TV news back in the election game with Vatican coverage

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s election season all over again and short of CNN dusting off its Magic Wall to track the votes, broadcast and cable news are covering this week’s Conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI as if it were the Vatican primary. Instead of an electoral college, though, we have a College of Cardinals, who, as Chris Cuomo so inelegantly put it Monday, “ain’t talkin’.”

Almost like déjà vu all over again, the networks create computerized 3-D simulators of the Vatican as if it was a SimCity game, swooping overhead to show where the Sistine Chapel is compared to Saint Marta, the temporary dormitory of the 115 cardinals who will choose the pope.

Two of the three broadcast networks have sent their evening news anchors to Rome -ABC’s Diane Sawyer is there, as is CBS’ Scott Pelley, while NBC’s Brian Williams is in New York, allowing the very capable Anne Thompson to anchor the network’s Rome adventure. The cardinals were expected to take their first vote Tuesday, but few expect an immediate “winner” of the election.

CNN has sent Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo to the Vatican, while its sister station, HLN, continues its icky obsession with the Jodi Arias murder trial. So far, Fox News and MSNBC have maintained their primary focus on politics, with only perfunctory reporting on the conclave. Thompson and Cuomo have been candid about the challenges of reporting an election where you don’t have exit polls, the voters are locked away and the closest the candidates have come to campaigning is when the cardinals celebrated Mass Sunday at churches in and around Rome.

As Cooper put it, New York’s gregarious, media-savvy Cardinal Timothy Dolan was “literally kissing babies” on Sunday and while Fox News’ Steve Doocy observed Monday that “there’s a lot of politickin’ going on,” it’s not the kind American journalists were used to covering during the presidential campaign season.

If you watched the coverage on Monday and Tuesday, dubbed “Countdown to Conclave” by both ABC and NBC, you would come away with different scenarios for the conclave. While many observers interviewed by the networks seemed to agree that the chances of an American pope are slim, the Rev. Edward Beck acknowledged the popularity of Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who is normally given to wearing the humble Franciscan monk’s robe and sandals. “Franciscans are rock stars in Rome,” he said on CNN. By Tuesday morning, though, “Good Morning America” was puffing up the possibility of an American pope, and then interviewing Vatican observers who said that would be a long shot. From there, “GMA” showed a ring being placed on a finger, but it wasn’t Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley getting the Ring of St. Peter: It was the winner of “The Bachelor” getting her ring from Sean Lowe on Monday night.

The fact that there is disagreement from network to network on who the frontrunners are points to how secretive the entire selection process is. Milan’s Cardinal Angelo Scola is a favorite because the Italian bloc is the most populous among the 115 voting cardinals. Msgr. Anthony Figueireda, on CBS, sees Scola as the candidate of those advocating for reform in the church- more transparency and accountability, especially on its investigations of the ongoing sex abuse scandals, and the dealings of the Vatican Bank. Others see Brazil’s Cardinal Odilo Scherer as a logical frontrunner because of the large number of Brazilian Catholics.

On the other hand, there is “Sweet Sistine,” the name of a blog referenced by Fox News with a completely unreadable graphic seeming to show the various cardinals perched around a papal mitre like, well, the feathered variety of cardinals. By counting votes from site visitors, “Sweet Sistine” narrowed the finalists to two cardinals on Monday: Canada’s Marc Ouellet and Nigeria’s John Onaiyekan. Ouellet is often mentioned as a possibility, but the African cardinal most frequently cited—and interviewed—is South Africa’s Wilfrid Napier.

With no stump speeches or debates to televise, the networks’ biggest challenge is how to fill time, a lot of time. Some of the reports are silly, as when Diane Sawyer quizzed Cardinal Napier on what he would pack before moving to the electoral dormitory. Everyone reported on the installation of the copper chimney on the Sistine Chapel’s roof and how the smoke is made either black or, as ABC’s Josh Elliott termed in twice in five minutes, “iconic white” when a pope is chosen. All the networks have reported that a reform-minded pope could do much to counter the damage of the ongoing sex abuse scandals, and that the church is unlikely to leap too far away from tradition, no matter who is elected. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, cited a favorite joke among Romans on CNN about how the Vatican operates: “Talk to me on Tuesday and I’ll get back to you in 300 years.”

But CBS has demonstrated a deeper understanding of the significance of the conclave than the other networks, not just as the election of a religious leader, but as the election of a powerful head of state on the world political and economic scene. “The CBS Evening News” on Monday was highlighted by Mark Phillips’ informed and informative report on the financial scandals that have beset the Vatican in recent years, notwithstanding his statement that the Vatican Bank’s “transactions have not always been kosher.” CBS, the only one of the three broadcast networks to lead its evening news program with reporting from Rome Monday, included two other news stories adding dimension to its coverage—one about a parish in Brooklyn which has begun highly popular masses in Spanish as a way of showing how many American Roman Catholics are Hispanic, and a second about three young men studying for the priesthood on Long Island who talk about why they answered the call and what they are looking for in the next pope.

While the networks have generally acquitted themselves well in covering the story, CNN earns the white smoke in the computer graphics category: On Monday, Tom Foreman took viewers on a virtual guided tour of the voting process as he “stood” inside a CGI Sistine Chapel, which included a sample ballot from a live action Foreman dropping into a covered computerized vessel on table in front of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment.”

All the networks are informative to one degree or another, but how will they perform is the conclave continues for several days? The other news teams need to take a cue from CBS and begin reporting on more substantive issues than whether the next pope will wear shoes by Prada. It isn’t enough merely to cite the sex abuse scandals, or even the deceptively prosaic financial scandals: TV news can and should dig deeper, to take advantage of the opportunity the papal conclave presents to explore the nature of faith in the 21st century, the inevitable clash between the traditions of the world’s largest church and sociological changes in secular life, the power the Vatican could have in quelling world tension. It isn’t enough to point out how bound the church is to tradition and question whether it can or should modernize: It’s an opportunity for television to explore issues such as the role of women in the church, how church views on homosexuality fit with sweeping changes in that area throughout the world, and how to remedy disease and poverty in overpopulated, developing nations.

The papal conclave is a news opportunity that may not come again for many years.