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