More than 14,000 persons from around the world have requested press credentials for Pope John Paul II's visit to the United States next week in what may be the most extraordinary media effort of all time.
The requests for Secret Service clearance to cover the pope's visit come from countries as distant as Australia and the Philippines and exceed in number those received for such events as the Apollo 11 moon landing, which drew about 3,000 journalists from 54 countries, and the Olympic games, which have been covered by an average of 6,500 reporters, cameramen and broadcasters since 1968.
The 14,000 seeking credentials includes reporters, couriers, photographers, free-lance film makers, local television as well as network crews, small Catholic weeklies and national magazines.
"That number has got to be an all-time record," said state department press officer Sondra McCarty as she ran through some of the major media visits of the past: Deng Ziaoping, Queen Elizabeth and the emperor of Japan. "If this figure is right, it beats anything the State Department has handled."
The confusion and volume of work generated by the requests is such that neither the Secret Service nor the U.S. Catholic Conference knows how many of the requests have been made by foreigners and how many by Americans.
"They're coming in such a volume and flood we just couldn't sort them," said William Ryan of the U.S. Catholic Conference, one of the "host committees" for the pope, whose staff has handled all credential requests.
About 270 journalists actually will travel with the pope as he visits seven cities in seven days. Among them are representatives of such exotic papers as Suedwestfunk and the Polish Daily News in Dearborn, Mich. There may be as many as 200 journalists from Italy alone.
"I think we'll have more interest from Spain than Latin America," said Curri Valenzuela of the E.F.E. Spanish news service, which will assign at least four reporters to serve client newspapers in Latin America and Spain. "In Latin America the church is more social and political than in Spain."
CBS television may hold the record for the number of employes for whom it is seeking accrediation -- 713, according to a network spokeswoman. ABC is deploying 275 people -- 21 correspondents, 32 producers, and 24 camera crews of two or three persons each. NBC will have about 300. The Washington Post has asked for 37 passes, including four to travel with the pope.
American press representatives are being screened by the Secret Service, which checks the computerized National Criminal Information Center and the Justice Department for records of violent crime.
"If you have a past record of drunk driving or shoplifting, something like that, it doesn't necessarily exclude you," said Secret Service spokesman Jim Boyle. "We're looking for a history of violence, use of weapons -- if you present 'potential physical harm.'" Other than that, Boyle said, the Secret Service makes no selections of who is or is not to cover something -- a basic tenet of the first amendment that has no occasion caused problems.
Boyle said a few applicants already have been eliminated after the security check. He declined to say how many or for what reasons.
During the White House visit of Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Ziaoping last spring two reporters for the Revolutionary Communist Party newspaper Revolutionary Worker created a disturbance at the White House welcoming ceremonies when they shouted slogans critical of Deng.
"That doesn't happen very often," said Boyle, "and when it does the rest of the press guys are so mad they better get them out of the way."
Foreign reporters are checked through the CIA and other agencies, Boyle said.
Anyone with a credential will be allowed into restricted press areas, but additional tickets or credentials are required to actually get into specific events or the press area near the altar at the public mass on the Mall. Most events will be covered by a "pool" -- about 40 preselected representatives of newspapers, television networks, magazines and news services who are responsible for sharing information with their colleagues. In each of the seven cities the pope visits, the 40-member pools will be divided equally between local and national media.
A corps of 270 press people will be traveling with the pope; 70 of them will accompany him when he leaves Rome for Ireland and the rest will join the entourage in Boston.
The Jewish Week plans to cover the visit, as will the largest newspaper in Japan, Yomiuri Shimbun, and the Philippine Daily Express.
Even the Revolutionary Worker plans to be there. "This is an important political event," said reporter Jack Nussbaum. "The Pope represents a medieval institution that symbolizes superstition and ignorance, and this visit is part of the public opinion war being carried on by the U.S. and the Soviet Union over who is the biggest exploiter."
And do they plan to demonstrate again?
"Let me put it this way," Nussbaum said, "Not only do we like to report history, we like to make history too."
Over 2,000 people have requested credentials through the Washington archdiocese alone, according to a spokeswoman. Tempers flared at the press credential center at St. Matthew's Cathedral on Monday when a bottleneck of unprocessed applications caused the Secret Service's computer to break down.
"It was awful," said one press aide. "Some of these reporters are so rude. It's when they curse at the secretaries that I get mad. We have We have a secret code word for some of them who are particularly obnoxious. They'll be off the bus and covering the pope in Albania if we have anything to say about it."
"Well," sighed one worker, "If no crowd shows up at least there'll be plenty of reporters to fill out the Mall."