A new study by the Culture and Media Institute of network coverage of Pope Benedict’s retirement reveals constant attacks, ridicule, and repeated allusions to scandals as ABC, CBS, and NBC reported on Benedict’s final days.
The study reveals that the Catholic Church was repeatedly deemed “troubled,” the Church was attacked for not “modernizing,” the real-world Church was constantly compared to the fictitious world of novelist Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code series of books, and late night TV hosts turned Benedict into the butt of jokes.
On February 11, Pope Benedict announced his retirement due to ill health, setting the big three networks into attack mode.
From Benedict’s Feb. 11 resignation through the evening of Feb. 27, the day before it took effect, the networks referred to the Catholic Church as a troubled institution 122 times and aired the word ‘scandal’ 87 times in 112 reports. Anchors and reporters suggested that the Church must modernize (32 times) and pressed for change in issues regarding women (7 times) and gays (13 times). At times, they trivialized the first resignation of a Pope since the 1500s as ‘worthy of a Dan Brown novel’ (ABC’s Harris again.) and sensationalized it by entertaining theories about other reasons Benedict might be stepping down.
On the lighter side, over the two-week period, network morning shows continuously aired jokes about Benedict staged by late night comedy shows such as Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.
In a strange turn, several network news shows compared Pope Benedict’s retirement to aspects of the fictional books by thriller writer Dan Brown. During one broadcast, ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas said that Benedict’s stepping down was a “Real-life ‘Da Vinci Code,” and Dan Harris said that the incident “provoked Vatican intrigue worthy of a Dan Brown novel.”
But the jokes and the allusions to Dan Brown’s novels were mild compared to the attacks on the “scandals” surrounding the Church.
The study finds, “In the three broadcast networks’ 112 reports since Benedict resigned, there have been 122 mentions of a church in trouble. Reports have referred to ‘scandal’ 87 times. By network accounts, nothing happened in the church during Benedict’s eight-year papacy except scandal, dysfunction and failure.”
With his announcement of retirement, Pope Benedict decisively pegged his reason for stepping down to his failing health, but the networks insisted that the real reason he was stepping down was because of the decades of sex abuse scandals that hit the Church before Benedict became its leader.
CBS, for one, plied the theme quite a lot. CBS Anchor Scott Pelley, for instance, claimed that the next Pope would be “inheriting a church in turmoil.” Then, in an interview with Norah O’Donnell, Georgetown College Dean Chester Gillis claimed that the pressure of dealing with the sex scandals contributed to Benedict’s decision to step down. On February 24, CBS correspondent Allen Pizzey again pointed out the “scandals” of the church saying, “The ex-Pope has to disappear during the conclave even if the scandals that plagued his reign will be in plain sight.”
The survey shows that Pope Benedict was widely viewed as a controversial figure, that his church was in “disarray,” that Catholicism is on the downturn, and that he was leaving not because of his stated purposes but because of “scandals” in the Church.