Vatican ‘wags the dog’ on McCarrick and the American press is powerless against it

Journalism isn’t what it used to be.

You hear a lot of people in the business — most of them over 40 — say things like that either in a newsroom or afterwards at the nearest bar at the end of a very busy day. The internet and layoffs are the two biggest culprits. The internet radically altered newsgathering methods and distribution of information. That “disruption” — as some have called it — led to financial loses and smaller staffs. That and digital advertising that drives many news consumers crazy.

Smaller newsrooms and dwindling budgets means fewer journalists. More importantly, it means fewer of them can travel. The ability to actually be in the place where something is taking place — rather than thousands of miles away in an office — does make a major difference. It’s why The New York Times and Washington Post produce such quality work from foreign correspondents.

This leaves most U.S. newsrooms reliant on wire services, most notably The Associated Press and Reuters, for international coverage. This brings us to the Vatican, which is located across the Atlantic from most newsrooms and Pope Francis, like pontiffs before him, has a penchant for traveling, it means having to rely on these news organizations for what’s going on/being said so far away.

Pope Francis is a great example of an international leader whose handlers like to control the message. Not too different from the White House press office, where access can often be very limited. That makes the papal news conference, the one that takes place aboard the pope’s flight on the way to Rome at the end of very trip, very important. President Donald Trump and his press shop get plenty of heat, and deservingly so, for sparring with reporters. He isn’t alone. Sadly, the slow death of local journalism in many once-thriving market across the United States has made it easier for town boards, mayors and even governors to get away with more.

Covering the pope is on a global scale, but some of the same problems afflicting local journalism can also be found here. The papal news conference, it turns out, isn’t what it used to be. What is it like these days? Here’s one recent observation from John Allen, a veteran Vatican reporter, in a piece for Crux. He noted that the most-recent news conference on June 2 after the pope’s return from Romania, was an example of how these gatherings “have been considerably less spicy, often serving up little more than reiterations of things Francis already has said, or excuses to allow the pope to say things that he or his advisers want on the record for one reason or another.” Here’s what Allen’s piece is about:

First, in part because of the brief duration of the flight, it was short - just about a half-hour bell to bell. Moreover, the first few minutes were eaten up by the pope’s spokesman, Italian layman Alessandro Gisotti, inexplicably asking the pope to offer a reflection on the World Day of Social Communications.

(Perhaps, though, it’s not inexplicable at all, given that every minute the pope is talking about something else is a minute he’s not answering serious questions.)

Here is the key takeaway from the same piece:

What’s the problem? Well, the press conference was basically a classic case of the dog that didn’t bark.

In the week leading up to the trip, there was a clear winner for biggest Vatican story: A double-barreled combination of Francis saying he knew “nothing, nothing” about sexual misconduct and abuse charges against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, combined with revelations of correspondence from an ex-aide to McCarrick confirming that Vatican restrictions had been imposed in 2008 and were progressively ignored.

The obvious question was something like: “Last October, you pledged a ‘thorough study’ of the McCarrick case. Especially in light of this week’s news, when can we expect the results, and, based on its results, will anyone be held accountable for failure to act?”

English-speaking journalists aboard the plane were planning to ask something along those lines, but the plug was pulled before it was their turn. In all fairness, English-speakers got a turn during the last trip to Bulgaria and Macedonia, but that doesn’t really quite explain it.

Here’s the thing: Such a question was the most foreseeable thing in the world, as was the fact that any news conference would be considered a disappointment — by some, even, a sham — if it wasn’t asked and answered. By calling a halt before it came up, the only possible conclusion many observers can draw is that the pope himself, or his Vatican team, or both, didn’t want to talk about it.

To be clear, these flights are basically the only time Francis meets the press in such a fashion. It’s not as if the McCarrick business can be handled during his monthly news conference in Rome, because such a thing doesn’t exist.

In other words, the Vatican was successful at keeping McCarrick out of the news cycle. While the European press — particularly the Italians who cover him very closely — were interested in the recent fallout from the European elections, McCarrick is really the only story that matters in American Catholic circles. To a certain degree, the Vatican knows it.

