washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tom Shales

Sorrow, Via Satellite

By Tom Shales
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page D01

Satellites can transmit spiritual values as well as electronic signals; it's just that they don't often get the chance. Yesterday, they did. The communications satellites that lay a kind of benign siege to the Earth as they laze around space were kept busy spreading news of the death of a pope, and circulating images that brought him to life.

There he was -- kneeling in prayer on behalf of those less righteous, laughing at a baby thrust into his arms, listening patiently during a visit to the man who had tried to assassinate him.

Crass as it sounds to say so, Pope John Paul II died at the optimal TV time, so that news of his passing, and shot after shot of mourners reacting to that inescapable fact, could circumnavigate the planet over and over on what was, for the United States, an otherwise unremarkable, uneventful Saturday afternoon.

Some sports events had to be canceled or nudged aside. Viewers of Fox stations saw the same news coverage as those watching the Fox News Channel on cable. Then, in the late afternoon, an anchor told those watching Washington's WTTG and other Fox affiliates that their station might be cutting away for a NASCAR event but that wall-to-wall coverage would continue on cable.

Channel 5 cut to the NASCAR nonsense -- long enough to see rain pelting race car windshields and to hear an announcer talk about a weather delay continuing. Then with a fast zap one could return to St. Peter's Square and the enormous crowds gathered there, crowds that marathon viewers had seen grow more and more enormous as the news spread electronically throughout the day.

Some juxtaposition continued to be odd for those addicted to surfing the airwaves -- going with a click from solemn, sometimes weeping faces in Rome to a loudly cheering and bellowing mob in St. Louis, there to observe and celebrate the NCAA semifinals (in which Illinois eventually beat Louisville, for what that's worth). All the sporting events looked superficial and impossibly trifling compared with the epochal news from the Vatican.

High-paid and high-powered anchors from some of the networks made their presence known, as if that were a way to bestow added import to the event. Paula Zahn of CNN in New York, however, did not seem to be getting along at all well with correspondent Christiane Amanpour in Rome (they reportedly are anything but the best of pals), since Zahn cut off Amanpour at a crucial moment in Amanpour's report to do a fairly standard interview with a telegenic priest in the CNN studios.

The understatement of the day, and this is said with the utmost respect, goes to Archbishop John Foley, president of the pontifical council, who when interviewed by Zahn began his remarks on the pope's death with "Of course, it wasn't unexpected."

Not unexpected, no. Every network in the world had time to get equipment and "talent" to Rome as the week's long vigil for Pope John Paul II went on and on. He died during a holy week for Christendom but, fortunately, not on a traditional day of gladness and celebration, like Easter, which the pope missed by less than a week.

As did the other networks, CNN went for a time to pool coverage of a memorial service for the pope held at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington. But bad luck, bad planning or bad judgment resulted in the president and first lady being out of camera range for most of the service.

Sometimes the networks are news themselves, and so it was that Western networks pointed to the presence of al-Jazeera, the Arabic news network, which covered the death of the pope and even had its own experts on hand to help out.

"Death of a Pope" was a common and accurate "title" for networks to put on their reporting, but CNN chose to editorialize even in this little detail and labeled its coverage "An Extraordinary Pope: John Paul II." There once were days when we'd wait for history to make such judgments, but who has time to wait around for history anymore?

Besides, in the megamedia age, history begins only a moment after an event is certified by the camera as having happened in the first place.

Producers rounded up the usual suspects, including many helpful experts on Catholic custom and ritual, to explain the process of papal succession and other procedural details. Other guests only added to the confusion; Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan's secretary of defense, stumbled on his words when trying to describe a now-famous meeting between the pope and Reagan.

This was on Fox, where the theme of the day was not the death of a global spiritual leader but rather a celebration of a great anti-communist. It was stated and repeated that Reagan and the pope delivered the one-two punch that crumbled the Berlin Wall and sent communism back to Hell whence it came.

People are certainly free to believe that, but doesn't it trivialize the pope's contributions just a smidge?

Time for the networks to prepare -- the time that the pope spent fighting to stay alive and remaining a beaming beacon of hope -- made it possible for the networks to do almost anything they wanted. They had pictures from virtually everywhere -- including, movingly, live shots from Krakow at 1 a.m. local time, 8 p.m. Saturday in the eastern United States. John Paul was, of course, a Polish-born pope, and in life made that a matter of pride. There is no reason to imagine it won't remain so in death.

One authoritative presence was certainly conspicuous by its absence: Dan Rather, longtime anchor of "The CBS Evening News" who, if that situation hadn't changed recently -- and in a manner unbecoming of ruthless CBS brass -- would have been on the job anchoring the coverage, voluntarily interrupting his own weekend to do so.

Authority and gravitas and stature like Rather's are missed, but such values are racing out of style anyway. The Greatest Generation and the baby boomers respected such things, but the iPodders now coming to adulthood apparently do not. One wonders how many of them even knew of the pope's passing, or how many were in a snit because they couldn't see the NASCAR races as scheduled.

The signals that bounce off those satellite transponders are neutral. They can carry evidence of the human race in all its hopelessness or mirror images of the population mourning a man who stood mainly for tranquillity and harmony and for tearing down barriers of brick or foolish hate.

Yesterday the global village was, comparatively speaking, at peace, stopping to contemplate and recall a man whose very existence was the pursuit of peace. It made one feel very small, somehow, and yet part of something gigantically grand again.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company