The Reporter as Fortune Teller: What It’ll be Like This Week in Rome

By Bob Cullen

This week’s secret conclave to select a new pope has echoes of another secret conclave—and one of the worst times in my journalism career.

My conclave was in Moscow in 1985. The body that met in secret was the Politburo of the Communist Party. No smoke went up from a Kremlin chimney to announce the selection of Mikhail Gorbachev as the new leader of the Soviet Union. But apart from that, the meeting in Moscow posed a set of pressures and problems similar to those facing the journalists this week in Rome.

In 1985 I was working for Newsweek, then a magazine printed with ink on paper and delivered into the hands of some three million subscribers each week. After the Politburo action, the editor of Newsweek ordered a crash cover story on the Gorbachev succession. I was tasked with writing a piece that told readers what to expect from the fresh face of the Evil Empire.

My problem was that I had no way of knowing what to expect. Gorbachev had never run for office in a contested election or given an independent interview. Like any ambitious apparatchik in the Soviet system, he had toed the party line in the rare statements published over his name. Basically, all I knew was that he’d run the woeful Soviet agriculture system, he was younger than his immediate predecessors, and he’d once been to Canada to inspect farms. Oh, and he had a birthmark on the balding crown of his head.

But I couldn’t answer my editors’ query with the truth, which would have been, “I don’t know.” So I did what most journalists would do, and I daresay what many of the thousands of journalists in Rome will do this week. I extrapolated and speculated. I took what I knew about the past and projected it into the future. I guessed. I can still remember this sentence from the lead to my piece: “The chances that a real reformer could be elected general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party are about the same as the chances that a pacifist could become chairman of the Pentagon’s joint chiefs of staff.”

I reasoned that the Communist Party was a self-perpetuating, sclerotic oligarchy. It was good at demanding conformity and purging dissent, insuring that only like-minded, cautious bureaucrats could rise to the top. That reasoning had worked in the previous Moscow transitions I’d covered, from Leonid Brezhnev to Yuri Andropov and from Andropov to Konstantin Chernenko.

This time, it failed spectacularly. My only salvation was that as the words glasnost and perestroika  entered the world’s vocabulary, Kremlinologists didn’t spend much time re-reading back issues of Newsweek. (This tendency to quickly forget what was in this morning’s newspapers and on the TV talk shows is the only thing that keeps many pundits from being laughed out of business.)

My problem stemmed from the fact that even 28 years ago, it was no longer good enough for a journalist simply to report who won the election and what he said in his first remarks. The Internet wasn’t around in 1985, but television and satellites were. Newspaper correspondents and weekly magazine writers  had to give readers more than the facts they’d seen on the evening news. Today’s reporters in Rome, working in a high-speed digital world, will be tasked not only with going beyond the facts but with doing it instantly.

Once in a while, a gifted reporter with well-informed sources can rise to this challenge and deliver a story that would be worth reading a year down the road, one that goes beyond the facts of the event in a piercing and far-sighted way. But most of the time, reporters under this pressure resort to pontification (perhaps spelled Pontiffication this week).

The Pontifficators, under the guise of reporting, will fall back on their opinions about the way the new pope ought to act or what he ought to do. We’ve already seen examples of this in the reports that focus on issues like the ordination of women or the church’s failure to root out pedophiles.

The prognosticators will, as I did in Moscow, rely on extrapolation. They’ll reason that nearly all of the voting cardinals in the conclave were appointed by the conservative Pope John Paul II or his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.  This body elected the conservative Benedict to replace the conservative John Paul. So it stands to reason that the new pope will be equally conservative.

And he may well be. But he could also be someone like Gorbachev, a man who disagreed with many of his elders’ policies but was clever enough to keep his disagreement to himself until his elders put him in a position to act. Maybe the College of Cardinals houses a man  who is dismayed with the course the Catholic Church has been following and has been smart enough to keep his dissent to himself. But if such an outlier is elected, there will be little likelihood that the journalists in Rome will have any way to know it. So the prognosticators will predict that the new pope will be very likely to follow the path of his predecessors.

I would tell them not to do it. I’d tell them, when an editor presses them to predict how the new pope will act, to respond:

“God only knows.”

Bob Cullen has been a journalist, author, and teacher in a 40-year career. He reported for the Associated Press and Newsweek. He contributed to magazines ranging from the New Yorker to Travel & Leisure Golf. He has written or co-authored 17 books. But he is most proud of his second career, teaching English at Central High School in Maryland’s Prince George’s County from 2006 to 2011.

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