A case of the dog that didn’t bark? More like wag the dog.

The reference, born during the 1990s at the height of the Clinton presidency and the Lewinsky scandal, comes from the acidic 1997 movie with the same name. After being caught in a scandalous situation days before the election, the president’s top adviser (played by Robert De Niro) contacts a famed Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to help manufacture what would — to the public — appear to be a war against Albania. “Wag the Dog” outlines, in a satirical way, the lengths political operatives will go to change the media narrative. A notable cameo by Willie Nelson also helps to make this one of the best political movies of the ‘90s.

The situation is a little different in Francis’ case — although the analogy isn’t too far off. The dearth of reporters — and ones that can travel and actually cover the Vatican in person — coupled with limited and controlled access has helped those in power get away with more.

At the same time, media polarization — those on the left largely defending the pope; those on the right looking to dig up more — hasn’t helped all of us get to the truth. While there are a few places editors can access these news conferences, and other materials disseminated by the Vatican press office, such as the Vatican’s website and Catholic News Service (where you can find an archive of transcripts from past papal news conferences), being able to ask a question is for those newsrooms with big budgets. Not being able to ask that question, however, doesn’t matter if you can’t ask it.

The Vatican press office has been in turmoil for some time. Gisotti has done a good job from stopping Francis from being spontaneous. Those comments could only get the pope in trouble. It’s worth noting that this past Dec. 31, the director and vice-director of the Vatican's press office abruptly resigned. The resignations of Greg Burke, a former Fox News reporter, and Paloma García Ovejero “seemed to catch their supervisor, Italian Paolo Ruffini, by surprise,” according to the National Catholic Reporter. Since then, Gisotti, who is Italian and worked for Vatican Radio since 2012, has tried to control the message.

What distractions has he and the Vatican created? A few in the past few weeks alone. That very news conference during his return flight from Bucharest, for example, dwelled on issues such as observations from his Romania trip (and relations with Orthodox Christianity), Italian politics, the European Union, his relationship with Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and World Day of Social Communications. As you can see, very little room for McCarrick.

In that same news conference, Pope Francis told the press corps, finger-wagging and all, to read L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican. In Italian, he called it “the party’s newspaper” — making an allusion to Italy’s many politically partisan dailies — and told reporters “it would also be nice if you all read it.”

“Things that I say are also in there,” he added.

The video clip was tweeted out from the official account of LOsservatore Romano and retweeted by Gisotti.

At the same time, some mainstream news outlets, like The New York Times, have appeared happy to oblige when it comes to ignoring the ongoing McCarrick saga that sprouted up last summer.

Coverage has been inconsistent, while conservative Catholic sites have been more aggressive in their pursuit of the story and what Francis knew regarding McCarrick’s decades of abuse against teens and seminarians. The last New York Times story on “Uncle Ted” was on May 28 in a story editors call a “pick up.” The story focused on Francis denying, in an interview with Mexican TV network Televisa, being part of any coverup regarding McCarrick. It’s called a “pick up” because it was aggregated — another commonly used word to describe such work — from Televisa interview and other news outlets. It’s worth noting the story had a Rome dateline.

It was last August when Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to Washington, said he had personally told the pope about penalties imposed on McCarrick, a now-former cardinal after being defrocked by Francis earlier this year, by the pope’s predecessor Benedict. While largely discredited by many mainstream news outlets, Vigano was hailed a credible whistleblower by Catholic websites on the doctrinal right such as ChurchMilitant.com and EWTN. And check out this massive email exchange between The Washington Post team and Vigano, who remains in an undisclosed location (presumably for his safety).

Many questions remain unanswered. Future papal news conferences aren’t expected to yield too many answers. The only way to combat this “wag the dog” phenomenon is more shoe-leather reporting. There are plenty of high-ranking Vatican officials at odds with Franics. Many of them continue to leak information to the press. Unfortunately, there’s less of that pavement-pounding in and around the Holy See and the halls of the Vatican these days, not to mention on those Alitalia flight back to Rome. 

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