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April 15th, 2008
08:13 PM ET

Ethically challenged, even with the pope

John L. Allen Jr.
CNN Sr. Vatican Analyst
Vatican Correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter

Aboard “Shepherd One” today, the Alitalia jet carrying Pope Benedict XVI to the United States, four of the 70 journalists accompanying the pope to the United States were faced with a brief ethical dilemma: whether to take part in what arguably amounted to a staged news conference with the pope.

In the end, the decision wasn’t apparently that tough – each of the four decided to go ahead. The brief flurry of debate, however, illustrates the fine line that reporters sometimes walk between wanting to exploit whatever access they can get, yet without being co-opted to advance someone else’s agenda.

To set the scene, reporters on the papal plane had originally hoped that Benedict XVI would come back after take-off en route to the United States to engage in a real press conference – unscripted questions, impromptu replies, and the possibility for follow-up queries in order to press the pope on important matters. The pope had done just that on the way to Brazil in May 2007, the only other trans-Atlantic flight so far of his three-year papacy.

Instead, however, Vatican officials asked reporters late last week to submit proposed questions for the pope to Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson. Lombardi chose four questions, on the following topics:

·        The sexual abuse crisis

·        Immigration

·        The public role of religion in America

·        The United Nations

On previous papal flights when Lombardi has screened the questions, he has read them to the pope himself and then asked the pope to respond. This time, however, Lombardi came back shortly after take-off and informed four journalists that their questions had been selected, and that he would call upon them to ask the question when the pope came back to the press compartment.

Hence the ethical dilemma, which reporters on the papal plane debated energetically for a few minutes this morning:  Is it okay for a journalist to ask a question of the pope under those circumstances, on the grounds that it’s better than nothing? Or, were we taking part, as one colleague today insisted, in a "journalistic sham"?

In other words, by standing up and reading what amounts to a canned question in front of the TV cameras, were we creating the appearance of a real give-and-take without its substance?

I should confess that I was one of the journalists selected to ask a question. In the end I decided to do it, for two reasons: 1) journalists frequently have to operate under various restrictions, and as long as we’re honest with the public about what those restrictions are, it’s better to make the most of the limited access we do have; 2) it gave me the opportunity to ask Pope Benedict XVI for a few words in English, which I knew would be of value to my colleagues in TV and radio.

On the other hand, I recognize the bite of the opposing argument – that journalists shouldn’t take part in stage-managed events, especially ones that allow the figures we cover to look like they’re responding to legitimate public curiosity while, in reality, they’re ducking it.

One way of cutting to the bottom line may be this: However artificial the setting, today’s exchange with the pope produced his most dramatic comments to date on the sexual abuse crisis, spoken for the first time in English and for the American public. In other words, by tolerating the conditions the Vatican imposed, we were able to elicit comments from the pope that broke new ground and provided a compelling storyline.

Most observers on the plane felt that the pope’s replies did not come off as excessively “canned” or polished, although frustration remained that he didn’t stay longer, take more questions, or allow for any follow-up or clarification. That’s a particularly natural reaction given that the pope is a veteran university professor who actually relishes intellectual give-and-take.

If nothing else, today’s debate aboard “Shepherd One” illustrates that for journalists, there are few places anywhere completely free of ethical challenges – including the plane carrying the world’s premier religious leader to the United States.


Filed under: John L. Allen Jr. • Pope Benedict
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Katherine

    David,
    Your questions about the cost to the taxpayer are interesting. It should be noted that the Pope is not only the head of the church but he is also a head of state. The Vatican is an independent city-state. As a head of state he is protected by the secret service- as any other head of state is protected when they visit the US. Unless the countries of other heads of state are charged for the security- it is unfair to charge the Vatican for that same service.

    April 16, 2008 at 1:31 pm |
  2. Marie Rose; Maryland

    There are so many comments to respond to, I don't know where to start, so I'll just pick the easiest and stop there. The Vatican is an independent state, so though the pope is head of the Catholic Church, he is also technically a head of state... so everything that is done for any head of state (including security) is done for him, too. Sorry to disappoint the conspiracy theories of preferential treatment.

    April 16, 2008 at 6:42 am |
  3. Alan

    To answer the question of how much this trip is costing and why President Bush is welcoming the pope, don't forget that the US and the Vatican have diplomatic relations. The US has an ambassador to the Vatican, and that the Vatican is a sovereign state. Did anyone complain when the same courtesy was extended to the Queen?

    April 16, 2008 at 4:04 am |
  4. Manish

    I just dont understand why on one side we are talking about the separation of Church and State and then giving a military welcome to current pope. Why is the president of the US required to welcome the pope?

