Gol' durn. Do the mainstream media finally "get" papal coverage?
You no doubt recall the circus after Pope Francis answered a question about gays -- “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” -- a circus that is still ongoing in some outlets. But most journos seem to realize their favorite Catholic has not, in fact, rewritten centuries of teaching on sexuality.
Well, we had another near-viral experience this week, when Francis was flying from Sri Lanka to the Philippines. A French reporter asked about religion and free speech, apparently without mentioning the jihadi massacre of the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. According to the much-quoted account in the Associated Press, Francis used the example of papal trip organizer Alberto Gasbarri:
"If my good friend Dr. Gasbarri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch," Francis said half-jokingly, throwing a mock punch his way. "It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others."
This time, though, most mainstream media didn't seem to freak. AP noted that Francis has also denounced religious violence as an "aberration" and has called on Muslim leaders to speak out against religious extremism.
The Washington Post folds the AP piece into its own report on Francis' remarks. The newspaper then updated its piece with a Vatican statement:
“The Pope’s expression is in no way intended to be interpreted as a justification for the violence and terror that took place in Paris last week,” the Vatican press office said in a later statement, addressing Francis’s remarks. The statement adds, “the Pope’s free style of speech, especially in situations like the press conference must be taken a face value and not distorted or manipulated.”
“The Pope has spoken out clearly against the terror and violence that occurred in Paris and in other parts of the world,” the statement continues, “Violence begets violence. Pope Francis has not advocated violence with his words on the flight.”
What a relief. We don't have to worry about 78-year-old Francis lacing up boxing gloves or shopping for an AK-47.
The Post also cites a Monday AP report in which Francis said terrorism springs from "deviant" religion:
Francis said the Paris attacks were the result of a "throwaway culture" in which human beings and even God are rejected outright. Referring to the "tragic slayings" in Paris, Francis said those responsible had become "enslaved" by new fads and "deviant forms of religion."
"Religious fundamentalism, even before it eliminates human beings by perpetrating horrendous killings, eliminates God himself, turning him into a mere ideological pretext," he said.
In that quote, the pontiff referred specifically not only to the Paris attacks but the enslavement of 200 young girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the slaughter of more than 100 children by the Taliban in Pakistan.
Crux, the Catholic news section of the Boston Globe, appears to go overboard in its 1,300-plus word report. But only about a third of it deals with Francis' free-speech views. The rest is about matters like climate change, plans to canonize the 18th century Father Junipero Serra, and risks to his security whenever he visits a country.
On the Hebdo attack, Crux not only quotes Francis but adds context, as in:
In sum, the pope appeared to be saying that while nothing can justify the kind of violence witnessed in the Paris attacks, that doesn’t mean “everything goes” in terms of how to present religion in public.
Crux even does the same with a reaction from William Donohue, president of the Catholic League:
Donohue published a statement Jan. 7 stating that “killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned,” but at the same time Muslims had a right to be angry about being “intentionally insulted” by the magazine.
The statement triggered a wave of criticism, and generated a debate about the proper reaction to satirical or critical portrayals of religious figures.
The article also calls the Catholic League "a group that monitors anti-Catholic bias." Compare that with the Post's "conservative" label:
Following the massacre in Paris, Bill Donohue, president of the U.S.-based Catholic League, criticized Charlie Hebdo’s history of offending the world’s religiously devout and said of the publication’s slain editor, Stephane Charbonnier: “Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive.” The Catholic League is a conservative, independent Catholic group headquartered in New York.
The Religion News Service does a little more paraphrasing in its report:
However the pope, who has made a point of reaching out to Muslims, Jews and other faiths, said there were limits to self-expression when it involved insulting or ridiculing people’s faith.
“You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others,” he said. “You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
Interestingly, RNS spent less than 300 words on the story -- an accurate assessment, I think, of its relative news value.
Lesson of the week: You can teach old media new tricks.