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‘If It Bleeds, It Leads!?’

The Vatican's top communications'official on the challenges of delivering the good news in a media age dominated by stories of bloodshed, scandal, and disaster

BY John Norton

March 8-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/8/98 at 1:00 PM

 

Archibishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications, is best known to catholics in the United States as the commentrator for televised papal liturgies, especially the Pope's Christmas Midnight Masses (he has covered the past 14.) More recently he worked extensively with NBC to cover the Pope's pastoral visit to communist Cuba.

In his Vatican offices, just behind St. Peter's Basilica, Archbishop Foley spoke with Register correspondent John Norton about his experiences in Cuba, his personal life, his vision of the Church in social communications, and his "marriage" to a "dead" dicease.

The Vatican's top communications' official on the challenges of delivering the good news in a media age dominated by stories of bloodshed,h scandal, and disaster

Norton: You are recently back from Cuba, where you were with Pope John Paul not only as archbishop but as journalist. Were you pleased with the coverage of the trip?

Archbishop Foley: It could have received much more coverage in the United States. It received quite a bit in other parts of the world. It's unfortunate that there was that other distraction (the troubles of President Bill Clinton) and the people from the networks who were there in Cuba were somewhat disappointed and frustrated, but what was done was very good.

Outside of papal events, what are the greatest opportunities for the Church in social communications?

We should be much more proactive in the field of public relations. The Church does so much in the name of the Lord in so many ways. We should make that good news better known. There are many stories that are valid and newsworthy, whether it be service of those suffering from AIDS in New York whom the Church serves better, I think, than any other organization; or the service of lepers in Cuba. That's one place where the regime had allowed nuns to work because the work is so difficult—what a wonderful Gospel testimony that affords— or the care of the poor. All that is done in the name of the Lord by the Church all over the world.

Many of those who respond to a priest–ly or religious vocation have very interesting stories of their own. Often now people enter at a later stage of life and so they've already achieved some level of success in a secular occupation and they find it not satisfying enough, and want to give more to the Lord. Those stories are fascinating.

The spiritual journeys of people. I know how famous the book of Thomas Merton Seven Story Mountain had been in the 1940s, but there are many dozens—hundreds—of stories like that today of individuals who have found that dedicating themselves completely to the service of the Lord is the most fulfilling and satisfying and necessary thing that they could do.

In media coverage dominated by scandals, controversies, bloodshed, and disaster, those sorts of stories face stiff competition.

At the 175th anniversary of the Catholic press in the United States, which was commemorated in Charleston, S.C., where the first Catholic publication was established, I spoke about the secular media having as their idea: “If it bleeds, it leads.” I said we should have two ideas: “If it pleads, it leads”—pleading for the needs of individuals; or, “If it needs, it leads.”

So there are other things that can legitimately attract the attention of people as we know the famine in Ethiopia did some years ago when the BBC did a report. People have big hearts and they respond to such stories very positively and they also respond to people.

When I was editor of the Catholic newspaper in Philadelphia I instituted a column on the back page called “Profile,” figuring that people are much more interested in people than ideas and that people personify a particular idea or movement or activity. You're much more likely to have individuals identify with that idea or activity or need through somebody who already embodies the idea or responds to the need. A number of other newspapers have imitated that same idea of a profile done in that way.

You spoke of interesting vocation stories. What is yours?

The example of my parents was outstanding and I received an excellent Catholic education. I can remember the day when I said “Yes” to the Lord. It was Christmas day, 1952. I was a senior in high school. I went back to our parish church and I knelt in front of the crib and I said, “Thank you, Lord, for my life, and my family, and my faith, my education—and thank you, Father, for sending your Son to show us how to live, redeem us from our sins and make it possible for us to live forever. Thank you for all the things you've given me and I want to give it back to you.”

Now, I did enter the seminary, the Jesuit novitiate, and then I left, but I still had the idea of priesthood in my mind. I finished at university first, which I'm very glad I did, and then entered the diocesan seminary.

I can say that I've never had an unhappy day as a priest. I have loved the priest-hood. I've done everything in the priesthood except being a prison chaplain: parish, suburban, inner city, downtown. I've been a teacher in high school, college, and seminary. I've done campus ministry, I've been a chaplain in a general hospital mental hospital. I've been an editor of a Catholic newspaper, and I've produced radio and television programs. So it's a rather varied history, all of which has brought me great satisfaction.

I can remember the words of the priest who preceded me teaching philosophy at the seminary. When he was approaching death he said, “I'm not afraid to die, just embarrassed.” I feel the same way, because God's been so good to me and it hasn't been possible to respond with the equal generosity to his goodness. I just wish I could do more or could have done more.

Where should the Church be expending greatest energy in the field of social communications?

There are two directions that I think are very important. We are attempting to foster local initiatives in social communications. Now with the privatization of radio and television it's possible for the Church to have radio and television stations. We're especially attempting to foster radio stations, which are less expensive and you might say more intimate—and that on a local level; in Africa where you can have radio stations with the local African languages; in Asia, the same. So wherever that's possible we try to promote local responsibility of the Church for serving the people in the local culture in the local language. Those things are very important.

The other is satellite communication, which now makes it possible for the Church to offer a universal message. That's a little more complicated. You have 24-hour news satellite services, for example, especially in English. What should the Church do in that area? Certainly it can serve Latin America by satellite and there are proposals to do that on a continuing basis in Spanish and Portuguese. So that's a great challenge, to do it in a way that will be both appealing and affordable.

Is any one of the media better suited than the others for the Church's mission?

Radio is more omnipresent and more intimate. It's with almost the poorest people all over the world. They can usually have a transistor radio, and that can accompany them at work, as they travel, as they're walking, whatever. That has an intimacy. You can speak to them very much.

