Before Benedict

There’s nothing new about the press’s adulation of the Pontiff

Jon Stewart had a lot of fun mocking the media over the fawning coverage they gave the pope’s recent visit. Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee parodied the ecstatic inarticulateness of commentators by telling Stewart that “to witness the pope’s visit is a transcendent experience” that “transcended even my most reverential witnessing.”

And it’s true. A papal visit seems to put stars in some reporters’ eyes. But the press seemed far less star-struck than it has been in past decades by a spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Case in point: Pope John Paul II’s seven-day trip to the U.S. in 1979, which—like Pope Benedict XVI’s tour last week—was his first. For the January/February 1980 issue of Columbia Journalism Review, Garry Wills wrote a piece called “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” about the orgy of praise the American media gave the pope in 1979. Here are a few snippets, starting with the article’s subhead:

Miracles abounded. Crowds surged. The pope glowed. And the press swooned. Instead of reporting the papal visit, journalists celebrated it like a pack of acolytes.

Wills ripped into the media for its outright reverence, highlighting the work of some of the worst offenders:

There was a contest to see who could be more awed, and Gilbert A Lewthwaite of the Baltimore Sun, on Sunday lapsed into a kind of holy stuttering: “For once, officials of awesome temporal authority found themselves looking in awe at an awe-inspiring spiritual visitor. It was that sort of memorable moment.” Charles T. Power of the Los Angeles Times interviewed, admiringly, a twenty-one-year-old secretary, a sophisticated lady in tough New York, and concluded: “It was hard to define, this feeling, but to say that she adored him, standing there as the rain started again, would not have been putting it too strongly.” On the basis of this conclusion about a single person, Powers’s editors headlined his story NEW YORK SHOWS ADORATION OF POPE.

Wills noted that the media covered every possible angle of the pope’s visit, including a story about the popemobile (at the time a Ford Bronco—oh how the times have changed), the food the pope ate, and the brand of sheets he slept on.

Church officials said 14,000 journalists had been given credentials and cleared by the Secret Service. Two hundred and seventy of these flew on the three papal planes. The New York Daily News assigned over sixty of its staff to cover the New York visit. The Sun-Times fielded seventy. The Globe topped that by assigning 128 to John Paul’s American arrival.

Wills argued that the media’s reluctance in 1979 to rain on the party, even for the sake of accuracy, amounted to self-censorship:

Maintaining an air of make-believe involved the press in a complicity with the national mood, one reaching the level of self-censorship. Inflated crowd estimates were published […]. Yet when the Chicago Tribune, two weeks after the pope had gone, questioned its Grant Park crowd estimate of one million, a radio commentator on the press, John Madigan of WBBM, criticized this effort “to try and take some of the gloss off of the papal visit.”

Cynics like to say that things never change. But this time around we saw focus not only on the pomp and circumstance of a papal visit but also on the church’s many serious problems, including the ugly one of how a pattern of child abuse was officially hidden for so long, a reality that the pope, to his credit, saw fit to address. Maybe sometimes things do get better.

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Adam Rose is a former CJR intern and a freelance writer based in New York City.