GetReligion gets a pope gift

popebenedictxvithanksworldyouthday08gauvaoxwv4qlBack when I was a full-time religion-beat reporter, I was involved in covering several papal visits to the United States. There was a game that I used to take part in with several other mainstream reporters when we covered papal speeches, a game that I called "Spot the soundbite." Truth is, your typical pope -- pick a pope, any pope -- is not very good at the art of the mass-media soundbite. Even the late, great Pope John Paul II, who was famous for his media-friendly events and tours, was not "an easy quote."

Dang it, it seems that men who sit on the throne of St. Peter are convinced that their words are supposed to be judged by doctrinal, even eternal, standards, not by headlines and "pull quotes." Therefore, they are so, so complex and wordy! They are so nuanced and, at times, academic.

This drives reporters a bit nuts. They have to find the tiny little scrap of news in that papal address, news as it is defined by the people who sign their paychecks -- editors.

So let's say that the pope gives a lengthy address on the Christian faith and world peace, arguing, for example, that spiritual choices must be free of all government manipulation. However, in this speech he makes a reference to the tragedies unfolding in Iraq. Thus, the news in this speech is that the pope does not believe that U.S. policies in Iraq are working, that he has once again stated his opposition to White House policies in the Middle East.

Now, please hear me. That may in fact be why that one sentence was included in the speech. I am not arguing that. What I am saying is that this one sentence is the focus of the reports, yanked out of its context and the doctrinal frame around it. See how the game is played? Spot the soundbite.

We had a classic example the other day, with a speech to the Roman Curia by Pope Benedict XVI. Lo and behold, the conservative Catholics over at the "Off the Record" blog -- that would be the infamous "Diogenes" -- produced an analysis of the press coverage of this event that, while a bit more snarky than your GetReligionistas would write, does a great job of playing "spot the soundbite."

Here's a piece of that blog commentary. But you need to read the whole thing to follow all of the links to the relevant mainstream press coverage. Click here to go there. Here is some of the commentary:

The Pope's speech that ran for several pages, and the reference to sexuality occupied a couple of sentences. That didn't matter. It is axiomatic, among critics of Catholicism, that the Church is obsessed with sex. So when a Catholic leader says something about sexuality, the media fixate on it. Never mind the other 3,500 words of the papal address; these 50 words are the important ones -- the only important ones -- because they're about sex.

The Pope spoke to the Curia about the Synod of Bishops and the preaching of the Word of God.

Oh, yeah, sure. I know. But what did he say about sex?

The Pope spoke about World Youth Day and the missionary impulse of the Pauline year.

Sure, sure. All that stuff. What'd he say about sex?

The Pope spoke about protecting the environment, and saving humans from inhuman ideologies.

See? See?! He's obsessed! He can't let it go!

This classic "spot the soundbite" game produced some, well, classic headlines -- some on news pieces, some on analysis essays.

Pope Benedict at Christmas: Preaching bigotry disguised as compassion (San Francisco Chronicle)

Pope's Anti-Gay Remarks Spur Controversy (Sofia)

Gay groups angry at Pope remarks (BBC)

Pope says gays could end human race (The First Post)

Diogenes signs off with an interesting point. When was the last time that Pope Benedict XVI did a major address on moral theology that did not draw criticism from gay-rights groups, especially those on the religious left? The anonymous pundit then quips:

What did the Albigensians think of the Pope's speech? Did proponents of the gold standard have any strong opinions?

Thanks, Catholic scribe, for offering GetReligion this gift. Anyone seen any other interesting gifts of this kind, from sites on left or right? By which, I mean people doing GetReligion-esque work dissecting mainstream coverage of religion news?

Please respect our Commenting Policy