Pope Francis’ late September whirlwind tour of the United States put him in the Papal Rock Star category that had been the exclusive domain of Pope John Paul II. Corporate media, conditioned to think of Popes as merely Presidents in groovy outfits, seemed ill equipped to handle Francis’ Jesus-like musings. Surely the media knew what was coming; in his remarkable 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) Francis stated a belief in economic principles not endorsed by the Boards of Director’s of our media elite:
No to an economy of exclusion.
No to the new idolatry of money.
No to a financial system which rules rather than serves.
No to the inequality which spawns violence.
According to Millennial, an online journal for young Catholics, Evangelii Gaudium employs the word “love” 154 times, “joy” 109 times, “the poor” 91 times, “peace” 58 times, “justice” 37 times,” dignity” 23 times, and “common good” 15 times.
Francis’ June of 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’” (“Praise be to you”), subtitled “On Care For Our Common Home” issued similar challenges to the elites: “To claim economic freedom…while real conditions bar many people from real access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.” He describes a planet that is the victim of “relentless exploitation,” that is in part the result of “the reckless pursuit of profits.”
In rock and roll terms, those are Woodstock-era platitudes. I found myself thinking of two classic rock songs every time the Pope appeared on American television: “After Forever,” by Black Sabbath and Bob Dylan’s, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Whenever right wing pundits pontificated about the Pope and dismissed his call for reigning in capitalist excesses as somehow nothing more than communist polemics, these lines from the “After Forever,” came to mind:
“Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope – do you think he’s a fool?” and “I think it was true, it was people like you that crucified Christ.”
National Public Radio’s Bob Garfield, cohost of “On the Media,” perfectly summed up the wingnut reaction to the Pope in a rant called “The Pope is not a Politician.” After citing hysterical reactions to Francis from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Stuart Varney, Garfield argues cogently that, “The problem is that in our hyper-politicized media culture, nothing in the world is immune from partisanship and polemic. Not atmospheric crisis. Not evolution. Not vaccination. Not economic history. Not even hunger. What should the leader of the Church talk about then? Deflategate?”
We shouldn’t get too upset about wingnut commentators because they only exist to entertain. Only “true believers” take them seriously. Of much more concern are the mainstream, “moderate” journalists and commentators. These journalistas may or may not be Catholic, but they do belong to what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has long called the “Church of the Savvy.”
According to Rosen:
“Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness: that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it,’ and unsentimental in all things political is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.”
It’s those “savvy” journalists Bob Dylan probably had in mind when he wrote this in “Ballad of a Thin Man”:
Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
In the 1980’s the “thin men” running Pravda and other Soviet media viewed Pope John Paul II through a Cold War “evil capitalist/benevolent communist,” frame that had little relevance to anyone outside Western and Soviet elites. State controlled journalists refused to see that the “something happening here,” was a grassroots rebellion of millions standing up against a totalitarian state that had spent years squashing basic freedoms and squandering wealth on a pointless arms race.
Pope John Paul II, originally from Poland, no doubt inspired resistance to Communist authorities, but like any “great leader,” the most he could be was a symbol of what was going on at the street level.
Today, the thin men and women running mainstream USA journalism insist on viewing Francis through a partisan Left/Right lens that is meaningless pretty much everywhere on earth except in USA mainstream media. The subtext of almost all the Pope coverage was that Francis is a moderate Republican on social issues (he upholds traditional Catholic dogma on most issues, but is less mean spirited about it) and a liberal Democrat on economics.
Like their Soviet counterparts a generation ago, these government lapdog media will not or cannot see that the “something happening here,” is a global, grassroots resistance to the “New World Order,” that emerged in 1989 with the promise of democracy for all and a “peace dividend,” but ended up giving the world more inequality, more environmental destruction, and more elite control of the centers of power.
Francis came to America and preached the old fashioned Golden Rule to politicians, and a media establishment that are the chief enablers of the new golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.
Tony Palmeri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of communication studies at UW Oshkosh.