John Paul II, Media Critic

By: Mark Fitzgerald Pope John Paul II was the biggest "get" that Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Larry King, and all the rest of the celebrity inquisitors never got. But while the pope shunned the chance to publicly ponder what kind tree he might be, it was not out of contempt for the media or disinterest in the workings of journalism.

This was a pope who wrote frequently about the media -- and often with the kind of detailed arguments you'd expect more from Ben Bagdikian than the former archbishop of Krakow. John Paul II was surely the only successor to Peter whose Pontifical Social Communications Council produced a pastoral instruction that could be read as an endorsement of the Federal Communications Commission's ban on media cross-ownership.

"The solution to problems arising from unregulated commercialization and privatization does not lie in state control of media, but in more regulation according to criteria of public service and in greater accountability," the council wrote in Aetatis Novae.

In the very next sentence, though, it warned "government intervention [in the media] remains an instrument of oppression and exclusion."

This tension between individual liberty and media responsibility was a theme the pope explored constantly. He proclaimed individual freedom of expression to be not only a natural right of man, but he also saw believed that powerful institutions, such as the news industry, had a special duty to help the "neediest and the weakest," as he wrote in Redemptor Hominis.

On World Communications Day in 1999, John Paul lauded journalists as "witness to the truth about life, about human dignity, about the true meaning of our freedom and mutual interdependence."

At the same time, he was pretty clear-eyed about the failings of individual journalists and the news media in general. His Pontifical Council for Social Communications, in the 2000 declaration "Ethics in Communications," lamented that "stereotyping -- based on race and ethnicity, sex, age and other factors, including religion -- is distressingly common in media."

The council decried the media's tendency to see its audience as mere numbers, and to pander to the box office. In a passage with even more relevance these days - as the newspaper industry spins out more and more narrowly targeted publications -- the Pontifical Council said that the "niche ... approach is legitimate, up to a point."

"But diversification and specialization -- organizing media to correspond to audience broken down into ever-smaller units based largely on economic factors and patterns of consumption -- should not be carried too far," the council wrote. They reminded readers that John Paul's Redemptoris Missio called on the media to "remain a forum for exchanging ideas and information, drawing individuals and groups together, fostering solidarity and peace."

John Paul was the first pope to go on the Internet -- and the first to warn about its drawbacks: "a loss of the intrinsic value of items of information, an undifferentiated uniformity in messages that are reduced to pure information, a lack of responsible feedback and a certain discouragement of personal relationships."

The pope encouraged other Catholics to be media critics and buffs as well. In Familiaris Consortio, he declared that parents must teach their children to be discerning readers and viewers of media.

And though certain U.S. bishops resisted this advice as the pedophilia scandal unfolded in recent years, John Paul's Pontifical Commission declared that the Church's own communications policies must "be exemplary, reflecting the highest standards of truthfulness."

"Those who represent the Church must be honest and straightforward in their relations with journalists," his council declared.

John Paul had conflicting thoughts about the media's intersection with religion. Not surprisingly, this most media-savvy of all popes held that "many people's religious lives are greatly enriched through the media" when, for instance, it reports on, well, his trips around the world. The Pontifical Council scolded religious leaders for "taking an exclusively judgmental and negative view of the media, failing to understand that reasonable standards of good media practice, such as objectivity and even-handedness, may preclude special treatment for religion's institutional interests."

Yet his council also lamented journalists' inclination to ignore or marginalize religious ideas, "treating religion with incomprehension, perhaps even contempt, as an object of curiosity that does not merit serious attention."

And in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the pope himself decried news organizations that participate in a "conspiracy against life" by "lending credit to that culture which presents recourse to contraception, sterilization, abortion and even euthanasia as a mark of progress and a victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro-life."

Above all, this pope demanded that the media and its practitioners take their responsibilities seriously. "Faced with grave injustices, it is not enough for communicators to simply say that their job is to report things as they are," his council wrote. "That undoubtedly is their job. But some instances of human suffering are largely ignored by the media even as other are reported, and insofar as this reflects a decision by communicators, it reflects indefensible selectivity."

The Vatican's 2000 "Ethics in Communications" document recalled an earlier pastoral instruction, Communio et Progressio, that called Christ "the perfect communicator," and cited Christ's warning in Matthew 12:37 as a caution to all us less than perfect communicators:

"I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render an account for every careless word they utter, for by your words will you be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

CORRECTION, April 8: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Communio et Progressio and Aetatis Novae as encyclicals, which are documents authored by a pope. Both are "pastoral instructions" produced by Pontifical Council on Social Communications.


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