They say that the age of miracles is past. I don’t believe them. No sooner had Pope Francis begun his pontificate than we witnessed a miracle of the first order. I don’t mean the angelic cloud that appeared in the Florida sky. I mean the new Pope’s progressive youthfulness.
Shortly after the papal election, a Canadian TV commentator announced that Pope Francis was 77, the next morning, my daily paper reported that he was 76, and less than two days later, an American columnist wrote that the Pope was 75.
I was ecstatic. In under half a week, he had grown two years younger. I didn’t expect him to continue shedding years at that rate. If he did, in only a few months he’d be too young to serve. At a more measured pace, however, he could soon combine the wisdom of age with the vigour of youth.
Alas, unlike Christ, who made a blind man see, the journalists who made an elderly pope younger didn’t perform a divine miracle. They performed a media miracle. Although often spectacular, media miracles are all too human.
I haven’t yet heard of the media changing water into wine. However, I remember that following the 1948 American presidential election, the Chicago Tribune changed defeat into victory. All it took was the flick of a banner headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
More recently, both CNN and Fox News changed a Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of Obamacare from “yes” to “no.” The transformation was stunning, leaving the viewing public, not to mention the judges, in awe.
Awe, in fact, is what media miracles typically inspire. Some are truly awesome, others merely awful. Among the awesome, the Ottawa Citizen shifted the sinking of the Titanic from 1912 to 2012. Few miracles are more awe-inspiring than a 100-year voyage through time.
Among the awful, the Calgary Herald transformed a board of education deficit into a surplus. Some say the change may not have been a miracle. It may only have been a magic trick. Anyhow, not to be outdone, The Economist transformed a male professor into a female. The transformation didn’t require a sex change operation. Sex change operations aren’t miraculous. They’re dubious. All it took was a title change, from Mr. to Ms.
Although a champion of secularism, the Toronto Star sometimes dabbles in the miraculous. It turned a baseball bat into a gun while reporting on security measures for an international conference, and a cape buffalo into a wildebeest after a wealthy American hunter shot the animal in Africa.
More stunning than mere transformations is the ability of journalists to create something out of nothing. An award-winning reporter with the New Canaan News created quotes from non-existent sources for at least 25 stories. Little wonder that he won an award. Less edifying is that the paper fired him, no doubt due to the machinations of envious co-workers.
Even more stunning, a celebrated American reporter created sources, quotes and entire stories for such notable publications as The New Republic, Rolling Stone and Harper’s. He, too, was released from the confines of a skeptical press. The last I heard, he sought to devote his prodigious talents to practicing law.
Not all reporters can make stories out of nothing. Some have to content themselves with the minor miracle of making other reporters’ stories their own. A reporter with the New York Times amazed his editors with his ability to do both. His exploits earned him a place in the annals of creative journalism and he went on to write a book.
No journalists I know of have done anything like calm storms or make the sick healthy. On the contrary, media miracles often create storms of protest and make the healthy sick of journalists. I suspect it has something to do with readers envying writers.
I can’t say whether Pope Francis will give rise to any more media miracles. But if he follows the example of his predecessor, he almost certainly will. Most, if not all, media have the miraculous ability to change what public figures say into what they didn’t say; or, by making the context disappear, to change what they meant into what they didn’t mean.
The media performed one or the other for Pope Benedict XVI when he spoke about condoms. There is no reason to believe that reporters won’t extend the same courtesy to Pope Francis.
When they do, we can expect critics to fault them for taking liberties. But it would be too much to expect the miracles to cease. Maybe the media thinks freedom of the press means taking liberties.