All pope, all the time

With the media's pope marathon in full swing, the White House might want to release any bits of bad news.

Published April 4, 2005 1:41PM (EDT)

For an administration that has made a habit of releasing bad news on Friday afternoons in hopes the document dump would get lost in the weekend press (e.g., Bush's incomplete National Guard papers handed out late on a Friday in 2004), White House officials might want to adjust their blueprint and considered clearing out any bits of bad news this Monday or Tuesday. Because during the media's ongoing, and extraordinary, pope marathon, it's doubtful any other news story will garner attention in the coming days. In fact, the mainstream press, with the cable news channels way, way, way out front, may have set a standard for flooding the zone, for embracing a story with absolutely zeal and conviction. Forget a flood, this is a tidal wave.

And even given the topic at hand, it's been odd at times to watch and listen to the overtly religious tone of the coverage. On Friday and Saturday in particular, as the press maintained a collective bedside vigil, and with the endless TV chatter about sacraments, Vatican councils, monsignors, canon law, hymns and the eternal afterlife, it seemed the only thing missing was CNN's Wolf Blitzer reciting the rosary on the air.

Because the last pope died before the advent of CNN and the subsequent cable news culture, it's hard to gauge how far the current coverage has surpassed previous papal passings. Obviously the death of Pope John Paul II, one of the most influential popes of the last two centuries, is big news. The interesting part is the way it's being marked by the press as monumental news. It's the cable news equivalent of hurricane season, plus celebrity trial, plus primary night all rolled into one.

From Friday morning, when word began to spread that the pope's health was in serious decline, through midnight Sunday, the major American television outlets (both network and cable, as well as National Public Radio) mentioned "pope" 8,321 times, according to TVEyes, the digital media monitoring service. That's roughly one papal mention every half-minute, for 72 hours straight. (Fox News led the pack with over 2,000 mentions of the pope since Friday.)

Sunday's newspapers were also bursting with Pope John Paul II coverage, with dailies like the Atlanta Journal Constitution running five stories, the Detroit Free Press publishing 11, and the Baltimore Sun, 14. The New York Times upped that tally a bit, opting for 16 articles and/or columns. That's one more than the Los Angeles Times, which likely has bragging rights to the longest pope piece, an obit than ran 7,339 words, complete with 13 photographs. Other papers, like the Chicago Tribune and Newark Star-Ledger, went even further, running more than a dozen papal pieces. But it appears the winner, according to a search of the Nexis electronic database, was Long Island, N.Y.'s Newsday, which on Sunday published 41 separate pope pieces.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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