Tuned In

The Papal Announcement: For a Day, (Very) Old Media Triumph

In an age of digital news and instant leaks, the suspense and awe of the announcement showed the power of analog media. Like chimneys.

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There were live chimney-cams. There was real-time coverage on and from social media. The new pontiff even issued his first Tweet within minutes. But what made the live announcement of the 265th pope, Francis, a fascinating spectacle even to non-Catholic viewers was that, in a digital world, the process is still distinctively analog.

There was no high-tech rollout. There were no exit polls. There was just an archaic signal–white smoke billowing out from a pipe atop an ancient building. And then suspense: no leaks from highly placed sources, no reports from advance men. Just cameras trained on a balcony in Rome as the lights switched on and shadows scuffled about behind it. Then a curtain opened, and the glass doors and–Habemus Papem.

The announcement of the pope was one of the few remaining legitimately suspenseful events that we get to witness today. There’s the occasional close election, though even those tend to be pre-polled and pre-analyzed beyond the point of true suspense, and we’re bathed in instant information and returns as soon as the votes are cast. Short of a high-profile Supreme Court decision, there are few examples anymore of a secretive group locked away, deciding and announcing.

(This is why it had to be a disappointment to cable-news networks–especially CNN, which benefits from big world news–that the conclave lasted only two days. The lengthy conclave is the brokered convention of religious politics.)

So though there was plenty of pre-papal speculation on TV news–most of it wrong, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio headed few papabile lists–and there will be plenty of time to hash out the significance of the new pope, the most compelling part of Wednesday afternoon’s coverage was the silence. At 3:11 p.m. ET, Brian Williams on NBC announced that the network would go quiet except to translate the announcement of the new pope’s name. And then—nothing, just a still sea of humanity, intent.

The square of St. Peter’s lit at nighttime is an awe-inspiring arena to deliver a message. And the church is, after all, in the awe business. Churches themselves, the physical buildings, are communications devices as much as anything. Pre-electronic media, pre-widespread literacy, cathedrals were intended as media experiences–the use of space, sculpture, and stained glass were conceived as interfaces with the divine.

Much has changed about the Catholic Church, its place in the world, and its relationship with its followers since then. But what was apparent even to a non-believer–or at least this particular once-Catholic-turned-secular Jew–is that there’s still a power in the sight of a sea of people gathered together, quietly attending to something they believe bigger than themselves.

One day of spectacle is not itself going to solve any of the church’s problems; by evening-news time, the TV commenters had already moved on to those. (And detractors were busily researching his pre-papal comments and disseminating them in social media.) Pope Francis has a lot of work ahead crafting a message for his church and delivering it through the many channels required of him. But for one afternoon, anyway, his debut showed that when it comes to the Church’s most ancient forms of media, the pipes still work.