Monday, May 12, 2008

The Pope and the Press

I have recently returned from Washington, D.C., where in the space of five days I experienced glorious religious pageantry, unholy gridlock and journalism at its most mediocre and very best.
What more can you ask for in a vacation?

It began when I, quite by accident, touched down at almost the very moment the Pope was arriving for his visit to the United States, an experience that led me to devise Rector's First Rule of Historic Events: no matter where or when they occur, historic events create massive traffic jams.

On a normal day, Washington is no walk in the park when it comes to traffic.

Take one 18th century city, designed for travel by horseback. Add tens of thousands of bureaucrats, diplomats, members of the military, elected officials and tourists by the busload.
Then top with the most visible religious leader in the world and stir in thousands of his followers. Voila: You have a city at standstill.

Amid the gridlock, souvenir hawkers sold Pope-on-a-rope soap, bobble head dolls, T-shirts, key chains, tote bags, coffee mugs, all adorned with either a likeness of Benedict XVI or the papal seal.

The streets were jammed with adoring clergy and lay people along with protesting atheists, zealots of dubious beliefs, even scalpers hawking tickets to a Mass at the local baseball stadium ("Who needs two down by the altar?")

The local media interviewed them all. Breathlessly. TV became all Pope, all the time.

After the Mass, viewers were subjected to more seat-of-the-pants analysis than a Super Bowl. We heard interviews with people who saw the Pope, people who hoped to see the Pope, people who saw the Virgin Mary on a pancake. Nobody escaped the dreaded roving reporters.

A procession of priests and theologians spoke endlessly and glowingly of the Pope's visit. Of course, asking a priest about the Pope is like asking Laura Bush her opinion of the president.

What did it all mean? What lasting effect will the visit have? Did it defuse the pedophile priest controversy? Did it boost the image of the Catholic Church in America? Alas, these were questions that were never asked. The pageantry trumped the purpose.

On the other side of the coin, I visited the newly opened Newseum, a massive, $450 million, six-story edifice that in the words of the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz is "an overpriced monument to journalistic self-glorification."

Perhaps it is. But given the mistrust of the media, plummeting newspaper readership and declining TV news ratings, who else but the profession is going to honor the profession? Passing the hat would not have got the place built.

Aside from quirky touches like an interactive ethics gallery, a video game in which you play an editor making decisions about a developing story (I passed: been there, done that) and a 4-D movie that combines the best of the First Amendment with "House of Wax," the place is not so much a monument as a museum.

Eight giant sections of the Berlin Wall, complete with East German guard tower, provide mute testimony to a brutal totalitarian regime.

The spire of twisted steel that had been the communications tower of the World Trade Center along with a chunk of limestone from the Pentagon is accompanied by a wrenching documentary about the media who were at Ground Zero that day.

The Watergate hotel door that led to the burglar's capture is on display. So is the bomb-damaged Datsun in which Arizona reporter Don Bolles was killed while exposing mob activity in Arizona.

There's a page from a Gutenberg Bible. There's Thomas Paine's writing desk. There's a news helicopter hanging in the atrium. A massive gallery houses historic newspaper front pages and magazines from declarations of war to presidential assassinations. The front page of an edition of the Neosho (Mo.) Times declares "JESSE JAMES Assassinated!"

The front page of the San Francisco Examiner from 9/11 has a picture of the massive fireball created when United flight 175 hit the south tower of the World Trade Center with a single word headline, "BASTARDS!"

This is a warts and all presentation. Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and others who disgraced the profession are represented. So is the "Dewey Defeats Truman" front page from the Chicago Tribune and various newspapers that prematurely awarded the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

There is the "Headless Body in Topless Bar" headline from the New York Post and a lot of "Saturday Night Live" media sendups displayed on TV monitors.

There is a gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, most of which chronicle our failures rather than our successes.

Ultimately, the Newseum is a monument to the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." And it is noble in its execution.

But there's a certain irony in the fact that it is opening at a time the news business faces declining revenues, massive layoffs, desperate searches for a new business model.

Even though you won't see any mention of these problems within its walls, you can't help but wonder if the Newseum soon enough will become like the Louvre, a repository of ancient ideas and artifacts.

We will be poorer if it does.

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