Television, you can have more the sense of shared experience. So when you transmit a liturgy of the Holy Father, people can feel that they're there, and sometimes they can feel more as if they're there by watching it on television than if they're there, especially if it's a large crowd. They can see more and hear better. So I think the notion of shared experience is very important.

And in the print media, you have more the idea of reflection and thinking about the significance of events and having more background. So I think the media are complementary in that way. They shouldn't compete with one another.

What about the Internet?

The Internet and computer communication are very important, because you can engage in evangelization in the privacy of the home, often in an interactive way. The Church through such means is able to penetrate into areas where it would otherwise not have access.

What are the biggest challenges or obstacles for the Church working in social communications?

You have a number. Governments can be hostile and can have hostile legislation in the field of communications denying access to the Church to either take part in communications or have ownership of means of communications.

Another obstacle is what the Holy Father has called “savage capitalism”—the idea that only the bottom line is important and the means of communication exist, not for the common good but for personal profit. So if that's the norm for communications then we don't serve the religious and spiritual needs of people because they can't be quantified.

The best policy is one of private administration with public regulation. In the United States we've gone too far in the direction of deregulation and not protecting the service of the common good. Because I don't think you can say that the electronic media—which use public channels and are therefore public trust—can be guided only by demographics, by the market which they serve. “Demographics” means delivering to audiences which are able to pay for products. But then what happens to the service of the sick, the poor, the handicapped, the very young, or the very old, who are not markets which communicators wish to reach—and because of that are ignored?

I think that a balance between private administration and public regulation can guarantee the service of the common good: private administration to guarantee efficiency, and public regulation to guarantee the service of the common good to the entire public. That would be a good model for societies which are themselves changing— eastern and central Europe which had been under communist domination, some of the former socialist governments, or dictatorships which have fallen and are looking for new models of communications.

I have trust in a regulated private administration. Unregulated private administration means people go completely for greed. Too much of public administration means inefficiency, bureaucracy, and sometimes seeking political control. So what's needed is a careful balance. In that way if part of the common good of the public service is viewed as the religious and spiritual dimension of the human person, then time will be set aside for religious programming, and I think that should generally be on the basis of the presence of that particular religion or denomination within the society, as far as free access is concerned.

Your council has prepared two documents targeting specific topics: Ethics in Advertising (1997) and Pornography and Violence in the Media (1989). Are there any other topics now under study?

Well, we've been asked to look at the whole notion of ethics in communication. But it's not easy to prepare something on that area, so it's a little premature to talk about a document.

Other documents that have come out were Communio et Progressio (1971) and Aetatis Novae (1991), the two pastoral instructions on communications. Communio et Progressio was called the Magna Carta of the Church in communications. It was a superb document and I'm free to say that, because I wasn't here when it was produced. I admire it objectively.

Aetatis Novae has as its strength the offering of the elements of a pastoral plan for communications, indicating that the Church should have a pastoral plan for communications and that the communications aspect should be part of every pastoral plan. If you are constructing a school or if you have a charitable initiative you have to say, “How can I communicate this to the community to make known the availability of the service and also to make known to the general community what is going on?”— not in the sense of boasting about what is happening, but in the sense of letting our light shine before men so that they might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.

In reviewing films today, Catholic publications run into the problem of movies that treat lightly adultery, pre-marital sex, etc. Some think such films shouldn't be reviewed at all. Do you have any ideas on that dilemma?

Well, the document we issued, Pornography and Violence in the Media: a Pas-toral Response, offers specific guidelines to parents, church groups, educators, and legislators. That's very useful.

On the other hand, we have to live with the fact that there is evil in the world and evil in human life and it's not always wrong to portray it—as the Old Testament does and as the New Testament does. God can teach us lessons through somewhat unusual examples sometimes. Just yesterday, in fact, the first scriptural reading was about David and Bathsheba, neither of whom did a good deed in their initial encounter. But God used David as his instrument and used Bathsheba, who is the mother of Solomon, as his instrument. They repented of the evil that they had done and in that sense the good came out of the evil. So in some depictions of evil, people can draw certain lessons.

There's a difference between the glorification of evil or justification of evil— which is wrong—and the admission of evil, indicating that it does happen and that people can learn from their mistakes and that God can bring good even out of evil. That is an important lesson for our lives. We can't live in a hermetically sealed world. We are children of Original Sin, freed from it through baptism but we still live in a world tainted by sin and we ourselves are sinners. We just can't glorify or seek to justify the sin in itself. Great literature has these great themes of grace operating in a world stained by sin.

Do you keep up on TV shows or movies in the United States?

I had to give a talk in Hollywood once and they asked me if I saw any of their movies or shows and I said, “Yes, they're dubbed in Italian.”

Then I imitated John Wayne speaking in Italian. As it turned out, his son was there and said he got a kick out of that.

You are titular archbishop of Neopolis in Proconsulari. What does that mean—and where is Neopolis in Proconsulari?

It is suburban Carthage, north Africa, now in Tunisia. I've been in Tunisia as a priest but I haven't been back since I was named titular archbishop of Neopolis in Proconsulari. I think the name of the place now is Nabeul and it is a seaside resort. A titular see is one that's been suppressed because there aren't enough Catholics there to justify a local Church, a diocese. It's almost all Muslim now.

There are a number of titular sees or suppressed dioceses all around the world that are assigned to people who are bishops but do not have diocesan responsibility. They may be auxiliary bishops in a diocese, and therefore not diocesan bishops; or they may be nuncios, that is, papal ambassadors, all over the world; or serve here in the Roman Curia as department heads or secretaries.

The bishop wears a ring because, in a sense, he's married to his diocese. But I'm sort of married to a dead diocese; you could say, in a way I'm a widower.

—John Norton