Brian Williams was back on TV on Tuesday, just in time for the U.S. networks to begin six days of religious programming masquerading as news.
His Lowliness, demoted to MSNBC, was welcoming His Holiness, Pope Francis, to the United States.
Having been nauseated by the view from inside a Canadian TV newsroom for previous popeathons, I was hardly surprised to see MSNBC – and others – turn hefty chunks of airtime over to Catholic cheerleaders.
A priest, Timothy Kesicki, joined the coverage to pitch young Catholics who have left the flock.
“There’s a fear we have in the United States that we’re losing the younger generation,” he said. “And, so, the image of Pope Francis, the witness of Pope Francis, is a real symbol of hope.”
Williams, still handsome and glib in his first day of rehab on NBC, was an enthusiastic convert, constantly referring to the pope as “the holy father.”
Early on, he threw to Maria Shriver, wearing a large cross and identifying herself “as a Catholic, as someone who was educated by the nuns and the Jesuits.”
The network identified her as an NBC News correspondent.
The pope’s visit is “exciting to me on a personal level,” gushed the ex-wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger and a glamor girl of the old Kennedy clan.
On the studio panel with Williams were a Notre Dame professor who doubles as the director of a center for the study of American Catholicism, and NBC’s Chuck Todd, moderator of Meet the Press.
Todd provided the Jewish perspective when he reminded viewers that this week is “also the high holidays for people of my faith.”
This hit the weird button for me, since earlier in the day I had read a piece in The Atlantic by the guy who was fired and replaced by Todd on Meet the Press.
It was headlined David Gregory’s Public Discussion of His Private Faith and promoted his book: How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey.
I always feel unsettled when news folks start talking about faith and declaring their religious affiliations. But it is routine on Fox, and not uncommon elsewhere these days.
I gag every time Wolf Blitzer tells some tortured soul: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
The most piercing injection of journalism Tuesday afternoon on MSNBC came when Williams was wrapping up a hit with correspondent Anne Thompson, who was traveling with the press corps in the coach section of the pope’s plane.
“If our travel services people are listening,” said the millionaire anchorman, “can we please upgrade Anne for the next leg of the flight so she’s no longer in Row 44.”
“I think the only way that’s going to happen,” countered Thompson, “is if I get a Roman collar – and they say that issue is closed.”
That provoked a chorus of oohs from the panel back at Pope Central.
On CNN, Jake Tapper threw to a Vatican flack at the military airfield outside Washington to trumpet the pope’s arrival.
“I want to bring in Father Thomas Rosica. He’s the English-language media attaché for the Vatican. Father, thank you so much for joining me. You know this pope very, very well. As he steps foot on American soil for the first time … what do you think is going through his mind?”
“I think there’s great excitement,” Rosica replied, “What you see here is reflective of what’s going on across the country, across the world, because a man of peace is in our midst today. A man of hope. Somebody who is loved not only by the Catholic Church, but by people of goodwill around the world.”
Similar priestly commentary accompanied CBC’s wall-to-wall coverage when Pope John Paul II visited Canada in 2002 – and again from the moment of his death through his funeral in 2005.
I was a producer at CBC Newsworld during those years and, from where I was sitting in the newsroom, it looked like the network had surrendered its studios to the Roman Catholic Church.
I didn’t get it then. I don’t get it now.
Who else gets so much free publicity or so quickly attains star status?
The media may have boosted Trump’s poll numbers, but it’s not as if CNN recruited his family and campaign organizers as political commentators.
Todd, on MSNBC, explained Francis’s star power this way: “John Paul II was considered the first media savvy pope. This guy has taken it to the 21st century.”
That may be true – for some guy named Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
After all, how many other media-savvy Argentines wearing a skirt, with no fluency in the language, show up for a six-day speaking tour of the United States.
Still, the Vatican and Francis are hardly the second coming of J. Walter Thompson and Swifty Lazar.
NBC White House correspondent Chris Jansing offered a pop-culture take on the pope: “Arguably the most famous person in the world.”
Next thing you know the Vatican will be hawking Air Francis shoes and pitching a reality show called Keeping Up With the Curia.