Crux warning: That automatic good pope, bad president, framework can skew the news

Into the GetReligion guilt file we go once again, as I continue to dig out from a recent one-two punch of travel and sickness that, truth be told, still has me down quite a bit.

However, I called "dibs" some time ago on a very interesting Crux think piece by Vatican correspondent Ines San Martin that I really think GetReligion readers will want to see.

It's about Pope Francis, of course. And it's about President Donald Trump, of course. Obviously, these two men have some past history. It's also safe to say that, at this point, it's hard to get a fix on what either of these men stand for without taking into account the way the mainstream press has framed almost everything that they say or do.

In the case of Pope Francis, this has led to a very important question that pro-Catechism Catholics have been asking pretty much since the start of this papacy. The blunt way to state it: Is Pope Francis the "reform" pope that The New York Times and other elite media seem to think that he is?

In this context, of course, "reform" means going soft on lots of icky ancient Catholic doctrines linked to morality and, especially, sex. It also means that Francis is supposed to be carrying out a consistent agenda of punishing, or at the very least throwing cold water, on doctrinal conservatives in the church. It also means that his emphasis on the care of the poor and weak is "liberal" or "progressive," as opposed to being an expression of basic Christian orthodoxy.

But back to the press. As I have stated before, concerning the conservative Catholics debates about Pope Francis and the press:

There may be a few -- repeat few -- who (1) see him as a secretly liberal Machiavelli who is steering the Catholic boat toward icebergs in order to cause massive doctrinal changes. There are others who think (2) he is fine, when you read him in context, and that the press is to blame for any confusion that exists. There are others who (3) think he means well, but that he is naive when it comes to how his off-the-cuff papacy will be presented in the news media. I am sure there are other options on the right that I missed.

Now, if you overlap these Francis issues with the "meltdown" mindset that continues to frame much of the media coverage of Trump, you have an interesting dynamic. And that is precisely what the Crux piece is about.

The headline: "How reporters got the Pope’s telegram to Trump wrong." Let's flash back to that message from Rome to Beltway-land:

The news exploded like lit gunpowder, with journalists sharing the full text of the telegram on social media, “breaking the news” before they’d even sat down to digest it.
No matter what one thinks of Donald Trump, one thing about the new American commander-in-chief is indisputable: He’s a lightning rod, and very few people are on the fence.
Whenever Pope Francis says anything that could even remotely be seen as a comment on Trump, supporters of the new U.S. president are prone to tell the pope to “mind his own business,” to fix his own Church, to tear down the Vatican’s walls and to respect the division between Church and State.
It’s equally common to see those who oppose the president twisting and bending the pope’s words to present him as the voice of reason, standing up against a populist demagogue whom they also perceive as a tyrant.

Now, clearly Trump is the enemy of the poor and the weak. Correct?

On the other side, Pope Francis is the hero of the poor and the weak, the pope who has made "mercy" the key word of his reign (while the press tends to ignore most of his frequent talks that address sin, confession and then mercy). 

So we already know what the papal telegram will say. Correct? Yes, indeed, that is precisely the story that was pumped out by the press.

But there was a problem, for journalists who care about that whole context, accuracy and fairness thing. Let's read on:

It’s not that news organizations got the pope’s words wrong, because he did indeed ask Trump to be guided by concern for the poor.
What reporters and Twitter fans alike got wrong, however, was the context in which those words needed to be presented and understood. In truth, this was hardly the first time a pope sent a telegram to a new U.S. president, and neither was it the first time concern for the poor was a key passage of that telegram.
Leaving this key element of the story out meant that what was mostly a cut-and-paste operation based on previous telegrams, with some words changed here and there, undoubtedly at levels lower than the pope himself -- in other words, no big deal -- was instead spun as a dramatic personal challenge by the pope to the president.
As a footnote, it’s significant that Francis continued the tradition of sending a telegram, because had he not, the news for longtime Vatican watchers (or for those of us with passable Googling skills) would have been why he didn’t. In fact, arguably that was the day’s real story -- that despite perceived tensions between Francis and Trump, the pontiff upheld the custom of sending along congratulations.

Yes, this all happened on deadline. However, in the age of the Internet it would not have been hard to run a Google search of two in order to find out what kind of language popes had used in previous pro forma telegrams to American presidents.

The big idea here: Popes always remind political leaders to remember the needs of the poor and the weak. That almost goes without saying.

So what is the final judgment here, in this first Crux essay on how the press covers Catholicism? 

How each journalist chooses to frame the rest of the story is up for grabs. ... But making it sound as if this were a unique, Pope Francis gesture -- of which there have been plenty -- was just plain wrong.

This particular Crux piece was the first in an ongoing "Media Watch" format.

There have been others since then, including this really interesting piece in which the Crux team elected to run a correction about a Religion News Service feature (it's hard to tell if it was an opinion essay or a news piece) that edited some controversy into a recent column by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.

Help us keep a watch out for other features in this series. For your GetReligionistas, it is a welcome addition to the Crux Catholic-beat landscape.

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