The Pope, the Press and Political Passions

September 25, 2007

One of the strongest examples of selective vision on the part of the U.S. media was their coverage of the Pope's visit to Nicaragua in March. There were actually two stories in that visit. The basis for the first was laid by some reporters the day before the Pope's arrival, when they schematically listed the political divisions among the faithful, and the expectations each had from the Pope. Juan Ta- mayo, of The Miami Herald, for example, identified four groupings. "Government officials would like to portray the pontiff's visit as a blessing of sorts for the Sandinista revolution .... Conservatives within the Church ... led by Managua's Archbishop Obando y Bravo will be looking to the Polish-born pope to endorse their active if subtle opposition to the San- dinistas.... Liberal Church members, including five priests who hold top government jobs, will be sifting through the pope's words for confirmation of their concept of a church committed to the poor. .... And a group of' moderate priests . .. will be looking for the pope to endorse their desire for a live-and-let-live accommodation with the Sandinistas."' It is worth pointing out that, by Tamayo's description, only one faction-that of the Obando opposition-had expec- tations incompatible with the others. The second story came the day of the visit, center- ing on the reception the Pope received and how he related to revolutionary Nicaragua. The fundamental link between the two stories got lost as reporters scribbled notes about finger-wagging admonitions to unrepentent priests in government, the Pope being flown in a Soviet-made helicopter and angry demands for silence to a pandemonious crowd. (With the Pope's visit to Poland now a matter of record, one can reflect that the Pope does not always disdain exten- sive chanting.) Virtually forgotten were the expecta- tions reported the previous day. Nearly buried by denunciatory reporting of the "impolitic treatment of the Pope" by the Sandinista government was the fact that the Pope's homily was directed only to that fac- tion that wanted unity under the bishops reinforced. 2 Journalists reported anti-government assertions by opposition spokespeople, often without qualification and usually without verification of the facts. In some cases, accusations were made by the reporters them- selves. Both in tone and in selection of material, the majority of reports conveyed an attitude toward the Nicaraguan government ranging from subtle disre- spect to open contempt. The chief message was that of a politically manipulated event orchestrated at the highest levels of the Sandinista government. * Many underscored the introductory speech by Co- mandante Daniel Ortega at the airport (the Los An- geles Times reporter called it a "23-minute diatribe against the U.S. role in Central America").' Virtually none mentioned that the strongest anti-U.S. phrases were those of a Nicaraguan bishop in a letter to U S. Cardinal James Carl Simpson following the 1912 U S. occupation of Nicaragua, which Ortega quoted ex- tensively 4 * Generally reported without challenge were charges by Archbishop Obando y Bravo that the Sandinistas had tried to limit attendance at the plaza.' It went unnoted that bus routes and pick-up times had been broadcast over radio for a week, and few recorded that the government had spent two months' gasoline allotment to bring an estimated 700,000 people to hear the Pope. 6 (Only.Guatemala had a larger crowd, and it has three times the population of Nicaragua.) * There were assertions by reporters that the sound system in the plaza had intentionally focused on the chanters in the crowd. (The Los Angeles Times re ported that "hecklers harassed, interrupted and hurled insults" at the Pope, while The New York Times focused more on volume and less on epithets: "Halfway through the Pope's homily, Sandinist technicians apparently connected microphones among pro-government groups to the main loudspeaker system, amplifying the cry of 'Popular Power!' so much that the Pope's words were drowned out.")7 Numerous independent Church sources as well as some journalists from other Western countries ascertained that the mikes had picked up the chants of 50 mourning mothers seated near the stage as special guests. These women wanted prayers for their children, who had been killed by the contras, and were distressed as they realized that was not the Pope's message.' The charges went on and on, becoming particu- larly vituperative in the editorials that followed. "No- where else has the world's most visible spiritual leader been treated with such disrespect," said a Miami Herald editorial, "that the faith of hundreds of millions was insulted in the name of the mean little deity called Marxism."' While many of the charges were investi- gated independently, little more was said in the major media. Reporters moved on with the Pope, leaving Nicaragua to grapple alone with the internal conse- quences of the event itself, and with the international repercussions of U.S. media coverage. Mind Men Describe an Elephant Even more fundamental than disputed details or questionable characterizations of government