The Rapture

by Lee Siegel | May 2, 2005

MANY CATHODE-ILLUMINATED years have passed since the term "infotainment" settled into reality and started appearing without quotation marks. The devolution of the evening news into a hybrid sort of entertainment is an old tale. In its original form, it simply meant that hard news stories would still be broadcast, but that there would be fewer of them, and more segments about lifestyle issues, celebrity shenanigans, and the like. How quaint it all was. Now you almost long for the bygone sense of alarm that you felt when the networks started to be All About You; when serious reports about eroding coastlines started giving way to more serious reports about expanding waistlines. Consider the past few weeks, in which American television discovered God.

First you had the television newspeople popping up in Atlanta and transforming themselves into evangelical Christians in order to perform--not report--the story of Ashley Smith, who claimed that God had used her as a divine instrument in his (disconcertingly messy) plan to bring a sinner into the light. Then they all piled into their shiny, decaled, satellite-topped vans and sped down to Florida, where this time they didn't so much perform as sensationally stage--and again, not exactly report--the conflict between the husband and the parents of poor Terri Schiavo, and the conflict between the will of God and the will of the state court. And then it was off to Rome.

In the new world capital of sacred feeling, the television newspeople deftly began to assimilate, like Method actors studiously researching a character's circumstances and environment. It was not long before all these media sophisticates began to speak about John Paul II's life and death in the manner of Calabrian peasant women. For CBS's Harry Smith, ensconced in this ancient place renowned for its beautiful and sunny days, "it's been a kind of miraculous week in its own way, because it's been beautiful and sunny." Before the pope's dying, death, funeral, and entombment, you can bet your cable subscription that most, if not all, of the talking heads converging on the Eternal City thought that a pectoral cross was something you did at the gym. But they were all Catholics now.

Miracles abounded. With astonishing verisimilitude, the newscasters spoke sentimentally, reverentially, about every single thing, no matter how trivial or dogmatic or cloying or cunning, that the late pope had said or done. Despite the fact that this church had its institutional origins in the Middle Ages, the funeral was, they insisted, unprecedented. For CBS's Allen Pizzey, the sheer number of people gathered in St. Peter's Square was itself a "miracle" that would easily serve as one of the two wonders the pope had to knock out of the park if he was to gain admission to sainthood. For CNN's Anderson Cooper, looking at the crowds lingering in the square after the funeral mass was finished, the experience of being there was so, like, spiritual: "This is the kind of energy, the kind of passion, the kind of love which we have witnessed." Most of the experts who were paraded before the cameras were Catholic priests. All of them turned out to have loved and admired the pope greatly. The complexities of history and philosophy, even the very rudiments of them, were nowhere to be found.

After nearly two weeks of obsessive round-the-clock coverage of the passing of John Paul II, it is clear that there is no longer a crisis in the ratio of hard news to soft news. Hard news has gone the way of "snow" at the end of a television channel's broadcast day. The delivery of the news is itself an event that now should be reported in some meta-news format. Maybe this accounts for the popularity of Jon Stewart's real-but-not-real send-ups of the news.

The talking heads are no longer content to sit back and report. Like the reality-show participants who can't bear to sit back and watch TV drama but have to be part of it; like the bloggers who broadcast their days and nights; like the memoirists; like the self-dramatizing performance artists; like that friend of yours who responds to every comment you make about world affairs with a story from his own life that illustrates each international event--like so many people nowadays who live inside their heads, the talking heads are trapped in the belief that they are experiencing what they are merely covering. They report the news as if they are making it.

Say what you will about the inaccuracy or the slantedness of mainstream print organs, a schism yawns between print and television news that gapes even wider than the split between the Roman and Eastern churches. Maybe because we take for granted the sharp differences between the two mediums, we no longer see that the differences are becoming more extreme. But the coverage of the pope depressingly demonstrated that television news has mutated from viewer- centered stories to reporter-centered stories. The anchor is dead. Long live the anchor!

WE GET UNCOMFORTABLE and occasionally outraged when we feel that some public figure has been "acting," or that a resonant public event has been "staged" in order to manipulate our feelings, in the manner of Bush's "Top Gun" landing on that aircraft carrier. We hear Reagan described as the Great Communicator and some of us roll our eyes, because we know that "communicate" is often a sunny synonym for "obfuscate." At the pope's funeral, however, you could tune in to CNN and hear international correspondent Jonathan Mann enthusiastically seconding an archbishop's shrewd counsel that "the next pope is going to have to be a communicator." The elementary journalistic response to such a prescription should have been either to let the statement stand by itself or to let viewers know that Mann knew--in his journalist's role as the vicar of common sense--what contrapuntal possibilities were lurking behind the term "communicator." But media submission came to the archbishop as Mann endorsed his sentiments.

Later we heard Alessio Vinci, CNN's Vatican correspondent, celebrate the fact that "this is a pope who uses symbols and symbolism in order to bridge those churches and those religions together." A slight inflection of integrity and professional skill, and you could hear a different kind of journalist carefully creating a space for the possibility that this was a pope who used symbols and symbolism as pretexts for virtuous inaction. Anderson Cooper, through whose hip body the funeral "sent chills," conceded that many people disagreed with the pope's teachings, "but they see him as a man who preached compassion, who preached tolerance and love." But was the fact that the pope preached these virtues enough to make his critics satisfied with his "teachings"? Cooper didn't create a space for that possibility. These days a television correspondent's main qualification is the ability to give the impression that he or she is feeling deeply.

