The greatest reporter you've never heard of is Samuel Lubell. In his 1950 classic The Future of American Politics, Lubell explained why Harry Truman, against all odds and the conventional wisdom, won the 1948 presidential election. What made Lubell's book great was his skill at interviewing ordinary voters, telling their stories with nuance and subtlety, and detecting the larger pattern from their responses. A faint echo of Lubell-style reporting can be found in The Washington Times' and The New York Times' coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's final day in America. I thought the stories would have benefited from using this technique more fully. Even so, its use suggested larger religious themes.
With the help of three other reporters, Paul Vitello of the NYTimes got memorable quotes from Catholics who attended the Mass Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Vitello did more than incorporate a few man-on-the-street interviews. He put those interviews in a larger sociological and religious context:
Many of the people interviewed after Sunday's Mass said they were deeply moved to be in the presence of Christ's vicar on earth, as the pope is known to believers. His role as a spiritual father figure can seem to be almost personal for some Catholics.
"The most amazing part was when he came in the Popemobile," said Sylvia Rios, 45, who attended the Mass with her former husband, Jesus Matthews, 46. "I know he wasn't waving at me, but we had good seats, and when I looked at him, he looked like he was waving specifically at me."
But more, people at the Mass said it was thrilling to be in a state of religious communion with so many others -- and while in the presence of the pope, who represents the founding of the church 2,000 years ago.
Christa Rivers-Caceres, 37, who drove from Bushkill, Pa., with her husband, Enrique, 32, said being at Yankee Stadium made her feel like part of the family of Catholics, who number more than one billion worldwide. "You were proud to be Catholic," she said. "It helped reaffirm our faith."
Theoretically, Vitello's interviews should please liberal and conservative Catholics alike: liberals because of the primacy they attach to Vox Populi, Vox Dei; and conservatives because of the respondents' pro-Vatican remarks.
Julia Duin of The Washington Times also talked to local Catholics, including people at the same bar that the NYTimes' reporter(s) talked to. But unlike her counterparts, Duin mentioned interviewees' remarks about hot-button social issues and categorized the responses of the crowd:
Benedict's audience interrupted his sermon twice with applause: once when he urged his listeners to protect "the most defenseless of all human beings; the unborn child in the mother's womb," and a few seconds later, when he asked young listeners to "open your hearts to the Lord's call to follow Him in the priesthood and the religious life."
"It was indescribable," said the Rev. Giacomo Capoverdi, a priest of the Diocese of Providence, R.I. "I am a big Yankees fan, and to see Yankee Stadium transformed into a church was just awesome to me."
The Rev. Bob Hoatson, of West Orange, N.J., was outside the stadium holding up a sign: "Sexual Abuse of Little Boys and Girls is Soul Murder."
The founder of Road to Recovery Inc., a ministry to Catholics sexually abused by priests, said he did not have a ticket to enter the stadium but hoped his sign will make people see that "we are still fighting for this issue."
"Although some people said, 'Get out of here,' we responded with, 'The pope believes us; what about you?' " he said.
Duin's interviews gave readers a strong sense of the crowd. Although the massgoers' cheers for the pope's anti-abortion remarks were little surprise, I expected that his comments in support of the clergy would be met with muffled cheers or no response at all. The enthusiastic response suggests that the pontiff's efforts to renew American Catholicism will find support from more than a few people.
My only quibble with the stories is the lack of integration between the pope's homily and the respondents. What did people think of Benedict's appeals to church authority? This would have been the right question to ask. After all, the Times emphasized this passage in Benedict's homily.
Otherwise, I thought of all the stories about Benedict's visit these were two of the better ones.