moti- vations was the narrow context set by most reporters. Although some alluded to divisions within the Church rather than between Church and state, for example, there was little that would give a U.S. audience any understanding of the depth and breadth of public sentiment in Nicaragua. "The people" barely played in this profound drama, other than as "pro-govem- ment groups" or "opposition." The Miami Herald editorial went so far as to state that "The common people were kept from their spiritual leader because he refused to subjugate his universal message of peace, unity and love to the political needs of the Sandinista directorate." Reflecting on the day's events and U.S. media coverage, a Maryknoll lay missioner working in Nica- ragua used the childhood story of three blind men trying to describe an elephant. "The first had hold of the tail and promptly said that it was a snake. The second had the leg and just as promptly said that it was a tree trunk. The third, not to be outdone, had a hold on the elephant's trunk and promptly proclaimed that it was a fire hose."'" The moral of this story is not that all journalists are blind. Rather, it suggests that Nicaraguan reality to- day is complex, and the journalists assigned to this story, many of them in Nicaragua just for the day, could only comprehend what was familiar to them. Understanding a country in the process of revolu- tionary change is not easy. The contradictory forces at work, the compressed speed of pivotal events and, particularly, the intensity of passions during such so- cial upheaval, are all alien to those of us who live in a calmer, more stable world. Nicaraguan society has become increasingly polarized along class lines, no small thanks to the U.S. government. And the Church itself, polarized along the same lines, has become a prime political actor in this drama. After lifetimes of enforced quiescence, Nicaraguans since the triumph have found their voice, and use it easily in the multi- tude of public events-religious and secular--which now occur. How many can easily understand a people who have recently experienced a brutal internal war in which 2% of the population died, and who are now facing the possibility of a much more costly war? Is it not likely that anyone coming into Nicaragua today will only be able to describe that portion of the ele- phant which they immediately recognize? It is least surprising that this should be true of U.S. journalists. Prepared only for the acceptable proprie- ties of the Pope's visit, and primed to see the govern- ment as the crass instigator of anything that fell out- side of such proprieties, journalists could not under- stand the political passions of the people for what they were. (For example, they seem to have been deeply offended by those who shouted "We want peace!" but were oblivious to those on the rooftop of the airport who shouted "Viva Obando!" as the Pope arrived, although that is an equally political statement in today's Nicaragua.) Sister Marjorie Tuite, a Chicago nun from the Do- minican order, witnessed the mood of the crowd-in that country of 90% Catholics-change from "loving obedience to confusion, and then to anger" as they slowly understood the message behind the Pope's sophisticated words and harsh, stentorian tone." The media saw only a service "repeatedly brought to a halt-in what was apparently a planned disruption."' 2 Seeing Another Part of the Elephant The following is a letter to the Pope, written by a Spanish journalist who was with the press entourage which covered the visit. It reveals some of the road- signs which might have been seen by others had they been looking for them. Had the U.S. press corps been open to these images, and been willing to incorporate their lessons into its coverage, a fairer and more understandable accounting of the Pope's visit might have resulted. Author Maria L6pez Vigil worked for Proceso, a weekly publication of the Central American University in El Salvador until she was captured by the Salvado- rean National Police in August 1981. She was freed after 48 hours, thanks to pressure from the interna- tional, and particularly Spanish, press. She now works for El Tayacin, a weekly newspaper in Nicaragua. Holy Father, For many months the people of Nicaragua awaited you. Those who are poor and find their religious ex- pression among the rockets and rum that come each year with the festivals for the Virgin Mary and for Santo Domingo awaited you. Also those poor whose faith has matured more and who are organized in base communities, catechumenical or charismatic com- munities, those who have seen dozens of Delegates of the Word-peasant catechists-die at the border, they too awaited you. For the first time in many months- not without tension, certainly-one event united all of Nicaragua. Full of hopes, they awaited you. There were peas- ants who signed up for the journey to the capital three days in advance. The government used up two whole months' worth of gasoline so that all who wanted to hear you in Le6n or Managua could do so. All the impoverished and weak infrastructure of this "small and martyred" country (as Comandante Daniel Ortega called it on greeting you) was