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All Eyes on Rome: Television Proves To Be a Blessing

By Tom Shales
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page C01

Any attempt to argue that television is the instrument of the Devil -- sometimes a fairly easy case to make -- would have been a futile uphill battle yesterday. Twenty-first-century communications technology, with television at its heart, made it possible for the world to gather as if in an impossibly mammoth village square to witness the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

To see it live as it happened, viewers would have had to rise as early as 3 a.m. in the East, and it won't be easy to calculate how many millions did, but those who managed to pry their eyes open saw a pageant that was both a magnificent spectacle and as intimate as an adolescent Polish girl's tears.

The pope's funeral drew tens of thousands to St. Peter's Square, while millions more were able to watch the televised ceremony. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Of the American networks, broadcast and cable, that televised the outdoor funeral Mass from St. Peter's Square in Rome, ABC did the best job overall. The network had the best balance of respectful silence and informative background (particularly helpful for non-Catholic viewers) combined with pictures of riveting beauty not only from Rome but from Krakow in the pope's native Poland and other centers of Catholicism.

From Rome, NBC News correspondent Keith Miller said the eyes of the world could be felt as they were trained on Vatican City, and as a result, "it felt like the center of the universe" during the hours of the ceremony. However many attended in person and watched on television -- and some in the giant throng did both, getting a closer view of the Mass via one of 27 giant-screen TV monitors planted throughout the area -- Miller said it was sure to go down as "one of the largest Christian gatherings in history."

He meant, of course, the history of the world. The global transmission of the funeral required and represented a striking alliance -- the ancient and traditional combined with the latest in sophisticated technology -- turning the passage of centuries into a snap of the fingers.

Networks had access to mostly the same "pool" pictures; it was up to individual directors at each network to decide how to juxtapose them -- when to go to Krakow or Manila or the Five Holy Martyrs Church in Chicago, when to include a shot of President Bush and former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, when to give the viewing audience a close-up of an elderly woman clinging to a Bible and to her faith, and to a program handed out to those attending the service.

The Vatican appears to be tremendously TV-hip, outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment in great abundance so that public events televised from there will be presented in a style as slick as possible. Despite all the years of advancement, pictures transmitted transatlantically by satellite will still not look as vivid or as detailed as pictures of domestic events do. Even so, the colors of hot red robes and bright pink robes worn by church officials were virtually piercing in the morning sun (the service ended about noon Roman time).

Correspondents kept alive the art of describing events, even though it seemed cameras could go almost anywhere the camera operators wanted them to. ABC's Terry Moran said that from his vantage point looking down on a street, he could hear the voices of the faithful in various languages speaking words, poems and recitations they had known since childhood: "It seems sometimes all of Rome is praying," he said.

Moran's colleague John Donvan, stationed much closer to the basilica, told viewers of something he'd seen that he thought they probably hadn't, since it was out of the range of all those cameras. When the casket was brought into the building, the pallbearers turned a corner, which in effect gave part of the crowd its one last view. At that point, Donvan reported, the people, huddled together, and already having sung and applauded and prayed and participated in the litany of the saints, made one more gesture of farewell and respect.

"And they just -- waved," said Donvan, awe in his voice. He marveled at "the huge forest of hands waving farewell to John Paul II."

It was impressive, considering how many people were crowded into the square and ended up in what are called "tight" shots, how few of them reacted to the cameras by doing what people in such a situation often do -- waving or blowing a kiss or saying, "Hi, Mom." The cameras didn't seem to bother the mourners ("celebrators" may be a better term, since the bursts of applause helped emphasize that this was a celebration of the pope's life rather than a lamentation that he had died) and nearly everyone behaved respectably.

Sometimes the presence of television can change the nature or even the content of an event, but this was a case where one felt that except for minor procedural and cosmetic alterations made over the years, what we saw was what someone in St. Peter's Square would have seen a thousand years ago for a similar event.

Television has to be accommodated to some degree, of course. One reporter noted that Vatican officials have decided that the announcement of a new pope will be signified not only by puffs of smoke from a Vatican chimney but also by the ringing of certain bells. This change was made because in the past, when the decision was reached after sunset, journalists and TV cameras couldn't tell white smoke from black smoke against the backdrop of a Roman night sky.

Obviously, the church is a kind of family, and so, in its own way, is television. Charles Gibson was taking note of that as ABC's "Good Morning America" was about to begin. Gibson, "GMA's" co-host, made reference to the network's principal anchor, last of the three major network anchors still doing the job he did 10 years ago, and to the recent announcement that he is suffering from lung cancer.

"Before we leave the air, I want to offer, if I could, one personal word," Gibson said. "It has been a privilege to be here today. But as all of you know, in normal circumstances, Peter Jennings would be sitting in this seat, and Peter has ahead of him a very tough battle with cancer.

"Peter, it has been an honor to broadcast here in your stead. We wish you were here. We understand why you're not, and as we have one eye on what's going on with the pope, we're thinking about you as well. . . .

"For all of us at ABC News," he concluded, addressing viewers again, "I'm Charles Gibson. Good day."

It had been, despite the discouraging words about Jennings, a good day for television. One would expect the funeral of a globally beloved religious leader to be covered with a little less stiff objectivity than a wake for a politician or some other kind of celebrity, and so the pope was, in death, showered with accolades. But the networks maintained their journalistic responsibility by including the fact that no man and no pope is perfect, and that John Paul II had been criticized in his time for failing to promote a properly "collegial" atmosphere among the cardinals and other church leaders, that he thus received "low marks" for "power sharing."

But to the world, John Paul II still signified and spoke of faith and decency. He embodied hope even to the otherwise hopeless. As commentators noted yesterday, the pope's own experiences as an actor early in life helped him project the image, not for his own glorification but for that of an embattled church in a warring world.

As NBC's Miller had said, Rome did seem like the center of the universe yesterday. If all roads did not lead there, all TV signals came from there. As it does on only the rarest occasions, cold technology warmed the world.

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