Earlier today I wrote that I like it when papal elections come around because they seem to provide a context for reporting about the Catholic Church that's more sophisticated than is usual, in the American media anyway.
But I have been and remain deeply skeptical of coverage that attempts to divine what's happening inside the minds of the cardinals in their pre-conclave meetings, for a lot of reasons. Can it possibly be believed that these TV and newspaper reporters, being dropped by parachute into Vatican City, hanging around near (but never really among) the cardinal electors, can in a few days time make friends and forge alliances with sources that are likely to deliver them credible news despite the massive gag order that is always imposed on the Vatican during an election season?
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I Skyped Jason Horowitz, an old colleague of mine who's been dispatched to the Vatican by The Washington Post, and who worked a while back in the New York Times' Rome bureau, for some perspective. And immediately we got onto the topic of the foreign press' reliance on Italian media to drive their stories forward.
"They are our only door, it often feels like," he said.
He assured me that the on-the-ground press operation at the Vatican is determined almost entirely by the Italian press, for whom the Vatican is a constant topic whether a pope is being elected or not, and who massively influence the narrative that's being fed back to us by our own media who are descending on the Vatican now. And given the expectations of American news consumers like me, that's problematic.
"First of all, it simply goes back to: it's Italy, so everything is politics, and because the papers themselves were basically historically the mouthpieces of political parties or closely affiliated with political parties in Italy, the Vatican coverage often got wrapped up in that. So the papers that supported the old Christian Democrats that controlled Italy for a long time, the Christian Democrats were close to the Vatican, so you had those papers constantly defending the Vatican."
"Then you had the parties that wanted to take power away from the Christian Democrats, the communist parties and left-leaning parties, and they wanted to discredit the Vatican.
"It's not that neat anymore but it's critical for understanding where they're coming from, if not where they are right now."
The legacy of that Christian-Democratic strain is seen in the sober, straight-ahead accounts of most Italian newspapers.
"A lot of the Vatican reporters, and the ones who frankly don't break much news, I'm not entirely clear what they do because they are basically apologists," Horowitz told me. "They defend the Vatican. They even go after the better—or the more sensational, there's a fine line there in the Italian press—the better Italian papers for publishing these stories."
Then there are the reporters who are breaking news left and right—right or wrong.
"There are the people who work for major Italian newspapers like say La Repubblica but who are not sourced, and you don't have the feeling that they actually know anything. They have the big story about the contents of this dossier prepared by these three cardinals investigating Vatileaks. The idea that this reporter who is not considered very well sourced had seen this dossier herself made no sense. It might be true but the sourcing was so thin and nonexistent that nobody really knew what to make of it. Because there is no sourcing the only thing that matters is the byline and this reporter is not considered a heavyweight."
But being sourced isn't necessarily a reliable indicator of the truth of the reports either.
"Forever the Vatican has had these turf wars among themselves and the only way they could do politics was in the Italian press, so they and the reporters use each other. And it's just been this very symbiotic relationship between the two, the Vatican officials need the Italian reporters to be willing to do anything to win their internal fights. And it helps the reporters because they get news."
So it's a question of looking at the byline. Who's breaking news that clearly required real sources that also turns out to come true? Right now, the guy getting all the leaks that seem to be credible, Horowitz said, seems to be Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa.
"He's the reason we have a media blackout, because he was getting live feeds from cardinals inside these supposedly secret meetings. He's attacked by the other Vatican reporters for breaking news, because they say that there is a sacred oath and you're violating it."
Nevermind them, though, because their reports aren't being picked up in the American media anyway. There's not enough in them. The problem is whether the American media knows whether to pick the good guys from the bad guys when they're translating a big newsbreak from the Italian papers. You have to know the bylines to follow, Horowitz said.
"What separates them is, you know they are connected because the things that they write actually become true. It's not that you ever see like 'Pope Benedict told me in an interview' or even 'Secretary of State Bertoni told me in an interview.' It's always the equivalent of a well-placed Vatican official or a high ranking cardinal, but all cardinals are high ranking so everyone gets to claim the same sourcing.
"So the guys who are writing really high-level stuff, which is actually very small-ball in a way because it is at the very small height of the curia but it takes on great weight too—these guys, I don't know who their sources are but often they turn out to be right."
I asked Horowitz what the major American outlets were getting on their own, or how heavy is their dependence on the story-lines originating in the Italian press.
"I would call it total," Horowitz said.
