual abuse scandals, Gillis responded, “Oh, I think everything has something to do with it.” Author John Thavis agreed on CBS’s “Evening News” on February 25, saying “It all forms a burden, I think that was placed on Pope Benedict XVI, and so I think it all went into his decision to resign.”
When asked about the kind of man likely to succeed Benedict, Thavis said, “I think the cardinals are going to want someone who is strong enough, so that he won’t be victimized by all of the malfeasance going on around him inside the Vatican walls.”
On Feb. 19, Pizzey seemed to suggest that Benedict is going on the lam to avoid court. “Because the Vatican is a sovereign territory it will also make it impossible for lawyers to try to sue or prosecute him for the sex abuse scandals ...” A couple days later, on Feb. 22, Pizzey said on the same show, “By the time his successor has to confront it (inquiry of Vatileaks), Benedict will be here – the papal summer residence of Castle Gandolfo.”
Pizzey was at it again on the Feb. 22 “This Morning,” saying “Speculation and evidence as to why Benedict decided enough was enough continues to swirl here with reporting focusing on an inquiry by three cardinals into the so-called Vatileaks scandal.” Yes, “evidence” from an alleged claim by an Italian tabloid.
CBS’s Gayle King continued to connect the dots, asking, “We are hearing a lot about the Pope’s health in the wake of his retirement, but what about the health of the church?” on February 19’s “This Morning.
Pollster and political analyst Frank Luntz convened a CBS Catholic discussion group on “This Morning,” Feb. 19. Luntz asked questions like, “Who in this room would be uncomfortable leaving their children with a priest?”
During a Feb. 24 segment, Pizzey reminded viewers, “The ex-Pope has to disappear during the conclave even if the scandals that plagued his reign will be in plain sight.”
On the Feb. 12 “This Morning,” speaking with the Archdiocese of Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl, CBS anchor Charlie Rose made the conclave of cardinals who will elect the next Pope sound more like the selection of a Democratic Chicago alderman. “I mean, everything we’ve ever read about the selection of a Pope suggests that that there are people who look at this election and the kind of person who may be Pope having to do with their own agenda for the church and that there is in-fighting, there is lobbying, there is ambition, there is a sense of destiny for the church.”
Will the Next Pope be Catholic?
Part of the Church’s problem, apart from the scandals the networks never tire of remind viewers of, is that its losing practitioners in Europe and the United Sates. And the reason, according to liberal journalists, is the church under Benedict’s guidance has been, well, too Catholic.
So the networks weaved their liberal agenda into the threads of coverage, calling for the modernization of the church (32 times) and pressing for change in issues regarding women (7 times) and gays (13 times). Always there was the assumption that the orthodox Benedict had been the stumbling block to the kind of liberal change anchors and correspondents deem necessary.
On the Feb. 12 CBS “The Morning,” Pizzey stressed this theme. “He cannot take part in a conclave to choose his successor but his influence will be felt in what is being seen as a battle between liberals and conservatives to chart the future of the church …”
During a Feb. 11 segment of ABC’s “World News,” anchor Diane Sawyer, lectured New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan on the need for change. “What would you like to see this next Pope be and do in order to be as inclusive as possible of the American church and the American views on these social issues?” she asked before adding, “There has to be fundamental change.” Shockingly, the Cardinal disagreed.
That day ABC correspondent Jeffrey Kofman explained during told Sawyer that Benedict “may have been the first Pope to tweet, but as the leader, he tried to hold back the forces of modernity, refusing to expand the role of women.” ABC’s Cecilia Vega expressed the same concern during the same segment: “Pope Benedict may have taken a hard line against everything from gay marriage to abortion.”
Also on Feb. 11, NBC anchor Brian Williams said on “Nightly News” that Benedict’s resignation could bring on “possibly a huge period of change.” Correspondent Ann Thompson underlined that point: “Some express the hope a new leader might mean a new attitude about women and married priests or human sexuality.”
That day, ABC’s Cecilia Vega “spent the day gathering American reaction from all over,” according to Sawyer. That reaction was fairly predictable. “For many American Catholics a world away from the Vatican, there is devotion to a centuries-old institution,” she said. “But for many others, today meant hope for a modern beginning.” She then took viewers on a tour of the country where – surprise! – she found people who said “society is leaving the Church way behind,” who wanted the Church to “allow women the opportunity to become a priest,” and a wanted a Pope “more accepting of gay people.”
Editor's Note: Matt Philbin also contributed to this report.