VATICAN CITY—When Christopher Winner of United Press International rushed out to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in August 1978, after Pope Paul VI died, almost nobody in town had heard the news.
A handful of Italian reporters were chatting amiably around the one public phone, at the bar in the town square. When Winner got through to New York, his editors demanded quotes from sobbing locals. They didn't believe him when he told them there weren't any.
"The news had not filtered out, but even when it did, it took hours for there to be any reaction," Winner, now the editor of Rome's The American magazine, recalled.
What a difference a quarter-century makes. Every aspect of the papal death ritual is being beamed live by satellite throughout the world. Minute-by-minute Internet updates are focusing unprecedented attention on centuries-old Roman Catholic rituals.
Now, some are beginning to wonder whether the media attention is beginning to influence the event itself. They note that many of the hundreds of thousands pouring into Rome to view Pope John Paul II's body look more like curious tourists than distraught mourners.
Winner, who covered both Paul VI's death and then, just a few weeks later, the death of his successor, John Paul I, said he's dismayed that, in his view, the pope has been transformed in death into another one-dimensional cult celebrity.
"The coverage to me is extremely manipulative," he said. "It's Hollywood coverage; it's celebrity coverage. It's uncritical. People are told that, `Here is a great man and he needs to be grieved for,' so they cry."
Whether or how the relentless media gaze will affect the conclave, the secret meeting at which the College of Cardinals will choose the next pope, remains to be seen.
But some worry that the coverage is overlooking the more complicated aspects of the pope's tenure, such as his inflexible stance on issues such as birth control and abortion that were hardly popular among a wide swath of Roman Catholics and others.
Many critics argue that the media are doing with the pope just what was done with former President Ronald Reagan, when he died in June: reducing a deeply controversial figure to a warm, grandfatherly caricature.
"This is a church with declining priests, with declining nuns, with declining church attendance," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. "This was a very conservative pope—most of his Western flock was not with his program."
She added: "The Vatican has been saying that this pope had great appeal to young people, and this is largely being uncritically accepted by the news media. If that were true, where are all the young people in the pews on Sunday morning?"
Mark Silk, who runs the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said it's not surprising that media attention has been focused on the pope's death.
"This is a guy who decided to run the biggest religion job on earth as a media event, and so why shouldn't his death be a big media event?" Silk said. "I think it's appropriate that the coverage be over the top. Whether there's that much to say is another question. How many people can you watch filing past the bier? How much idle speculation can you indulge in?"
Still, Silk sees value in the seemingly endless coverage. "I predict that by the end of the day, we'll emerge with people educated to a fair degree on what's facing the Catholic Church," he said.
"When Ronald Reagan died, we were told he was the man who defeated communism," said Jeff Sharlet, editor of The Revealer, an Internet magazine about media coverage of religion, funded by New York University's Department of Journalism and NYU's Center for Religion and Media.
"Now the pope has died, and he was the man who defeated communism. We've heard this story before, and it's too simplistic."
John Paul II was "a figure of tremendous polarization, right up until the end," Sharlet said. "He was a warrior, and we weren't all on his side. Now people are being asked to turn on a dime and consider him as a mythic figure who had a simple and straightforward meaning."
But Stewart Stehlin, a New York University history professor who has lived at the Vatican while researching German-Vatican relations, said he's not surprised that news coverage might seem largely uncritical. There's a perfectly natural human tendency to speak well of the dead, he noted. But not everything is uncritical.
"I've read an awful lot where they would be laudatory but then say, `Well, he hasn't accomplished this, he was too strict on that,'" he said. "I would expect in a situation like this that most comments would be laudatory."
(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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