Pope, Paris and ISIS: mainstream media coverage broad but shallow

Pope Francis didn’t just criticize the ISIS attacks in Paris. He pretty much damned them. His weekend reactions used both religious and humanitarian terms -- "blasphemy," "not human," "homicidal hatred." It was some of Francis' strongest language yet.

But most mainstream media didn't look much below the surface -- either at his comments or those of ISIS.

Catholic News Service, of course, spotted the religious content quickly:

The attacks, Pope Francis said, were an "unspeakable affront to the dignity of the human person."
"The path of violence and hatred cannot resolve the problems of humanity, and using the name of God to justify this path is blasphemy," he said.
Pope Francis asked the thousands of people who gathered at St. Peter's for the Sunday midday prayer to observe a moment of silence and to join him in reciting a Hail Mary.
"May the Virgin Mary, mother of mercy, give rise in the hearts of everyone thoughts of wisdom and proposals for peace," he said. "We ask her to protect and watch over the dear French nation, the first daughter of the church, over Europe and the whole world."
"Let us entrust to the mercy of God the innocent victims of this tragedy," the pope said.

And other reports? Well, some simply patched together other reports. One of those was HuffPost, which linked to seven other stories in less than 230 words (although three were other HuffPo stories).  The article also cites Francis saying the attacks are part of a "piecemeal Third World War," drawn from an interview with TV2000, the network of the Italian Bishops' Conference.

It's a phrase he has often used. The Washington Times points out that he said much the same at an Italian World War I cemetery in 2014. But don’t give the Times too much credit for enterprise reporting: It linked to BBC's coverage of the pope's visit there.

Even the combined forces of CBS News and the Associated Press yielded a pitiful 280 words or so on Sunday. And it's nearly all soundbites: "blasphemy," "barbarity," "third world war," "no justification for these things." The main addition was his condolence to French President Francois Hollande, who vowed "merciless" war on ISIS.

One might excuse AP/CBS for haste because the report ran on Sunday morning, but no. Not when Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe, ran a more thorough report the day before -- a report that showed a Sunday update:

ROME — Pope Francis repeated his condemnation of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, saying on Sunday that using God’s name to justify violence is a “blasphemy.”
“I want to strongly reaffirm that the path of violence and hatred doesn’t solve the problems of humanity!” Francis said during his prepared remarks after the weekly Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square. Then, going off-script, he declared, “To use the name of God to justify this path is a blasphemy!”
The pope’s comments echoed those he made Saturday during a telephone interview with an Italian TV network, when he said there was no “religious or human justification for these things.”
“This is not human,” a notably moved Francis said, reiterating his view that the attacks were another step in what he believes is a Third World War being fought piecemeal around the globe. He said he finds such attacks “hard to understand.”

See that? Those four paragraphs say almost everything HuffPost, CBS/AP and the Washington Times do.  And it goes on for another eight paragraphs, including a recap of the attacks, a mention of reactions from other dioceses, and the full text of the Vatican statement from Friday.

I do have to give an honorable mention to the New York Daily News, which quotes ISIS' stated reasons for the attack:

ISIS also took responsibility for the bloodshed and vowed to keep France “at the top of the list” of its targets.
“The stench of death will not leave their noses as long as they remain at the forefront of the Crusaders' campaign, dare to curse our prophet, boast of a war on Islam in France, and strike Muslims in the lands of the caliphate with warplanes that were of no use to them in the streets and rotten alleys of Paris,” ISIS said in a statement.

But my praise is muted by the religious "ghosts" in the excerpt. What's a caliphate? Who are the Crusaders, and why are they called that? And who cursed the "prophet"? It would have helped to explain.

As tmatt noted this morning -- quoting a 2014 BBC story that, presumably, the Daily News could have found, too -- the caliph was, "historically, leader of all Muslims."

Nor was "crusaders" explained, by the Daily News or most other media. Even the Daily Mail, which ran the full statement from ISIS -- a statement that used the term five times -- didn’t go on to explain why they used the term. And The Independent didn’t address it, despite a lengthy dissection of the ISIS statement.

The term, of course, goes back to the Middle Ages, when European and Muslim forces fought for control of the Middle East. You don’t have to tell the whole tortured story of those two centuries, but a sentence or two would help. Because modern Muslims do remember. As one think tanker told me at the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf War: "Their memory goes much farther back. We in the West ask if this will be another Vietnam. They ask if it will be another Crusade."

And even if mainstream media aren’t history buffs, how could they miss ISIS' reference to cursing "our prophet"? How could they forget the attack on Paris' Charlie Hebdo magazine in January, after which the attackers said, "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad"?

Few media -- even those that also mention Charlie Hebdo -- drew the connection. Those few include CBC in Canada, which notes that the Charlie Hebdo assailants "were jihadists and their targets were Jews as well as journalists who had printed cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad." Bloomberg News even contrasted the two attacks, without noticing this point in common.

Mainstream media can try to ignore the religious aspects of terrorist acts, even the aberrant forms that justify gunning down the innocent. But the terrorists won't let us forget. They will make their horrendous point, over and over, until we finally grasp their motivations and find ways to counter them.

Photo: Crowds gather at Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square for a silent vigil this afternoon to honour those caught in the terror attacks on Paris. Photo by Stacey Newman / Shutterstock.com.

Thumb: Flowers laid Nov. 14 at the French Embassy in Kiev in memory of the victims of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris. Photo by Furyk Nazar / Shutterstock.com.


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