    I dont see that happening even in a third world nation like India. We dont welcome the Dalai Lama with the military and the head of the nation going to the airport to welcome him ...

    Very Weird!

    April 15, 2008 at 11:22 pm |
  5. Pedro

    Dominic,

    When and where did the Pope say that women are not equal to men? Why and how is birth control a human right?

    April 15, 2008 at 11:16 pm |
  6. David B. Hill

    About the Pope's visit.....QUESTIONS I HAVE.
    1. Why isn't anyone talking about how much the Pope's visit is costing the American taxpayer?
    2. Is anyone, in addition to myself, going to DEMAND an accounting (down to the nearst dollar) of the cost to the American taxpayer?
    3. The cost to the American taxpayer....isn't this a gross "corruption" of the constitutional requirement of the separation of church and state? If not, why not?
    4. Isn't this spending, of what must be a massive amount of money to the American taxpayer, a truly immoral act? After all, shouldn't and couldn't that money be used to actually help the many many people in need?
    5. Will the Vatican reimburse any or all of this cost to the American taxpayer?

    April 15, 2008 at 10:45 pm |
  7. Dominic---San Diego

    How can he speak of "Human" rights when he clearly opposes UNIVERSAL (Women, Gay people) equality. Perhaps this trip is more to "mend fences" over the clergy scandal & to win the hearts & minds .....and money.....of American Catholics. Women's equality ?? Birth Control ?? Gay Rights ?? Nope ?? Well, then, say Nope to the Pope !

    April 15, 2008 at 10:30 pm |
  8. david wiley

    I'm not Catholic but I find this rather irritating. I see a lot of parallels between the FLDS story and this and yet people treat it very differently. I see a lot of sympathy for FLDS that they may have child sexual abuse, child rape, and forced "marriages". The news crews talk to the women and offer them total softball questions. Plus if you try to leave that religion, they'll make it plenty tough on you.

    But we've got to give the Pope the tough line? why? Ever hear the expression "Don't expect the Pope not to be a Catholic"?

    Newsflash. The Pope is not an elected official and not even an American citizen. They've got to obey the law and respect the rights of children to be abused, but other than that we have Freedom of Religion in this country and if you don't like something that they do... don't join them.

    April 15, 2008 at 10:26 pm |
  9. Betty Ann

    Hi John,
    As a practicing Catholic I am dissappointed that Pope Benedict would be so choosy in the journalist questions.
    Personally, I think he should address the sexual abuse in the Catholic church and he should address the peace issue.
    I hope we get some answers but let's give him a little break.
    Pope John Paul is a hard act to follow.
    Thanks!
    Betty Ann
    Nacogdoches,TX

    April 15, 2008 at 10:06 pm |
  10. Annie Kate

    Whether staged or not, it sounds like the Pope delivered on the questions as you said he gave some of the most dramatic comments on the sexual misconduct of priests to date. Since he had time to contemplate his answer he may have said a lot more than he would have done in a spontaneous interview where leaders try to be more cautious in what they say so as not to create a fuss that detracts from what they are trying to do.

    BTW, I am glad you decided to go ahead and participate. We don't always get exactly what we want and have to settled for what we can get.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    April 15, 2008 at 9:24 pm |
  11. Christianna

    Being a journalist myself, hearing this immediately made me annoyed and upset with this process.
    Any other person in the limelight–plenty of other religious leaders–wouldn't have had a "press confrence" where the questions were pre-selected and the answers carefully rehersed. I don't see any assistants to the Dalai Lama selecting which questions he may respond to; it's ridiculous to make exceptions for the Pope.
    I respect his Holiness's role in the Catholic church, and I know he is a very influential and important person in our world, being the leader of the world's second-largest religion, but it's unethical and unfair to pussyfoot around topics that are considered controversial in the US.

    April 15, 2008 at 9:10 pm |
  12. Jolene

    John: I think you made the right decision to participate in the "canned" questioning. Afterall, it was still a legitimate question from you and it would be answered by the Pope himself. Kudos to you for having your question "picked". So what was your question? You got me curious.

    I appreciate your honesty and behind the scenes thoughts around the Pope's visit. Keep it coming!

    Jolene, St. Joseph, MI

    April 15, 2008 at 8:57 pm |
  13. em

    World premier religiuos leader of a religion that doesnt practice what it preaches..
    love for everybody, right but if you are gay or divorced your a shame.
    live in frugality... right go to Vatican City and then you tell me.

    April 15, 2008 at 8:38 pm |
  14. Stacy

    John, tough call. I'm not sure what I would do. But I really hope you make the same disclosure every time CNN airs the "news conference," that you just made on this blog. Otherwise you're lying to your viewers.

    April 15, 2008 at 8:27 pm |

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