The papal election and the media

So as I’ve been watching news coverage of the conclave and papal election, I’ve been wondering what reasons one could give for why the news media are so interested in this particular event. Random thoughts:

1. I’d be curious to compare coverage of the elections of Benedict XVI and, now, Francis I, to the election of John Paul II in 1978. Obviously we didn’t have 24-hour cable news networks in 1978, so the papal election couldn’t dominate the airwaves the way it can now. But how much airtime did it get? Did it lead the nightly news? Did it get brief mention? Did the TV news cover the beginning of the conclave, or just the final result? Did any stations interrupt regular programming to treat the election as “breaking news”?

I guess what I’m asking is: The elections of Benedict XVI and Francis I were “breaking news” for me, in the sense that someone interrupted my work day to announce the results as soon as the news media broke them. To what extent is that level of public fascination a product of the existence of 24-hour news networks and the Internet? In other words, were Americans as excited by John Paul II’s election, and if not, can we account for that difference by saying that the American public’s interest is, in large part, media-created?

2. Catholics account for a quarter of the American population, and that fact presumably goes a long way to explaining why news networks regard the papal election as big news–although having said that, it would be interesting to see to what extent news coverage aimed principally at American audiences did or did not emphasize American Catholics’ investments in or reactions to the election.

What I’m saying is: I’m wondering to what extent the media regard the papal election as a “Catholic” story vs. a story of broader interest. If the latter, where is the interest coming from? Why are non-Catholic Americans interested in this election? Do they have a sense of the Catholic Church as an important force in the world? Is this a kind of exoticism–people intrigued by the pomp and circumstance and the two different colors of smoke? To what extent, and for what reasons, do non-Catholics feel a stake in the future of the Catholic Church, e.g., its stances on condoms or gay marriage?

3. Riffing off that last question as a historian: How does the interest of non-Catholic Americans in the leadership of the Catholic Church today compare to, let’s say, the nineteenth century? I read somewhere today that Francis I is the first Jesuit to become Pope, and I immediately thought, “Ooh. I can imagine how American or British Protestants in the 19th century would have reacted to a Jesuit Pope.” Cue the conspiracy theories!

Did American newspapers in the 19th century cover papal elections with anything analogous to the attention that Francis I’s election received–e.g., prominent (if not quite front-page) coverage, prior speculation about who the candidates might be, editorializing about the likely policies of the new Pope? I could certainly imagine 19th-century American republicans doing the latter; certainly they were alarmed by papal statements about the evils of democracy and revolution. But did papal elections serve as the occasion for such commentary, in the way that they do for pundits now? I’d be curious to know, partly for what it would reveal about the development of news reporting and commentary as genres.

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