Don’t Ever Ask a Question!


(I have been writing stories about some of the stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about myself or the profession)

The advice I got was, “Never ask the Pope a question!”

In 1987, we were preparing for a trip to the Vatican to shoot an 8-part series about the changing Catholic Church. The Pope was coming to the United States later that year, including a stop in Los Angeles. We were working with the press office at the Vatican, hoping to get an audience with Pope John Paul II while we were in Rome. The odds were good, we were told.

One of the rituals when you visit the Vatican as a reporter is a meeting with the Vatican Press Office for an orientation. There are several “official” rules and some “unofficial” rules the press attache’ will never tell you. For instance, you can get access to some secret areas of the Vatican if you make friends with some of the Vatican guards. They are the men who are dressed in the wild costumes and appear to be protecting doors and passageways. They are NOT ceremonial. They are highly trained security agents, but they are also the friendliest people in the Holy City. I worked for CBS News and we had CBS pens and keychains with us. The Vatican guards loved to get the swag to take home to their children. So, when we wanted access to a secret area, we just gave the guards some of the CBS marked trinkets and they worked like magic. We were in.

The major “official” rule, I was told, was how to talk to the Pope if we ever got the chance to meet him. Never ask the Pope a question, they said. So how was I supposed to talk with him? The press representative helping us said Pope John Paul II was very open and friendly, but very busy and always meeting people. So, he said, if we get the chance to be face-to-face with him during an audience or while he is blessing people in Vatican Square, just make a statement and hope it begins a conversation. I call these sport questions. If you listen to a sports reporter talking to athletes after a game they say, “Your defense really stepped it up today.” It’s not a question, it’s a statement and the player or coach agrees or disagrees and goes on to elaborate. You do the same with the Pope.

On our third day at the Vatican, we were privileged to attend a papal mass in St. Peter’s Square. There were thousands of people standing inside the barricades trying to get a glimpse of the Pope. They had been waiting for hours. The Press Office gave us access to the area near the altar where the Pope would walk and bless people lined up along the railing. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with visitors from all over the world. The Pope was their spiritual leader. Some were crying, just happy they were able to get this close to the man they call their “Father”. Larry Greene, the legendary CBS photojournalist, was next to me on the left as the Pope moved toward us along the railing. Larry had the shot and I had the opportunity, but I could not ask a question. I had to get the Pope to talk with me and look directly into the camera. As he got closer, I saw that he was reaching out and touching some of the people. When it got to me, I grabbed his hand and looked directly into his eyes. Larry had the camera rolling and we were both just inches from the leader of the Catholic Church. I said, “Holy Father, we are from Los Angeles, California and the people there are looking forward to your visit in a few months.” He stopped. He smiled and said, “I am truly looking forward to visiting with all of you in Los Angeles. Please give everyone there my blessing. I will be with them soon.” He gave us his blessing, let go of my hand and moved on down the railing. If I had asked a question, I am told, he would not have answered. But, because I made a statement, the Pope was comfortable delivering a message to the viewers I was there representing.

What is interesting, and other reporters will agree, is that when you are in the “moment” and doing your job you don’t think about the consequences or significance of it. We were working hard. We were in a huge crowd. We were trying to make sure we got what we needed to tell the story. I didn’t realize how that moment, holding the Pope’s hand and talking with him, would stay with me and affect me.
I was raised a Catholic and the Pope was always a mythical figure living in a mystical place called Vatican City. Now, I had met him. I tell my friends that there is something special about a Pope because you do feel you are in the presence of something more than just a leader of men.

I didn’t ask the Pope a question. Sometimes you must know the rules and sometimes the rules work for you. And, if you must break the rules, it’s always good to be able to say the Pope is your friend.

Do We Need Political Diversity in the Newsroom?

When I began my career as a journalist we were taught to keep our political views to ourselves. We were entitled to believe what we wanted and vote for the candidate of our choice, but we didn’t share that with anyone. We registered as independents because we wanted to avoid the appearance of bias. We didn’t put political bumper stickers on our cars. We worked in newsrooms that were apolitical because that was our job. There was no need to choose reporters or anchors or producers for their politics.

For decades we have fought for, begged for, demanded, and forced sexual and racial diversity in newsrooms in America. This kind of diversity made reporting better. It was “fair” when all sides were heard and represented. It made us smarter. Today, unfortunately we have strayed from the path of personal objectivity and it may be time to demand political diversity in our newsrooms. I have worked in newsrooms where the room was filled with people who openly discussed their liberal political views and argued against including opposing views in news stories. They dismissed those views and people as “being out of the mainstream” or “just plain nuts”. I have been told by consultants that we should “craft” our stories more for the liberal or conservative view based on audience research. I have also worked with reporters, producers and managers who were open about their conservative political views and they, too, brought their bias to the daily rundown of stories. Maybe, political diversity in hiring would help change that.

It is our fault people don’t believe our reporting. We have let the viewers and readers down. No one took credibility away from us, we abandoned it. This does not mean we have to make apologies for political liars and frauds. It is also wrong for national leaders to call the media the enemy. But, we need to tell the truth and there is truth on both sides of the political aisle. The American people see the media now as having an agenda. Too many reporters are letting a personal agenda slip into their work. We need to admit that. I was always told the appearance of bias is just as destructive as real bias. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Do you think others see you as fair? That is the most important question.

When you understand the history of broadcast journalism, you can understand how we got to this dangerous moment. When broadcast stations began hiring consultants and using research to grow audiences, we started down a road that led us to “shaping” the news to fit the viewers. We were told NOT to cover stories because the viewers didn’t care about it. We knew, as journalists, that the story was important, but we ignored it. When viewers found out they had been misled or left out they began to rebel. That one reason why it is so easy for many to believe we are the enemy.

It is easy to blame the person in the White house or corporate broadcast leaders for creating a climate where viewers are again condemning the messenger instead of the message. The blame and the solution are in our hands. Maintain the appearance of credibility. Demand the same from those you work with. Don’t pretend that what you say on social media on your personal pages doesn’t affect your credibility. The idea of political diversity is sarcasm. We don’t want to see a time when newsrooms are forced to hire 3 Republican reporters and 3 Democrat reporters based on a quota to insure the appearance of fairness. We don’t want to be asked how we voted in the last election before we are offered a job as a journalist. Be part of the solution and start now.