A Nose for the News

When the stories involve the Vatican, ordinary journalistic standards don’t seem to apply.

Ernest Hemingway said that a successful journalist must have a built-in, shock-proof nonsensedetector. (He didn’t actually use the word “nonsense” in his formulation. But then Hemingway didn’t write for a Catholic magazine.) During the last weeks of 2010, I found my detector— call it what you want—buzzing repeatedly.


Back in 2006, Mehmet Ali Agca offered to tell the world who gave him the order to shoot Pope John Paul II. But there was a catch: he wanted to be paid $6 million for that information. That didn’t seem like a very good deal, because the world had pretty much assumed, since that fateful day in May 1981, that the order came from somewhere in the Soviet-bloc secretpolice establishment. Also, there were questions—to put it mildly—about the would-be assassin’s credibility. Agca never got that multi-million-dollar book contract.

But in November the man who says that he is a messenger from God, that he and Pope John Paul II became “like Siamese twins,” and that he was prepared to hunt down Osama bin Laden (for a comparatively paltry $5 million), made another sensational public announcement. The order to kill the Pope, he says, came from—are you ready?— the Vatican.

Funny thing: this announcement, which was generally ignored by the Western press, received substantial media attention in certain countries of Eastern Europe: Russia and Bulgaria, for instance. Can’t imagine why.


The explosion of controversy over Pope Benedict’s position on condoms began when the Vatican’s own newspaper caught everyone off guard with the early publication of an excerpt from the Pontiff’s forthcoming book. In an interview with John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, Giovanni Maria Vian, explained why he didn’t think it was a mistake to publish that famous, controversial passage from Pope Benedict’s interview, and why he didn’t think he was guilty of breaking an embargo:

Because it has already been decided that various media agencies would be able to run material from the book on Sunday morning, we didn’t have any choice other than to publish our extracts on Saturday afternoon. [The Sunday edition of L’Osservatore Romano is always published Saturday afternoon.]

Yes, and the Tuesday edition of the Vatican newspaper is published on Monday afternoon, and so forth. The system is bizarre, and lends itself to absurdities; every now and then the “news” printed in the Friday edition is contradicted by events that took place Thursday night. If you wanted to make L’Osservatore Romano a more credible 21st-century news source, you might consider publishing the Monday edition on Monday.

But as things stand, L’Osservatore’s Sunday issue is really the Saturday issue. So the editor “didn’t have any choice” but to publish the excerpt a day early— without bothering to notify any of the other publishers, who were honoring the embargo, since their publication dates correspond to the calendar date. Next time around maybe the other publishers will wise up. If the Vatican sets an embargo date of, say, July 4, publishers might now decide to release their July 4 issues on July 1. Then they’d be honoring the embargo, you see; just ask Vian.

Allen followed up with another question:

You weren’t looking for a “scoop”?
Vian: Absolutely not. That would be ridiculous.

Want to know what’s really ridiculous? It’s ridiculous when a newspaper editor says he isn’t looking for a scoop.


Slate magazine has discovered L’Osservatore Romano.

The Vatican newspaper has never been daily reading for the staff of the slick online ’zine. But on November 22, the Slate “Explainer,” which provides “answers to your questions about the news,” saw fit to give a highly favorable profile of L’Osservatore Romano, stressing the changes under the direction of new editor Giovanni Maria Vian, which have made the paper more “relevant.”

Now what do you suppose L’Osservatore did to catch the approving eye of Slate on November 22? Could it be? Yes, it could. Slate began paying careful attention when the Vatican newspaper published an out-of-context excerpt from the Pope’s new book.

The pope’s comments, which were published Saturday in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, represent a break from the 42-year-old Catholic ban on artificial contraception.

If you investigate the matter at all carefully (which most Slate readers won’t do), you’ll learn that the Pope’s comments did not change anything about Church teaching. And the condemnation on artificial contraception was not something arbitrarily imposed by the Catholic Church 42 years ago; it dates back to the Book of Genesis. Still, you can draw this lesson from the otherwise unreliable report: when an authoritative Catholic publication seems to leave the door ajar for acceptance of contraception, Slate takes notice.

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