On one level, I am rather disappointed to note that the editors at the Associated Press have already fixed an awesome typo that a Beltway journalist sent to me early today, the one that said the Pope Benedict XVI has, as is common among elderly men, experienced “some prostrate problems” in recent years.
Yes, that’s certainly the truth. Arthritis can make it hard to do prostrations during liturgical prayers.
Perhaps that typo crept into the copy while members of the AP team frantically worked to turn the basic obituary story that they had stashed away in a digital file into a live, breaking news report about the pope’s stunning announcement that he was retiring.
The nearly 3,000-word report that quickly hit the wires today contains a sweeping overview of Benedict XVI’s life, just like an obituary. It doesn’t contain the kinds of errors that will make faithful Catholics scream and spill coffee into their computer keyboards. That’s good, since this AP story is the one that millions of newspapers will see in their local newspapers — the many, many local papers that do not have fulltime religion specialists.
What this AP story has, however, is the kind of framing language that always makes me think of those moments in sporting events — especially in soccer and basketball — when one player fouls another, forcing the angry person who was fouled to lash out in response. The referees then, inevitably, call a foul on the second player. We do live in a sinful, fallen world.
All too often in daily journalism, reporters (and especially editors) have a tendency to think that big important stories actually begin when they first realize that they exist, as opposed to when these stories actually start affecting life in the real world (as opposed to newsrooms).
Take, for example, that whole “Anglican timeline” thing, with all of the stories proclaiming that the Episcopal Church battles over doctrine, sacraments and sexuality started in 2003 with the election of an openly gay, non-celibate bishop in the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire. In reality, the battles had been going on — with international consequences — for several decades.
In this AP story about the retirement of Benedict XVI, the big story is the sex-abuse scandal. There are times, in this report, when the editors truly seem to realize that there is no singular scandal, but a series of connected scandals that have been unfolding since the early 1980s. Many of these flareups actually received attention in the mainstream press (as well as in Hollywood).
However, the headline at AP states the thesis: “Pope’s mission to revive faith clouded by scandal.” There are several places in which the AP team fits Benedict into this picture. For example:
The German theologian, whose mission was to reawaken Christianity in a secularized Europe, grew increasingly frail as he shouldered the monumental task of purging the Catholic world of a sex abuse scandal that festered under John Paul II and exploded during his reign into the church’s biggest crisis in decades, if not centuries.
That isn’t bad, but, actually, the scandal did much more than fester during the long, long tenure of the Blessed Pope John Paul II — it exploded into view several times. For example, didn’t The Boston Globe win its Pulitzer in 2003 for earlier coverage of the scandal, before Benedict XVI became pope? I am aware that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was already involved in the story, but it’s simply wrong to make it appear that the scandal began on his watch or that the worst abuses came to light during his papacy.
You can see the timeline struggle again a bit later in the report.