put at your service. This Billboard for Pope's visit to Plaza. "John Paul: Welcome to Free Nicaragua-Thanks to God and the Revolution." was done with pleasure, in the belief that a pilgrim of peace with your social influence would show your solidarity, as so many others have done, with the just cause of a people who have suffered so much. For a month they studied your orations in other countries and wrote letters to you expressing their problems. They prepared songs, painted signs, or- ganized vigils. On the eve of your visit they prayed that God would enlighten you. The peasants of Jalapa- the war zone on the border-sang on television: "Here all of us love you; speak for Nicaragua." Holy Father, they needed you to speak for Nicara gua. One day before you arrived in Managua and in the same plaza where you celebrated the mass, they held a service for 17 youths assassinated by somo- cistas on the northern border of the country. Then they dried their tears and went to meet you, certain that your message would help stop the hands that come from Honduras to shoot at Nicaragua. With microphone in hand I had the opportunity to follow you closely through your stay in this country, I saw you arrive at the airport, a little tired and even cold, despite the heat of this land and the protective warmth of its people. A group of mothers of "heroes and martyrs" (as they are called here), those mourning women who were at the end of the diplomatic receiving line, were happy with that white rosary that your assistant pre- sented to them after you had already moved toward the helicopter that would take you to Le6n. "Can I put it on now?" one asked me. "Why not? It is for you." The woman's eyes were full of tears as she put it around her neck, over her black dress. She had lost her son. The somocista guards killed him. But the Pope had given her a rosary and this consoled her. When we arrived at the Cosar Augusto Silva Center to broadcast for all Nicaragua the event that was going to happen there-the meeting with the Govern- ment Junta and the leadership of the Sandinista Front-we saw again in the entrance a group of mourning women who were anxiously awaiting you. More mothers of more dead. (Every day young people fall on Nicaragua's border, defending this country from those who want to return to the past.) I saw how they handed you a letter, in which they asked from you a word for peace and a condemnation of U.S. aggression. They asked it in the name of Jesus Christ and of the Virgin Mary. I read this letter on the radio. It was one more among the thousands that these people, recently made literate, wrote to their Holy Father. Among the mothers, doria Mercedes was the most forward. With unsure letters she penciled her own letter to read to you personally. And she began to do so. You could scarcely listen to her. With the rush that characterizes these necessarily pressured trips you moved on to the next point of the pre-established agenda. But dora Mercedes was happy. You had smiled at her. She had lost her son. The somocista guards killed him, but the Pope at least had looked at her. At 4:30, under a relentless sun-in which one per- son fainted per minute, as we could see from the press gallery-600,000 Nicaraguans waited for you in the July 19th Plaza. All who wanted to could come to the plaza. All. Not only the "Sandinistas," Holy Father. That multitude made up the half of this country that was able enough to get to Managua, from little children to pot-bellied women to the old people; all those that you had been told couldn't come. I found myself, broadcasting on radio, just behind a group of mothers of heroes and martyrs at the left side of the gallery. They were dressed in mourning, and with the photo of their dead children in their hands they were saying the rosary as you arrived at the plaza. "What do you expect of the Pope?" we asked them. "I am hoping for a prayer for our dead." "I hope that he will pray for peace, so that there will be no more deaths on the border." "If the Pope makes such a pronouncement, the U.S. government will not con- tinue carrying on such outrages against us." "The Pope will defend us, he will show solidarity, we are sure of it." When you got to the plaza, with the staff of the shepherd and the miter of your authority, 600,000 flags waved in the air. There were the blue and white of the Republic, the white and yellow of the Vatican, the red and black of the Sandinistas. Dozens of doves were released and 600,000 voices shouted "Long live the Pope!" "We want peace!" The mothers in mourning sang and followed the mass attentively, as did all the people. Respectfully and with growing expectation as the homily ap- proached. "Now the Pope is going to speak, now he is going to speak. . ." ("Speak for Nicaragua," resonated silently the eager voices of the peasants on the border.) You began your homily. The central theme was the unity of the Church. In a language difficult to under- stand, you spoke of unity around the bishops. You insisted. And unity around the poorest? And unity of all to achieve peace? And unity of all around Jesus, who was assassinated by the Roman empire? In a tone more understandable than your words, you