Unholy Media Malpractice

Unholy Media Malpractice

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US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 04/18/16
By Michael Shank

The press totally missed the point of Bernie Sanders’ trip to the Vatican.

“Sen. Bernie Sanders gets invited to the Vatican.” “Sen. Bernie Sanders meets with the pope.”

Meetings and invitations, with whom and by whom, is how much of the media distilled down Sen. Bernie Sanders’ visit to the Vatican this past week. In reality, something far more meaningful occurred, but a well-oiled political media machine quickly obscured it.

This trip was perfectly primed for policy impact when it became public that Sanders was bound for Vatican City to speak at the Pontifical Academy of Social Science’s 25th Anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” which, not unlike Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’,” decried society’s exploitative, consumptive and non-communitarian tack. While timed inopportunely during a presidential election, and a few days before the delegate-rich New York primary, the stage was being set in Rome for something more substantial and significant.

Both cities – Washington, where Sanders works, and Vatican City, where Pope Francis is based – were witnessing the potential for a revolution in political, economic and religious doctrine. Both leaders were at the cutting edge of reimagining how these systems should be retooled and restructured. Both were tirelessly tackling elite systems that benefitted from a growing environmental imbalance, economic inequality and social injustice. And their words and actions were causing consternation among the established status quo because, if actualized, they could unseat the powerful, empower the powerless, and popularize the notion that the good life should be available to all, not just a few.

That a sitting U.S. senator was willing to say the following is what made this Vatican moment so powerful. Summoning pontiffs past and present, Sanders cited the need to “block shameful forms of exploitation” of the “most vulnerable workers, of immigrants, and of those on the margins of society,” noting that people were becoming “disposable cogs of the financial system” that was marginalizing the poor and powerless.

The senator, quoting the pope in his hometown, was right: Money is, in fact, “in charge.” And the new “golden calf” is the “cult of money” that has led to a “dictatorship” by a faceless, inhumane economy. All of this from a U.S. senator running for president, aligned with the most edgy aspects of papal encyclicals. Ironically, while many Americans admire the new pope’s revolutionary tone, Sanders’ similar messaging gets met with “we need to be pragmatic and practical” pushback – a classic case of no prophet being accepted in his own hometown.

It is hard to remember when we last witnessed a member of the U.S. Congress calling for our economy to face such moral accountability, the first step of which would require freeing the media, and every other sector of society, from control by unprecedented amounts of money. As Sanders’ speech intoned: “freedom in its truest form” is “freedom that defends the dignity of every person.” A tough ask for any industry, such as media or even defense, which depends on creating and maintaining conflict.

Sanders’ speech was profoundly refreshing. However, few in the press chose to hear it. Instead of a deep dive on the 10-minutes worth of text, the majority of the media chatter was all about whether or not Pope Francis would visit the academy, which he had scheduled to do shortly after Sanders’ speech, to welcome the participants. (The pope later sent a hand-written note apologizing for not being able to attend as scheduled.)

The media, in missing the message, was mirroring the senator’s references to the “globalization of indifference” in which there is “no shame for bad behavior” and a clear surrender to cynicism. The encyclical became utterly relevant in that moment, as media outlets, especially ones in the U.S., indicated indifference to Sanders’ speech and his whole purpose for being there.

In fact, from day one, when the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences sent the initial invite to the senator in late March, much of the U.S. media reframed the news to be about “who invited who” versus what the invite entailed. The original invite came from the chancellor of the pontifical academy with the stated consensus of its president, and it was this Vatican-body that first wanted Sanders to come and speak on the encyclical’s anniversary. And since the Nobel Laureate-stacked academy’s relationship to the Vatican is akin to the Congressional Research Service’s connection to Congress or the Council of Economic Advisers’ association with the White House, no serious senator could say no, no matter how poorly timed politically. It was too important to pass up, an aspect that media outlets conveniently ignored.

This is how politics got in the way this week and muddled a game-changing moment, both at the academy and with Pope Francis. While the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences was swarmed with press interest, with over 160 journalists cleared by the Holy See Press Office for this event (the largest media gathering this year), the intent to report on what actually happened was less clear. Much of the media, with a few notable exceptions, appeared uninterested in reporting on substance and more invested in propping up political theatre.

While perhaps unsurprising, given what takes precedence in presidential debates of late, it disrespected the massive constituency that is serious about retooling our economic system. Other media completely ignored accuracy, identifying me as a Sanders spokesman, for example, and failing to correct it online after being informed otherwise. Misinformation was widespread this last week, illustrative of a media apparatus becoming more politicized and pay-to-play in their performance modus operandi.

It’s no wonder then that the pope distanced himself from the media-driven politicization of what was meant to be a substantive conversation. Yes, the meeting happened between the pope and Sanders, and yes, it was pre-arranged, despite discouragement from naysayers near and far. But that’s not the point. The message is what mattered, not the meeting. And on this, there is very little space between the pope’s prescriptions and the senator’s platform.

It is time people realized these are birds of the same feather. Next time, long after the media mayhem dies down, these two men deserve a longer chat to plot a way to end the exploitation of people and the planet. The “poverty of the many” requires it and the will of the people want it – just no media this time.

Michael Shank teaches at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and GMU’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. For the the 25th Anniversary of the “Centesimus Annus,” Shank provided pro bono media assistance to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences based in Vatican City.