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James T. KeaneApril 29, 2024
Pope Francis speaks with Norah O'Donnell before sitting down exclusively with the "CBS Evening News" anchor at the Vatican April 24, 2024, for an interview ahead of the Vatican's inaugural World Children's Day. (OSV News photo/courtesy CBS NEWS)

On Wednesday, April 24, “CBS Evening News” aired portions of an hour-long interview of Pope Francis by CBS anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell. The segment was a teaser for a longer version of the interview that will air on May 19 on CBS’s “60 Minutes” (followed by an hour-long primetime special on May 20). According to CBS, it is the first in-depth, one-on-one interview a pope has ever done with a U.S. broadcast network.

In this U.S. presidential election season, the interview means something else on this side of the pond: It is a marked departure from the media accessibility granted by President Joe Biden and Donald J. Trump, the presumptive nominees of their respective political parties.

Regardless of what one thinks of the advisability of a pope known for his off-the-cuff remarks partaking in long interviews (count me a skeptic, though America  was certainly a beneficiary back in the day), the fact remains that Pope Francis is more willing than both candidates to sit down one-on-one in front of a camera. Why? And what lessons might Pope Francis have to teach Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump in this moment?

A recent article in Axios pointed out that—in a historic departure from the norm for a sitting president—Mr. Biden has not given a single interview during his first three years in office to White House reporters for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. Before Mr. Biden, only President Dwight Eisenhower didn’t sit for an interview with The Times. A recent Politico article noted that “the relationship between the Democratic president and the country’s newspaper of record—for years the epitome of a liberal press in the eyes of conservatives—remains remarkably tense, beset by misunderstandings, grudges and a general lack of trust.”

Mr. Trump has been a bit more accessible to media outlets than Mr. Biden—albeit to ones that rarely challenge his public falsehoods or throw out curveball questions. With the exception of a long radio interview with CNBC in March, Mr. Trump usually appears on media outlets that will offer little in the way of criticism or pushback. Even Fox News, his go-to platform during his tenure as president, didn’t get a live interview with Mr. Trump for over two years before what was recently described by Financial Review as an “uneasy truce” between the candidate and the network.

Why the reticence, particularly leading up to a general election that promises to be close and increasingly hard-fought? Mr. Trump is 77; Mr. Biden is 81. At his inauguration in 2021, President Biden became the oldest president ever, taking the title from—you guessed it—Mr. Trump in 2017. Both have drawn scrutiny in recent years for their verbal gaffes and brief memory failures in public, with some journalists and clinicians suggesting that one or both are suffering from dementia. In an age of TikTok and quick sound bites on social media, such public slips of the tongue and “senior moments” can cause far more damage to a candidate than in past generations. It’s better to stay on message with a carefully coordinated press team, no?

[Related: Joe Biden and Donald Trump need to take a page from Pope Benedict (and retire)]

But Pope Francis is 87. Famous (or infamous) for his off-the-cuff remarks to reporters, and not immune to lapses linguae, the pope also gives the impression to Vatican reporters that he doesn’t have much use for a press team at all. To be sure, the bits of the CBS interview we saw last week suggest the sit-down included more softballs from Ms. O’Donnell than it did hard-hitting questions or challenges, but it was still unprecedented access for a news organization that, while not hostile to his position or views, has no reason to protect or defend the pontiff.

Commentators far wiser than I have pointed out that Pope Francis’ accessibility can be a two-edged sword, and the editors of America noted as much last year. “Francis has thus been a far more visible pope, making him popular and accessible but simultaneously more vulnerable to knee-jerk criticism and misinterpretation. This vulnerability has led some observers of the papacy—both supporters of Pope Francis and his critics—to question his approach,” the editors wrote. “While he can certainly command a news cycle, complaints of confusion and unclarity in teaching often get almost as much airtime as what the pope intended to convey. With this volume of communication, from the pope as well as from various supporters and detractors responding to him, it can be difficult for the church to determine what is signal and what is noise.”

The first danger here is of a kind of papalotry, an unhealthy elevation of the person of the pope and an exaggeration of the authority of the office—remember Cardinal Manning’s quip that he would like an infallible statement from the pope every morning with his Times—that has become more exaggerated in the past few decades. But a second danger is that in the minds of Catholics, the pope’s personal opinions can become conflated with church teaching. Of course, the reverse can also happen: The pope’s opponents will claim that everything that comes out of the Vatican is just the pope’s opinion.

The value of such media appearances is not always clear but can be immense. First, they allow viewers and readers to see the person behind the policy or the institution. This has certainly been the trademark of Pope Francis since Day One of his papacy. While retrospectives on the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI often focus on “what he was really like,” for example, we tend (for better or worse) to feel like we know Pope Francis a little better. Second, papal interviews can be a powerful corrective to the instinct (as powerful in Rome as in D.C.) to make everything a secret, to put everything behind closed doors until media handlers augur the most opportune moment and venue. Let’s put it this way: If you’re fighting the false impression you are having memory lapses, the best way to handle that isn’t to vanish.

A third factor here is the reality in which journalists work. Many a church reporter will tell you that their favorite bishops or curial officials are not those with whom they agree. Their favorites are the ones that don’t shut them out, that don’t retaliate after negative coverage, that don’t rely on press releases or multilayered bureaucracies to keep the nosy journos at bay. (No one wants your press release.) That affects the amount of coverage one gets and the degree to which reporters are willing to let an official get a word in edgewise. If you want to get your message out most effectively, you don’t just want a slick public relations outfit; you want reporters to know you’re accessible and honest.

Popes and presidents obviously have different priorities, and the usual caveat—that American political categories do not explain Vatican concerns—holds true in this case as well. But Pope Francis has a lot to lose when he speaks openly in public, too, in ways far more consequential than dropping a point or two in the polls. He decided at one point that accessibility and openness were worth the risk. Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, campaigning in a rematch that three out of five Americans say they don’t even want, might be wise to follow his example.

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