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Cable news channels chafe at Vatican's information blackout

By wire services
Published April 3, 2005


A false report of the death of Pope John Paul II by Fox News Channel shot through U.S. media outlets briefly Friday before being retracted with an apology from anchor Shepard Smith, setting the tone for a confusing, endlessly "imminent" conclusion to the news story at hand.

The pace of the modern media was at odds with the progress of the news story it was covering as the pope lay dying Saturday. Digital communications outlets were frustrated that not only did the declining health of Pope John Paul II refuse to move at the clip normally dictated by the 24/7 news cycle, but information was not forthcoming.

The demands of the 24-hour cable news networks meant little to the Vatican. For an institution that only recently issued an apology to Galileo, the idea of "breaking news" is meaningless.

The media death watch began in earnest Thursday, stretching through Friday and much of Saturday. A gerund seldom heard from cable news anchors was the watchword: "awaiting." While awaiting word, awaiting updates, awaiting confirmation, it fell to a league of media talkers to review the life and importance of the man described as gravely ill, falling in and out of consciousness.

CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Fox News anchors managed to thinly veil their frustration at the prolonged periods of information blackout. Actually, knowledgeable Vatican watchers said, the twice daily updates from Vatican spokesmen represented an unusually talkative, transparent accommodation to the media by the secretive institution.

The clash of ancient tradition and modern media will continue during the impending death rituals. Smoke signals are to come, but on Saturday, papal spokesmen sent the networks and wire services word of the pope's death via e-mail.

No word yet on "secret' cardinal

VATICAN CITY - For now, 117 cardinals are eligible to vote in a conclave to elect John Paul II's successor, but the number could actually be 118.

When John Paul elevated new cardinals in 2003, he said he was keeping one name secret, or in pectore - meaning "in the heart."

The name remains secret until the pope announces it or leaves word for that to be done.

The formula has been used when a pope wants to name a cardinal in a country where the church is oppressed, leading to speculation that it could be a prelate from China, where only a state-sanctioned church is recognized.

John Paul's secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, has also been mentioned as the possible secret cardinal.

Vatican plans "vacant See' stamp

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican post office said Saturday it will issue a special stamp that can only be used until a new pope is elected.

According to tradition, the "vacant See" stamp will carry an image of two crossed keys but no papal headgear. The traditional image on Vatican stamps issued while a pope is alive has the keys and the headgear.

The stamps are valid for the interregnum, the time that begins with the death of the pope and ends when a new one is elected, but other Vatican stamps also will be valid in that period. The last time the Vatican post office issued vacant seat stamps was 1978, when John Paul I died.

Experts: American pope unlikely

When the cardinals enter their secretive conclave to pick the new pope, the 11 Americans voting will be the second-largest national group behind the Italians. But don't expect an American pope. Vatican experts say it won't happen.

"The economic, political and military power of the United States leads to resentments, and that's part of the human dynamic," George Weigel, John Paul II's biographer, said before the pope's death.

An American would be "virtually impossible," he said.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine agreed. An American pontiff "would give not only the appearance but perhaps the substance of increasing what is perceived by many as the inordinate hegemony of American power."

The Rev. Thomas Reese of America magazine noted that in past centuries "the church always tried to keep (the papacy) out of the hands of the superpower" of the day, whether the Holy Roman Empire, Spain or France. The exception, the 14th century French popes who moved the Holy See to Avignon, proved disastrous.

Information from the Associated Press and Denver Post was used in this report.