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Now is time to stop eulogizing, start asking hard questions

Sun Television Critic

With the election of a new pope yesterday, the networks once again interrupted regular programming to join the all-news cable channels for continuous live coverage from the Vatican. Instantly, tens of millions of screens in homes and offices around the world were filled with iconic images of the Vatican and pictures from St. Peter's Square of crowds cheering, clapping and waving flags in celebration of the news.

Like the coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the picture of the Roman Catholic Church sketched by the media yesterday again looked to be largely a positive one - the church as a dynamic and diverse institution with leaders beloved by both young and old.

That image is at odds with the reality of a continuing scandal involving the abuse of children by priests, a cover-up by high-ranking church leaders, and widespread doctrinal disputes on matters ranging from the use of condoms to the ordination of women.

The dichotomy raises questions about whether the past two weeks have or have not been a remarkable public relations opportunity for the church. And, if so, has the church made good use of its moment on the world's media stage?

"One of John Paul II's greatest strengths was his ability to deal with the media and make himself a media star," said Diane Winston, Knight chair in religion and media at the University of Southern California. "One of his greatest legacies to the church is in teaching it the importance of public relations in a television age."

Winston said yesterday's staging of the announcement of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope was "proof" that Pope John Paul's lesson of media and public relations was learned by the Vatican.

Fast and colorful, with a heavy curtain dramatically pulled back and Ratzinger appearing on a balcony stage as tens of thousands cheered below, "It was an event perfectly suited to a television audience - it was a staged media spectacle," Winston said.

While analysts agreed that the Vatican showed a new sophistication in dealing with the media, they cautioned against automatically interpreting that to mean the Vatican was able to manipulate or control the words and images that reached living rooms around the world.

"I don't think church leaders in Rome perceived this as an overt public relations opportunity in a real sophisticated way," said Debra L. Mason, executive director of the Religion News- writers Association, a professional organization of journalists who write about religion.

"At first, I think they were mostly just scrambling to try and accommodate the media, because they felt in danger of being overwhelmed."

Mason, who was in Rome during Pope John Paul's funeral, said the Vatican, which had never offered credentials to more than 2,000 journalists for any event, wound up tripling that number by late last week. She said she witnessed a struggle by communications staffers in the Vatican to keep up with media demands for access.

But Mason said she also saw a new openness or sense of cooperation with the press by church leaders. It ranged from providing schedules of proceedings taking place behind closed doors, to allowing a camera situated behind Pope Benedict XVI on the balcony yesterday.

That camera resulted in shots of the crowd gathered in the square from the point of view of the new pontiff. That camera point of view invited identification with Pope Benedict.

"Compared with Vatican II, where the only information came during briefings with designated archbishops, the level of access and cooperation in recent days was unprecedented," Mason said, agreeing that it resulted in a more dramatic and engaging kind of coverage.

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a Florida school for journalists, cautioned against assuming that because the church was successful in promoting a positive image in recent days, the press failed to do its job.

"From an American perspective, the big Catholic story of the last three years has been the sexual abuse of children by priests," Clark said. "In terms of public relations, one could probably term that as a public relations apocalypse."

Judging what Americans have seen and heard about the church in the media during the past two weeks against that, Clark said, coverage of the pope could be characterized as a public relations victory for the church.

"Overall, the image Americans saw was not of a troubled church, but rather a more vital one that stands for something and was led by a person who had the odd capacity to be firm in doctrinal matters, but human and down to earth in his personal interactions. The story of the man was an attractive one," Clark said.

There is no doubt that the press focused in the past two weeks on the easier-to-tell "people story" of Pope John Paul rather than the more complicated narratives involving internal fights over doctrine and scandal, but Clark said he disagrees with those who say "the media was too soft" on the church.

"In this cycle of coverage, now is the time for the media to start asking tougher questions about the future of the church and Cardinal Ratzinger's ability to lead it," Clark said, pointing to similar cycles of coverage for President Ronald Reagan and other world leaders in which the media adopts a less critical tone during the rituals connected with burial and succession.

Winston said, "Now is the time to do the hard assessment about what didn't happen with John Paul and what has to happen with Ratzinger for the church to grow. And I think we saw that starting to happen yesterday."

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