April 8, 2005
NEW YORK - The funeral of Pope John Paul II was both a solemn ritual and a news event - and television networks that brought it live into American homes hours before the sun rose struggled to reconcile the two.
The main broadcast and news networks all had live coverage of the funeral from Rome, its end marking the transition for many Catholics from mourning the pope to the question of who will succeed him.
"This Mass is about to begin," CBS anchor Harry Smith said at the outset. "We're going to try to stay as much out of it as possible."
Yet it often proved impossible, and that seemed most evident on CBS and ABC, both network news divisions in the midst of their own transitions. Dan Rather was absent, having stepped down as CBS's chief anchor last month, and so was ABC's Peter Jennings, stricken with lung cancer.
What was missed most was their experience in knowing when to interject information and observations and when to step aside, a seemingly effortless skill that's anything but.
The networks all employed translators to cover a Mass celebrated mostly in Italian, but were inconsistent in how often they were used. And some appeared completely flummoxed at times when other languages were used.
"We have translators for Latin and Italian," ABC's Charles Gibson said. "Other languages you have to fend for yourselves."
On CBS, Smith and his sidekick, the Rev. Paul Robichaud, were often left hurriedly reading translations themselves and commenting upon what viewers had just seen.
Gibson and commentator Cokie Roberts, while both experienced broadcasters, were new to their roles and the network was most aggressive in interrupting the Mass to talk about other issues. Robert was left to explain one part of the Mass missed when ABC was showing scenes from Poland. ABC also talked over the litany of the saints, a moment of haunting beauty.
Networks had so much expertise on hand they sometimes couldn't resist using it, even when their observations added little. "I sense both the presence and absence of Pope John Paul II," Notre Dame professor Scott Appleby said on ABC.
NBC's Katie Couric also couldn't resist talking about NATO warplanes during the litany of the saints. But, in general, NBC and the cable news networks - outlets often used to a torrent of words - showed more restraint and willingness to let the events unfold.
Fox News Channel helpfully used graphics to detail the hymns and readings during the Mass. The network also removed the fluttering American flag graphic that's usually a fixture in the upper left-hand corner of its screen.
Both CNN and CBS saw symbolism in a brisk wind closing the pages of the book of the Gospel that had been placed on the top of the pope's simple wooden coffin.
Although NBC's Brian Williams, who teamed with Couric, only replaced Tom Brokaw in December, the NBC team seemed the most experienced in their roles. Often, it meant only simple touches: when Williams explained to non-Catholics what is said when priests distribute communion.
All of the networks adeptly noted the waves of applause throughout the Mass, uncommon to funerals but a mark of how people felt about the late pope.
"They came all the way to say goodbye," Williams said, "and they don't want to say goodbye."
The funeral also was available online. Yahoo! streamed the funeral service live, with a link from their homepage. The feed originated from Associated Press Television News's live channel.
The Mass wasn't even over - hundreds of priests were distributing communion - when ABC was already foreshadowing the next event. Bill Blakemore noted that somewhere, within the group of cardinals seated at the funeral, was the next pope.
ABC showed graphics of the Sistine Chapel to explain how the concave of cardinals will select John Paul II's successor, starting April 18.