Among the exceptions, Horowitz didn't particularly stress any mainstream American media.
"There are a couple of Americans who are independently sourced and who are quite frankly great. John Allen at The National Catholic Reporter is as good as anyone I think, and he's actually better in a way because he has American journalistic standards that he has to adhere to and does. So he's just frankly very impressive. There's a guy named John Thavis who is an old reporter for the Catholic News Service and he's out on his own now and has written a book."
But they're not the ones that seem to be driving the news we're seeing here in mainstream outlets.
"All the kind of story-lines that people are writing right now, for instance, have essentially come down to: it's an American-German axis, with some Italians basically that are not in the curia, that is an axis against the curia cardinals who are aligned with the Brazilian candidate. You look at the American coverage and that is all over the place.
"And the reason that's all over the place is a couple of Italian reporters, because nobly knows anything. It's these few Italian guys who are getting something, now the question is who are they getting it from? To me it's clearly, they're being given this information for a reason, it's not because these sources just want to get something off their chest. They're playing, as always, politics through the Italian press, only now it's really high stakes because the papal election is happening.
"What makes it easier now to see this is that the Italian newspapers, especially La Stampa, which has been very smart in all this, they have a website called Vatican Insider which basically gives all their reporting in English, so there's no longer this sort of mystery about what the Italians are doing.
"And the Americans who bemoan Italian newspapering ethics all the time, and they're right, but there's this osmosis that takes place and then they start reporting that there are these factions inside the Vatican, and one wants this and one wants that, and it's not attributed to these newspapers, so in a way they're not even being spun by the sources, they're taking the spin second-hand.
"Clearly a lot of us attribute but I do find especially the television networks, I find them asking me about these factions that they know about it. And I'm like, 'how do you know about it?' It's just the same couple of Italian reporters I read."
Even the best can be completely stymied by the difficult reporting conditions of the pope beat.
"John Allen was wrong about 2005 [when Pope Benedict was elected]. But he wasn't wrong in a, like, 'this is my prediction' kind of way. He was the guy who literally wrote the book on Ratzinger, and made an analysis based on what he knew and based on the people he knew in the church, that it was not the thing the church was going to do. He points out that he was wrong basically in every single interview he does. He doesn't need to do it but he does it because when you're wrong it sticks with you."
"With the Italian press, they drop grenades all the time—predictions, this is gonna happen, that is gonna happen—more than half the time it doesn't come true, but the way they view it is you have to go out and shake things up. You don't see the italians saying, "Well that newspaper, they were wrong last time."
"There was a front page piece in one of the newspapers here back in November or December saying with absolute certainty that Georg Gänswein, who is the pope's right-hand man, was going to get moved out and punished because of Vatileaks because it all happened right under his nose.
"I was talking to Sandro Magister, a great reporter, and he just told me, 'yeah, that's wrong.'"
(Magister is a well-respected reporter for the magazine L'espresso, which is tied to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.)
"Magister knew he was actually being promoted, and now he's gonna literally go live with Benedict while at the same time maintaining this high post. And I said, 'well is there any kind of price to pay for being this wrong on the front page?' and he said, 'nobody expects you to be right all the time.' Which is—it's nice!"
It was Magister whose article from L'espresso, picked up in La Repubblica, has largely fed the speculation that Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of the New York Archdiocese, is an early favorite. Which was lucky because I have a certain parochial interest in that story-line, which I had assumed was all dried up and motivated in the American media by too much rooting for the home team. I asked Horowitz what he thought there was in the Dolan speculation.
"I think there is something real there—because, going back to what I said before, you end up trusting the byline. And so Magister has shown to me that he knows what's going on. Every one of them has their cardinals, and his cardinals seem to know what's going on.
"He was telling me today that he actually thinks that Dolan—basically that there's a feeling that there is gonna be a move toward Dolan early, and that the problem won't be getting a good amount of votes for Dolan, it will be getting the 77 votes you need; getting past a certain threshold will be hard, getting enough votes to be taken seriously will be easy. But if he seems stuck at a certain point, and can't seem to go up, the feeling is, that's when you start going to safer options. But people he talks to think there will be an early push for Dolan.
"So now everyone's going to write that, but what's gonna happen is the networks are going to report that there is a huge move for Dolan inside the conclave. But maybe Magister's wrong, or maybe he is being spun, or maybe he's right."
And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with relying on even the most reliable reports.