The Donald meets Pope Francis: What did your news sources tell you about common ground?

Several weeks after the stunning election of Donald Trump, I was in New York City (I teach at The King's College two-plus months a year) and attended an event that drew a large flock of urbane Catholics.

There was, of course, lots of talk about the election. But many people were already thinking about the inevitable moment when Pope Francis would meet President Donald Trump.

Several people said something like this: Everybody already knows about their disagreements. It will be interesting to learn what they agree on.

With that in mind, let's turn to several examples of the press coverage of their Vatican meeting. From a journalism point of view, the key is that their actual talk was behind closed doors -- with only an interpreter present. So other than comments on facial expressions, fashion and symbolic gifts, what is the key material here for journalists?

There was, of course, a Vatican statement released afterwards, which can be seen as a short, dry summary of what official voices want outsiders to know was on the agenda.

So how much attention did that statement receive in the Associated Press report that will be buried somewhere inside most newspapers (since there were no public fireworks)? This is all that readers got, down in the story text:

When Trump departed, he told the pope: "Thank you, I won't forget what you said." ...
Hours later, Trump tweeted the meeting was the "honor of a lifetime." A statement released by the Vatican later said "satisfaction was expressed" at their "joint commitment in favor of life" and that there was hoped-for collaboration on health care and assistance to immigrants and protection of Christian communities in the Middle East.

Needless to say, the AP team played quite a bit of attention to the two men's past disagreements. That's valid. But why not focus similar attention on this statement?

I would ask the same question about the main New York Times report. It opened -- as one would expect -- with a predictable statement of differences.

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis welcomed President Trump to the Vatican on Wednesday, shaking his hand before ushering him into his study for the first face-to-face meeting of the two leaders, who symbolize starkly different views of the world.

Later, after a tsunami of details about fashion and protocol, the Times team added:

Smiles and pleasantries aside, the atmospherics of this meeting were fraught. Pope Francis and Mr. Trump have diametrically opposed views on issues as varied as immigration, climate change and arms sales. Although both men seemed determined not to let politics intrude on their encounter, the underlying tensions were clear.

So that was that. There was no mention of the Vatican statement, with its descriptions of the topics on which the two leaders sought common ground. Zero. Zip. Nada. Niente. Nichego.

The Washington Post report was pretty much the same, other than this:

A brief Vatican communique later called the meeting “cordial,” and expressed hope for collaboration with the administration on “health care, education and assistance to immigrants.”
It said Trump and Francis had exchanged views on “international affairs and the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue, with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities.”

That "particular reference" might have been worth some follow-up questions. Still it was good that the Post at least noted to religious persecution issue.

Obviously, what little is known about the content of the private meeting received much more attention at Crux, a news website that focuses on global Catholic news and trends. The headline there said: "Pope and Trump focused on life, religious freedom and conscience, Vatican says."

The bottom line: It would be hard to write a headline and overture that was more different than those seen in mainstream news reports.

Pope Francis and President Donald Trump had a "cordial" talk Wednesday morning, according to a Vatican statement, which said they focused on areas of agreement including a “joint commitment in favor of life, and freedom of worship and conscience.”
Following this morning’s first-ever encounter between Pope Francis and U.S. President Donald Trump, a Vatican statement said that the two men focused on concerns they have in common during their half-hour together, including a “joint commitment in favor of life, and freedom of worship and conscience.”

Wait a minute. These two men have something in common? Note in particular the reference to freedom of religion or, in mainstream media talk, that would be "religious liberty" (inside scare quotes).

The sad implication is that many mainstream journalists must have assumed that only "religious" readers would want to know on-the-record details about any positive elements, any common ground, explored during this interesting encounter.

The Crux report added:

The Vatican statement, issued shortly before noon Rome time on Wednesday, some three hours after the meeting concluded, also said it’s hoped that there may be “serene collaboration between the state and the Catholic Church in the United States, engaged in service to the people in the fields of healthcare, education and assistance to immigrants.”
The Vatican communique indicated that Trump and Francis also discussed a variety of international issues.
“The discussions then enabled an exchange of views on various themes relating to international affairs and the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue, with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities,” it said.

Yes, there are smooth pin pricks in the text alluding to differences between the Vatican and this White House -- such as the references to healthcare, immigration and seeking peace through dialogue (after headlines about the new $110 billion U.S.-Saudi arms deal).

Nevertheless, it was clear that religious freedom and the crushing of ancient churches in the Middle East were topics that were emphasized -- as subjects on which there was substantial agreement.

So what's the logic, in terms of Journalism 101, for ignoring or burying material from the Vatican statement?

Just asking.

By the way, here is the crucial language from an English translation of the actual Vatican statement:

During the cordial discussions, satisfaction was expressed for the good existing bilateral relations between the Holy See and the United States of America, as well as the joint commitment in favor of life, and freedom of worship and conscience. It is hoped that there may be serene collaboration between the state and the Catholic Church in the United States, engaged in service to the people in the fields of healthcare, education and assistance to immigrants.
The discussions then enabled an exchange of views on various themes relating to international affairs and the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue, with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities.

Oh, and here are the top to (here and here) USA Today stories on the meeting that are getting the most traffic (screenshot of email pushing that content).

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post referred to the Vatican statement as a "joint" statement reflecting input from both sides. That was wrong. The omnipresent Rocco "Whispers in the Loggia" Palmo dropped me a note directing me to a short White House statement (to which I had seen zero references in news coverage). Click here to read that. There are some differences -- but a shared emphasis on religious freedom.

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