On Fame in Print

Article excerpt

I am now convinced that Pope John Paul II is famous. Don't take my word for it. My conclusion is based on an article that appeared in the April 29 issue of The Economist; it was three full pages long, and all about this Pope-even the headline was simply THE POPE, in bold black type, that's all.

That may not impress you unless you know The Economist, so I'd better take a moment here to inform the unknowing. It's a weekly magazine; based in London, where its history goes back well over 100 years. But in my opinion (which is shared by many other shrewd observers, you can take my word for that), it is the most influential English-language magazine in the world. And it now goes all over the world too: You'll find it in Hong Kong as easily as in Paris, and probably in Katmandu as well (I don't personally know about that, though). In New York and Washington it's become the powerchic publication.

It's much bigger than our newsweeklies-covering the whole world is a big job-and features "special reports" like for instance "The Future of the Amazon" which always tell you a lot more than you want to know. But mostly it covers what's happening in crisply-written short pieces-the latest on O.J. Simpson in half a page (Imagine!), that kind of thing.

That's my point. Devoting three whole pages to one man is, for The Economist, shocking profligacy. Especially when the only "news" peg was Evangelium Vitae, which would ordinarily get covered in maybe a two-column box. But the editors obviously decided to use it to anchor an in-depth profile of John Paul II himself.

That's just what my Irish grandmother would call this Pope: Himself, the one everybody knows whom you're talking about. And that's pretty much the way The Economist writes about John Paul, with awe peeping through the prose. But then how else would you handle a subject if you had to report that "he is not interested in reaching an accommodation with secularism and relativism, but in defeating them"? Especially when you feel constrained to add: "To that end, he wants a church that is disciplined and outspoken-and, to judge by his actions, one remade in his image."

The Economist is accustomed to looking down: all that happens, and the "world leaders" caught up in the action, are viewed loftily from above, from whence definitive judgments ink down onto the airspeed pages, the delphic obiter dicta often derided at home in London, true (fact is, The Economist is quite often just plain wrong), but received reverently in Singapore and the Saychelles.

So you can understand why the editors have trouble looking up at the Colossus of Rome as he strides comfortably above and beyond them. Such an unaccustomed position can cause the kind of stiff-necked prose that keeps cropping up in the article, like this petulant paragraph:

Thus, for John Paul to say in the late 20th century that a judgment must be "definitively held" cannot make it so. And, in an age of mostly free speech and mostly free media, where there is nothing the church can do to gag alternative views outside its own forums, this dogmatic approach may have cost the pope at least as much loyalty as it has won him.

Do you get the feeling that the editors don't like competition in pontification? I do. I'm no expert, but I do read The Economist faithfully-no, better make that regularly, "faithfully" sounds wrong here? It keeps me up to date on how much I don't know (not to mention all the stuff I don't want to know). And I'm persuaded that the editors do better at predicting which way the stock markets will go than they do at forecasting the rise and fall of loyalties they don't understand.

That may be the trouble right there: they don't understand. For all its world-wide reputation, The Economist remains quintessentially English, which may make the writing better, but not necessarily what lurks behind it. I keep odd quotations (it's an old habit from my Boy Reporter days), and one that may be just the right one here came from an Englishman named Duff Cooper, a once-well-known crony of Winston Churchill (his wife, Lady Diana, was a great beauty of her time, I have her picture too), who once said "For the vast majority of English people there are only two kinds of religion: the Roman Catholic, which is wrong, and the rest, which don't matter. …