If CNN’s coverage of the election of Pope Francis I on Wednesday afternoon is any indication, Jeff Zucker and his minions are not ready for prime time — or any time for that matter.
I stopped counting the number of errors from CNN’s anchor team after three pages of notes. The following are only the most egregious:
• The network reported Francis is the first non-European pontiff in the history of the church. Well, how about modern-day history? St. Peter, the first pope, came from near the Sea of Galilee. A number of early pontiffs came from Africa and Asia.
• Anchor Chris Cuomo recounted how two cardinals’ mothers did not want their sons to become pope. “Everyone’s mother — Catholic or not — wants their son to be pope,” Mr. Cuomo intoned. Well, one thing a pope has to be is Catholic.
• Mr. Cuomo, a recent Zucker hire lured away from ABC, also observed that the crowd had spilled out from St. Peter’s Square to the “Road of Consolation.” It’s called Via della Conciliazione, which means the Road of Conciliation.
CNN couldn’t get it right from the start. Despite the fact that the announcement of the new pope was made in Latin, the network apparently had no one available who could translate Latin. The network had to quote Italian television because no one at CNN knew immediately who had been elected.
Furthermore, what appeared to be a noticeable rustling of paper to locate the biography of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the new pope, left the airwaves virtually silent for about 15 seconds — a long time in television terms. That’s because no one had seen this selection coming!
For much of the coverage, you couldn’t see Mr. Cuomo and the two CNN analysts, John Allen and the Rev. Edward Beck. Mr. Cuomo also failed to identify himself and didn’t say why Mr. Allen and Father Beck were qualified to serve as analysts. They are, but you wouldn’t know that from CNN’s coverage. Mr. Allen works as a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, while Father Beck is a member of the Passionists — a religious institute founded by Italian-born St. Paul of the Cross in the 18th century — and one of my favorite commentators on the church.
What CNN and the other networks covering the papal selection couldn’t accomplish was to dampen the enthusiasm people felt about the election of Francis. The network, like others, rolled out the usual mixture of corruption, sex scandals, debates about women in the priesthood and the modernization of the church in their lengthy coverage of the conclave.
Simply put, if things were so bad, why did more than 100,000 people gather near the Vatican — some of them running on foot or racing there by car — to hear the news? Only CNN’s Anderson Cooper captured what was going on. “People have smiles on their faces. [There’s] so much joy and excitement,” Mr. Cooper reported from down in the square.
One of the most bizarre aspects of the CNN coverage was its virtual version of the Sistine Chapel, where the pope was elected, particularly when it was shown immediately after video of the beautiful original.
Whatever the case, the Catholic Church has a leader who is humble, intelligent and has a no-nonsense approach about the issues ahead.
Mr. Zucker might want to take a few pages from Francis’ playbook as the CNN chief assesses how poorly his team did in its first big news event since he took over the network in January.
• Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @charper51.