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People in Saint Peter's Square watch a live television screen showing cardinals entering the Sistine Chapel to begin the conclave in order to elect a successor to Pope Benedict, at the Vatican March 12, 2013. (GIAMPIERO SPOSITO/REUTERS)
People in Saint Peter's Square watch a live television screen showing cardinals entering the Sistine Chapel to begin the conclave in order to elect a successor to Pope Benedict, at the Vatican March 12, 2013. (GIAMPIERO SPOSITO/REUTERS)

John Doyle

Papal coverage 2013: Like the Oscars, Super Bowl and Tahrir rolled into one Add to ...

As I began writing this, on Tuesday afternoon, black smoke rose from that chimney in the Vatican. As even the man in the moon must know by now, the gist was this: No pope for you! Not that anybody on television, across multiple channels, was actually giving viewers the gist. Hell, no. Coverage of the papal conclave has been long-winded, verbose, often silly and, frankly, excessive. Every channel hereabouts and in the United States has been all over the story with mind-boggling doggedness. Vatican mania run amok.

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(An aside here. In 1979, when I was living in Dublin, pope John Paul II came to Ireland. He did a mass in Phoenix Park and about one million people attended, roughly the entire population of the city. I didn’t go. Wasn’t interested. I watched some of it on TV and went for a walk in the utterly empty streets. Then and now, I worship only at the altar of FC Barcelona. Just so you know where I’m coming from here.)

Over the past few days, it’s Vatican this and Vatican that on TV. Ceaselessly. The anchors of our major TV news programs and big-shot reporters are in Rome, which is nice this time of year. All the U.S. networks and all-news channels have a small army of people reporting live from Rome. There isn’t a whole lot to report, though, is there?

The coverage boggles the mind because it is a strange hybrid of the tropes of sports coverage, reporting on the entertainment-awards season and coverage of a very public political crisis somewhere. What’s actually happening, I think, is television falling heavily for the spectacle, not the substance of the event.

The spectacle is alluring – Rome, the Sistine Chapel, the dozens of elderly men in colourful garments, moving slowly and engaged in rituals that mystify most people, even Catholics, including the lapsed and recovering, like me.

The visual richness reminds one of the Oscars or the Emmys and the red-carpet coverage of glamourpuss actresses in spectacular frocks. Put a bunch of people on a red carpet in eye-catching outfits, even if they are elderly guys, and the TV cameras just show up, by instinct or out of habit. Then there is the speculation about who will win – presented as if it were insider information, just like reporters claiming deep knowledge of both the movie racket and public taste.

Some of the punditry is so strange it’s entertaining, in an unnerving way. On Tuesday on CNN, Christiane Amanpour spoke with retired cardinal Edward Egan of New York. She put it to him that polls indicate many Catholics are unhappy with the direction of the Church and feel it is remote from contemporary values on many issues. He dismissed this. “Here in New York, there is a great satisfaction with the Church and the direction it is taking,” said the man who once hammered Hollywood for presenting same-sex marriage as a reasonable ideal.

The sports element is there in the coverage when reporters and pundits talk about “the reformist faction versus the traditionalists” and who will triumph in the end. As if it were the 49ers against the Ravens. There is also, of course, the chatter about betting and the odds available on the guy from Milan or the guy from Brazil.

When viewers see the scenes in St. Peter’s Square and the few thousand people gathered, with their flags and signs, all staring at the chimney or St. Peter’s Basilica, they might be reminded of political crisis moments in recent history – the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or the mass protests of the Arab Spring movement. This is what TV likes and adheres to – vaguely familiar images of public gatherings suggesting exciting developments. In reality, of course, there are some tourists gathered in Rome joining a couple of thousand local fanatics and gawkers.

Now, it’s possible to argue that having a Canadian with an outside chance of becoming pope has made Canadian TV coverage a bit feverish. There has been much footage of Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s hometown in Quebec, where, we have been informed by CBC, “the world’s media” have gathered. It turns out there are about 20 reporters and technicians there.

But the Canadian angle does not account for the excess of the U.S. broadcasters. The other night, Anderson Cooper was live from Rome on CNN trying to make sense of two Catholic officials, one beside him in the Rome night, and the other in a studio somewhere. The two argued about whether certain cardinals had covered up incidents of sexual abuse. Cooper looked pained, with a “get me outta here” expression on his face.

Some viewers must have felt the same. And the sexual-abuse issue is what makes the excessive coverage of the papal conclave truly unnerving. This issue is what has driven many Catholics away from the Church, and something that gets lost in all the TV coverage focusing on the spectacle, not the substance.

On Wednesday morning, more black smoke from that chimney. More mindless chatter on TV. Out of curiosity, I looked at the live stream of news from RTE, Ireland’s main TV channel. Where once the Church and all its majesty had been covered so breathlessly, was there intense coverage of the conclave and that puff of black smoke? No. What I saw was Michael “Baldy” Noonan, a government minister, talking about bank debt, mortgages and relief for the debt-burdened unemployed. Things people there care about now.

Then, Wednesday afternoon, the white smoke. The new man. Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, age 76. (My first question is this: Is he a Boca Juniors or River Plate man?) On CBC-TV, the audio broke down. A seemingly awed Pastor Mansbridge (and never was the nickname so apt), using a phone line, said the audio thing didn’t matter. “Look at the pictures. On a night like this, they tell the story.” Indeed. Seduced by the spectacle.

And it’s not just me bothered by the mind-boggling TV coverage. Readers have written already to express amazement. “I am so tired of the pope who was too pooped to pope,” one said. And, “Why is the Catholic Church put on such a pedestal?” One reader said she was reminded of a Romanian saying: “A change of rulers is the joy of fools.” Amen to that, and please pass it on to people in the TV news racket.

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