Pack Journalism, Vatican-Style

Published May 7, 1998

The Catholic Difference

Here’s one man’s recent Holy Week schedule:

On Palm Sunday, he celebrated a three-hour Mass, preached, and led the Angelus for a congregation of over two hundred thousand.

On Holy Thursday morning he celebrated a lengthy Chrism Mass and preached on the theology of the priesthood. That evening, he celebrated a two-and-a-half hour Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, washed the feet of twelve men, and preached on the Eucharist.

On Good Friday, he celebrated a two-and-a-half-hour Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and then led a ninety-minute Way of the Cross in a driving rainstorm; at the close of the service, soaked to the skin, he gave a short homily.

On Holy Saturday he celebrated and preached at a three-hour Easter Vigil. The next morning he celebrated a ninety-minute Easter Sunday Mass, after which he delivered Easter greetings for forty-five minutes in fifty-seven languages.

I doubt that there are many priests in the United States who kept a schedule like Pope John Paul II’s — which I’ve just rehearsed — during Holy Week. I know there aren’t any priests or bishops who did all that and conducted general audiences for eighteen thousand pilgrims, with catechetical talks and seasonal greetings in six or seven languages, on the Wednesday before Easter and the Wednesday after.

Yet the persistent theme of the press coverage of Holy Week in Rome was “the feeble Pope.” Why?

Twenty-five years ago in The Boys on the Bus (a book on the 1972 presidential campaign), Timothy Crouse described in minute (and very funny) detail the phenomenon of “pack journalism.” For all their insistence on being tough-minded, independent investigators, most reporters are, in fact, terrified of receiving a call-back from an editor saying, “Your story was different from the Associated Press’s (or the New York Times‘, or the Washington Post‘s); why?” The wire services and the certified Big Feet determine “the news,” and the herd of independent minds falls into line.

I’ve watched this happen in Rome for years; it happened again in April. A major Italian paper decides that “the feeble Pope” is the story-line for Holy Week 1998. The Associated Press and the Times of London agree. Suddenly, almost every newspaper in America and all the TV networks are writing or talking about “the feeble Pope.”

Never mind that the evidence right before their eyes tells them that the Pope is keeping an incredibly rigorous Holy Week schedule that is leaving far younger men exhausted. “The news” has been determined. And woe betide the reporter with the wit and courage to say, “Wait a minute. The real story here is that this 78-year old man, with a remarkable combination of intense piety and great good humor, is maintaining a ferocious schedule and attracting even larger crowds that usual during Holy Week in Rome.”

A few years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times wrote a four-part series arguing that the “John Paul II Story” was one of the worst-covered dramas of the twentieth century. He was right then, and he would be right if he wrote a similar series today. To be sure, you can find pack journalism in Washington, Boston, Phoenix, and Oshkosh. But it seems to be a particularly acute problem in Rome (from which one of the reporters prepared to be different, Celestine Bohlen of the New York Times, has just been transferred, alas).

Part of the problem is that American reporters lean on their Italian and British colleagues. But the Italian press specializes in lurid speculation on the thinnest foundation of fact. And the British press is the least reliable in the English-speaking world on Vatican matters. Another part of the problem is that many Vatican offices have woefully inadequate press relation. But the Holy Father’s press spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a wonderfully knowledgeable, intelligent, and interesting interlocutor. A lot of what he says never gets into print or on the air because it doesn’t fit the stereotypes the pack has established as templates for measuring Vatican realities.

So the pack continues to miss the story. The story’s protagonist, who doesn’t fret about such things for a second, continues to amaze and inspire. Ask the three hundred thousand in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday morning.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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