This was an insult not just to non-Catholics, but also to Catholics who cherish their faith but also prize their critical stance toward the church (a stance that some traditions of Catholic thought have nourished). There was something chilling about CNN's sudden cessation of professional detachment. It covered the death of the pope as I imagine the media of Eastern Europe covered the death of Stalin. (No, I am not comparing the great enemy of communism to the great hero of communism.) For Mann, a supposedly secular representative of an allegedly secular news organization presumably dedicated to the presentation of unaffiliated facts, the totalizing worldwide broadcast of the pope's death and its aftermath meant that Catholic "themes are being taught to the world that doesn't know it," the main theme being that "Christ is available to all, and that man is mortal but has the promise of everlasting life." You yearned for a commercial break, which in this context would have had the liberating effect of an aria by Mozart. But Mann pressed on. In a state of near rapture, he suddenly related his own epiphany: "If you wanted ... a moment and experience that would spread what the Catholic Church has been teaching for two thousand years to people who don't normally hear it from the church, this is the ceremony, this is the event, this is the message." Hallelujah.

THERE HAS BEEN SOME CRITICISM of how news organizations exploited the occasion in Rome, but I have yet to see anyone remark that the trinity of recent events--Saint Ashley, Saint Terri, and the pope--exemplified a new reality in the delivery of the news in general. The television newspeoples' fluid inhabiting of the story, which is by definition always other people's story, was not merely pandering to a newly discovered religious market, or a nervous response to charges of "liberal" bias against religion. (Nobody had better make that accusation again.) Above all, it meant that stories About You, once intended to bring the news to more viewers, had been usurped. Now the television people were reporting real news in a way that made every event, no matter how "hard," a story that you experienced through the vicarious empathizing of the anchors and their cast of dozens. They were Us. And we were They.

Call it Newsaoke--karaoke with deadlines. The worst--or most gifted, depending on what qualities you are measuring--practitioners of Newsaoke are to be found on CNN. The networks had their share of oozing credulity, but nothing could surpass the Cable News Network, which for the duration of the ceremonies in Rome transformed itself into the Catholic News Network. This was perhaps inevitable, given the fact that a round-the-clock station devoted exclusively to news would inevitably try to adapt the news to all the genres it was competing against: drama, comedy, action-adventure, confessional talk show, and so forth. And maybe the network's mandate of eternal watchfulness had gone to its head, causing it to imagine that it was doing God's work in a godless world: according to CNN correspondent John Allen, "CNN and the papacy of John Paul II, in a sense, grew up together."

Some print journalists pointed out the irony (if not the offense) of the pope spending so much of his reign traveling the globe apologizing to everybody for centuries of church intolerance, stupidity, and slaughter. But the talking heads represented the apologies as crescendos of authentic feeling that actually accomplished the goals the church hoped to achieve by making them, and in some way absolved it. Christiane Amanpour earnestly related that the pope had apologized to the Muslims for the "excesses of the Crusades"--though not for the Crusades themselves--and also to the Jews for the Holocaust. She then solemnly intoned that during John Paul's pontificate the Catholic Church had apologized to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church had apologized to the Catholic Church, for the schism that had occurred between them in the eleventh century, though neither set of apologies had closed the schism. This persistent discord between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christians was, she said, "the great sorrow of the pope's life," but neither she nor anybody else on television bothered to explain what the schism was really about, or what steps the pope might have taken to defy church doctrine and overcome it. There was little time for such nuances. There were still the matters of the Inquisition and the historical anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust, and John Allen eagerly reminded us that this pope made sure to apologize for them, too. Also the tsuris with Galileo.

Meanwhile, an archbishop working as a consultant to CNN--there's a phenomenon--was able to show that the injuries were not all one-sided. Gerhard Schroeder himself had apologized to the Catholic Church, and also to the Polish people, for Germany's failure to come to the aid of Solidarity during the revolt against Soviet rule. All these apologies, the CNN theatrical troupe assured us, were "amazing" and "extraordinary" acts of reconciliation on the part of this pope, who also, we were told reverentially, had the courage actually to set foot in a synagogue, and also in a mosque. You almost felt like you should apologize to the church for making it feel so guilty that it had to do so much apologizing. Was the thing with Galileo really that bad?

There were moments of sanity, or at least an occasional recognition that the performance had gone too far. Toward the end of CNN's run in Rome, the network even brought in someone whose very presence might imply a criticism of this pope's attitudes toward women and human sexuality, one Claudia Spadazzi, an Italian gynecologist. Spadazzi assured viewers that far from being in thrall to the church, Rome was a great city "where there are many different realities." Of course, she couldn't have been directly critical of John Paul. And any such old-fashioned journalistic independence quickly collapsed under the weight of having to turn in the most treacly reading of events possible. When Jeff Greenfield tried to make the point that the massive demonstration of affection in St. Peter's Square did not necessarily signify broad support for the pope's more intransigent positions, Wolf Blitzer reined him in: "And yet at the same time, Jeff, the outpouring of emotion that we saw today involving the pope's funeral does involve an extraordinarily strong bond. You have to, I think, agree with that." You just have to.

By that point, only Christ himself could have harrowed the CNN crowd into some semblance of rational skepticism and detachment. For the pope had barely arrived in heaven when he seemed to swing into action. Amanpour credited him with the handshake between the Israeli president and the Syrian president: "Maybe it's the spirit of John Paul." "Amazing," agreed Cooper, who asked the archbishop-consultant if the pope was watching from heaven. "Certainly," said the archbishop, pleased to offer his expertise in the afterlife department. (What are his sources? I demand to know.) And the archbishop added that the pope watching from the sky "is pleased at the great number of young people who are here." But what about Schiavo, Sontag, Bellow, Hunter Thompson, Grace Kelly's husband, and all the other new arrivals? What about a special two-hour "edition" with the dead on Larry King Live? It would be, as they say in the kingdom of television, ratings heaven.

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