Well here we are, smack in the middle of Papal-Visit-Coverage-Overload. But, to quote the omnipresent Pope Francis media soundbite (while shifting the context), "Who am I to judge?" So let's follow suit.
However, let's go small. You know, stay humble, in keeping with Francis' persona. Let's put the Big Picture stories aside for a few minutes (or however long it takes for you to read this post TO ITS END, if you please). Let's start with some questions.
Do you think the pontiff's expression of what it means to be Roman Catholic is being adequately presented by the mainstream news media? Are his statements being forced through the prism of American politics? Do you think Francis is a breath of much-needed fresh air for the global Church he leads, or a good-hearted but naive and out-of-touch pastor?
Now put all that aside. There are plenty of other posts on GetReligion dealing with all that weighty stuff. Not to mention every other website, print publication and broadcast outlet that claims to produce journalism.
Instead, let's look at the nitty-gritty details of what allows this avalanche of hyperbolic coverage to take place.
I'm speaking, of course, of the logistical miracle -- colloquially speaking, that is -- pulled off by the Vatican and the local church each time Francis, or any modern pope, leaves Rome to jet around the world.
I recall marveling at how smoothly the papal entourage and the slew of journalists covering it moved from city to city the first time I covered Pope John Paul II in 1987. Nine cities in 10 days, with several major events taking place at all but two of the stops. Wow! What planning and execution.
And that was in the United States, where its far easier to do this sort of mega organizing. What must it take to move from nation to nation across a continent such as Africa, where communications and travel infrastructure are, to put it mildly, often lacking? (My only direct experience of papal coverage outside the U.S., also with Pope John Paul II, came in Cuba in 1998.)
I mention this because (a) I'm fascinated by how this is managed, (b) I think the masses are also fascinated by the extraordinary number of details that must be addressed, and (c) because it's important for journalists availing themselves of the organizational effort that goes into a papal trip to understand and appreciate how much easier this makes their job.
It's not to be taken for granted. Moreover, it underscores how dependent journalists can be on those they cover, whether we're talking papal coverage, keeping up with a global sporting event or hop-scotching around the nation following a presidential campaign. The bigger the event, the greater the media dependence.
It's very much a two-way street; a dance of mutual but also opposing agendas (the Vatican wants positive coverage only; reporters dig for stand-out stories that leap the Vatican's defensive line).
It's not as if I haven't seen any reporting on the papal trip minutiae. There's plenty out there.
On Monday, for example, The New York Times published this piece that contained this choice graph:
Much has been made of this pope’s penchant for simplicity and understatement, his preference for modesty over show. But as those charged with procurement of wafers and the placement of metal detectors can attest, nothing is simple about a six-day, three-city, two-dozen-event papal trip that is a cross between a military operation, a diplomatic mission and an arena-rock tour.
That same day, The Washington Post's A-1 lead story (at least in the print edition I received at home) was a piece on the security arrangements for the pope's three-city American visit. The story noted that security for the pope equals or exceeds that afforded President Barack Obama.
To get a feel for what goes into just one papal event in one city, read this earlier Times piece on the preparations for the papal Mass at New York's Madison Square Garden.
Perhaps the most entertaining of the behind-the-scenes pieces I've read was a personal and well-written essay by John L. Allen Jr., the renowned Vatican-watcher writing for Crux, the Boston Globe website devoted exclusively to covering all things Catholic.
Allen's piece, was confined to anecdotes and information about life aboard the so-called Shepherd One aircraft (a title bestowed by the media, not the Vatican, he wrote). Shepherd One is the airplane, which ever commercial craft it may be at the moment, that transports the pope, his entourage and the gaggle of reporters working for outlets still willing and able to cover the flights' considerable cost.
How expensive is it? Here's Allen on that:
... The dirty little secret of papal travel is that the press corps actually subsidizes the pope’s movements, since the roughly 70 reporters on the plane are asked to pay business class airfare in order to fly in coach. Since the 30 members of the pope’s entourage who fly in business aren’t paying anything, this means the cost of the charter is borne almost entirely by the people in steerage.
This time, the Alitalia fare from the Rome-Cuba-Washington part of the trip is roughly $3,200 while the Washington-NewYork-Philadelphia-Rome part on American Airlines is $2,300, for a grand total of $5,500. That means 70 reporters are contributing $385,000 to the cost of the trip.
Great tidbit, right?
Look, here's my confession. There's a good deal of the (healthy?) voyeur in me. I think all reporters share that trait. Why else would we be spending our time sticking our noses into everyone else's business?
So think small but telling details, details, details. Not every story you do has to encompass the Big Picture. That can get tiresome. Stop for a minute pontificating on The Truth and get into the papal tour as an event. It's a relief from having to pretend your insight is better than that of the competition.