af- firmed your authority with disquieting emphasis. It was at the end of the homily, when, after having heard the word "bishops" fifteen times and never once the word "dead" or "peace," that the outcry began to escape from the hearts of those women. It was a cry which the bishops themselves detected years ago as the identity of the poor of Latin America. It was the cry "ever more tumultuous and impres- sive," that "growing, impetuous and occasionally threatening cry," that is the "shout of a people who suffer and demand justice, liberty and respect for the fundamental rights of the individual and of the people." This is the sequence of events as I witnessed them. The mothers first asked for peace and a prayer for their dead. They cried and made their claim in a reasonable voice. Then they began to do it with shouts, with lamentations. Soon thousands and thousands and thousands of voices supported them. ("We want peace!," then "Popular Power!") The spark caught fire and the heat spread. Finally, the mothers at my side decided to go in front of the rostrum itself, facing the altar, so that you could see them. There, while the mass went on, they raised toward you the photos of their children. "A prayer for our dead!" By then the plaza was already in chaos. It was the shout of the "voiceless" ones who have now been given a voice in this recently liberated land. I don't know if it is because I live in Nicaragua and love these people, but I couldn't continue broadcast- ing for the lump in my throat. Perhaps you came from very far and thus were not moved. Perhaps the stones of that old Church you live in have become too hard with age. A kiss for one of these mothers and an "Our Father" for their fallen-there are so many-would have been enough to end all the "irreverencies." Holy Father, why did you not do it? Today, the day after your arrival in Nicaragua, Managua seems to have been to another funeral. Tired and aghast, the people's sorrow is indescrib- able. There is neither peace nor joy. There is neither unity, nor even hope. The divisions have been deep- ened and an anguished feeling of indignation, of per- plexity, of deception-also of shame and guilt-tor- tures everyone. Why did you do it, Holy Father? Why did you open this wound in a people already so full of pain? "The Pope said nothing to us, he left us with an emptiness," a peanut vender near the plaza told me. The plaza was still covered with papers, with the footprints of a multitude of sheep who had sought their shepherd. God cannot want this huge emptiness that you left in the hearts of these people to be filled with blood, with more blood, by those who today clap their hands with glee for what happened in the 19th of July Plaza in Managua. With faith in Christ and in his Church, Maria Lopez Vigil

THE POPE, THE PRESS AND POLITICAL PASSIONS 1. The Miami Herald, March 4, 1983. 2. The Miami Herald, March 6, 1983. 3. Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1983. 4. Instituto Historico Centroamericano (Managua), "John Paul II in Nicaragua: Chronicle-Report on the Pope's Trip," Envio, March 1983, No. 21, p. 9. 5. The New York Times, March 5, 1983. 6. Instituto Historico Centroamericano, "John Paul II," p. 12. 7. The New York Times, March 6, 1983; Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1983. 8. Latin America Weekly Rept, March 18, 1983, p. 11. 9. The Miami Herald (editorial), March 8, 1983. 10. Dina O'Connell, "Three Blind Men and a Naked Emperor" (open letter). 11. The Miami Herald, March 18, 1983. 12. Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1983. WHEN WORLD-VIEWS VIEW THE WORLD 1. Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955), p. 309. 2. Lincoln Steffens, Autobiography (New York: Har- court, Brace and World, 1931), p. 238. 3. Time, May 9, 1983, p. 21. 4. Quoted in Av Westin, Newswatch: How TVDecides the News (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), p. 199. 5. Ibid., pp. 198, 200. 6. ABC World News Tonight, March 9, 1981. 7. Peter Dahlgren with Sumitra Chakrapani, "The Third World on TV News: Western Ways of Seeing the 'Other,'' in William C. Adams, ed., Television Coverage of International Affairs (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1982). 8. NBC Nightly News, June 5, 1983. 9. NSAM 328, Pentagon Papers, III, p. 349. THE POPE, THE PRESS AND POLITICAL PASSIONS 1. The Miami Herald, March 4, 1983. 2. The Miami Herald, March 6, 1983. 3. Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1983. 4. Instituto Historico Centroamericano (Managua), "John Paul II in Nicaragua: Chronicle-Report on the Pope's Trip," Envio, March 1983, No. 21, p. 9. 5. The New York Times, March 5, 1983. 6. Instituto Historico Centroamericano, "John Paul II," p. 12. 7. The New York Times, March 6, 1983; Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1983. 8. Latin America Weekly Rept, March 18, 1983, p. 11. 9. The Miami Herald (editorial), March 8, 1983. 10. Dina O'Connell, "Three Blind Men and a Naked Emperor" (open letter). 11. The Miami Herald, March 18, 1983. 12. Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1983.

Tags: mass media, ideology, Pope, Nicaragua, propaganda

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