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What was wrong with the Pope's latest interview? A lot.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 15, 2014

In the messy aftermath of yet another papal interview, how shall I explain what went wrong? There were so many different problems, it’s hard to know where to begin.

One might start with the odd habits of Eugenio Scalfari, the veteran Italian journalist who has now had three such sessions with the Holy Father. It is Scalfari’s habit, when he conducts an interview, to make no recording and take no notes. (A few reports from Rome have referred to this eccentricity as a “tradition,” suggesting an undeserved reverence for Scalfari as a sort of national institution.) Scalfari then reconstructs the conversation from memory.

Any respectable American media outlet would summarily fire a reporter who pulled this sort of stunt. According to our journalistic standards, any statement inside quotation marks should be a precise recording of what the subject said; any omissions or corrections or editorial interpolations should be clearly marked as such. Errors in transcription may be forgiven. But errors due to laziness or arrogance, of the sort manifested by a refusal to take notes, are inexcusable. Apparently, though, the Italian journalist plays by different rules.

If Scalfari claimed to have a photographic memory, his interviewing technique would at least be understandable. But very few men of his age (over 90) make such a claim, and Scalfari is not one of them. He explains that he prefers to put the thoughts of his subject (in this case Pope Francis) into his own (Scalfari’s) words. That way, I gather, the readers have the pleasure of reading Scalfari’s elegrant prose, rather than the clunky sentences of his interview subjects.

This approach might work, theoretically, as long as Scalfari understood perfectly what his subjects were saying. But no one understands another man perfectly. So when Scalfari sets out to reconstruct quotations, what the reader receives is not (in this case) what Pope Francis said, but at best what Scalfari understood Pope Francis to be saying—which could be quite different.

Sure enough, the Vatican press office found it necessary to issue a statement warning that the quotations attributed to the Pope were not reliable. And here we arrive at a second major problem: the official Vatican response to the publication of the interview.

”We should not or must not speak in any way, shape or form of an interview in the normal use of the word,” Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, tells us. Yet he says that the Pope’s conversation with Scalfari was “very cordial and most interesting”—taking time to refer to Scalfari as an “expert journalist.” Father Lombardi says:

It is safe to say, however that the overall theme of the article captures the spirit of the conversation between the Holy Father and Mr. Scalfari while at the same time strongly restating what was said about the previous “interview” that appeared in La Repubblica: the individual expressions that were used and the manner in which they have been reported, cannot be attributed to the Pope.

What are we to make of that paragraph? The Vatican spokesman says that the article in La Repubblica accurately “captures the spirit of the conversation,” but any given statement attributed to the Pope might be inaccurate. Yet he does not correct any inaccuracies. Having said that the article is “most interesting,” he leaves readers to sort out truth and error for themselves.

In the final line of his statement Father Lombardi betrays a sign of his annoyance with Scalfari, questioning whether the veteran journalist is engaged in “an attempt to manipulate some naïve readers.” Some Vatican insiders have made harsher accusations, saying that the Pope’s conversation with Scalfari had been private, and the journalist surprised the Pontiff by publishing it in “interview” form.

Which brings us to the next major problem. Why was Pope Francis speaking with Scalfari without having first established clear ground rules for the conversation—rules that would certainly include recording and verification of any quotes? Back in October the Vatican had been embarrassed by an “interview” in which the Italian journalist’s reconstructed quotes caused an uproar, and the Vatican press office was forced to issue an awkward “clarification” which only added to the confusion.

Of course the Pope can speak to whomever he pleases, whenever he pleases; he does not need permission from Vatican handlers. But when he speaks to journalists he should have assistance from competent staff members who can brief him about any potential difficulties before the conversation begins, and ensure that the Pope and the reporter both have a clear understanding of any ground rules for the interview.

Pope Francis has endeared himself to millions of people by his willingness to speak off the cuff, to make unexpected phone calls, to enter into ordinary conversations with ordinary people. He has touched many hearts during informal exchanges, in which he speaks plainly as a pastor. Yet as Roman Pontiff he also speaks for the universal Church, and he cannot ignore the public consequences of his casual remarks. A conversation with an influential journalist cannot be treated the same way as a phone call to a bereaved mother.

Pope Francis has also brought a new sense of excitement and openness to the Vatican by abandoning many of the trappings of an 18th-century monarchy. Clearly, he wants to mingle with the people, not to be placed on a pedestal. He wants to rule the Church in a collegial manner, not as an autocrat. Excellent! So his brother bishops and his Vatican aides should remind him that he cannot always indulge his impulses.

In short, the Vatican’s communications strategy cannot be built around the Pope’s whims. The Church in the 21st century needs a coordinated approach to the media, characterized by professional action rather than clumsy reaction. Just last week we learned that Cardinal George Pell has launched a sweeping review of the offices of communications, with an eye to creating just such a coordinated approach. It can’t happen too soon.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Jul. 16, 2014 2:39 PM ET USA

    A 2nd post on the Pope's missteps with Scalfari? While disheartening, they r not much more than procedural issues. The more troubling interview was given to Stiller, and its a more more serious matter as it deals with doctrines of the faith. The Pope doesn't feel compelled to bring Evangelicals back to the true faith? Me and Jesus is A-OK? That's not ok with Jesus's parable of the sower, the seed on rock (Christ) didn't survive, & not ok with 1 Cor 1:12-13. An old joke asked, is the Pope Catholc

  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Jul. 15, 2014 8:11 PM ET USA

    If these interviews were inaccurate: a) they would never have been promoted, b) they would not have been on Vatican.va, c) they would not have been done again. They are a) accurate, and b) don't be fooled; that old "scoundrel" Scalfari has a mind like a steel trap. After all these years, he can see through words, if not people. He may even understand the Pope better than the Pope himself!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 15, 2014 7:36 PM ET USA

    In modern times, the leaders of the Church have clearly developed a self-consciousness about the institution they serve with regard to its public perception. In a tremendous irony, the humility of the Holy Father in attempting to personalize the extremely important and transcendant office of the papacy has actually proven very detrimental. The pope must be cognizant that "he cannot indulge his impulses." But in all seriousness and with all due respect, he should never need any reminders.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jul. 15, 2014 7:18 PM ET USA

    These comments are absolutely on target. The Holy Father has to understand that the secular culture's number one objective is the destruction of the Catholic Church. ASAP. We must always be on guard.

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