Times Avoids Pope Quotes, Highlights Harsh Accusers

It's easy to denounce the Vatican's poor public-relations efforts when you're unwilling to quote the Pope in your story, but you're eager to let people accuse him of being an "enthusiastic Nazi."

Pope Benedict XVI may be touring Israel, but the New York Times is barely paying attention to anything he's saying in favor of sounding doom-filled notes about the fate of Christianity in its own birthplace.

On Wednesday's front page, Ethan Bronner reported a story headlined "Mideast's Christians Losing Numbers and Sway." Bronner says the number of Christians is rapidly falling due to "political violence," among other reasons. A word he doesn't use: "persecution." The idea that Muslims are intolerant and unwilling to embrace any notion of religious liberty is present, but more accepted than scorned. Bronner quoted the pontiff only to underscore the doom:

The pope, in a Mass on Tuesday at the foot of the Mount of Olives, addressed "the tragic reality" of the "departure of so many members of the Christian community in recent years."

He said: "While understandable reasons lead many, especially the young, to emigrate, this decision brings in its wake a great cultural and spiritual impoverishment to the city. Today I wish to repeat what I have said on other occasions: in the Holy Land there is room for everyone!"

Benedict's address also strongly encouraged the Christians in the Holy Land to remain and represent the promise of Christ, but that might sound too religious for the secular Times to repeat for readers.

Rachel Donadio's dispatch was entirely negative in tone, headlined "Pope's Wartime Activities Resurface on Israel Trip." In the aftermath of papal remarks at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, Donadio underlined how terrible the Vatican's public relations agents were:

But as has become familiar in Benedict's four years as pope, the attempt at media relations stumbled, in a particularly awkward way for a trip to Israel: the German pope's spokesman first said that Benedict "never, never, never" had belonged to the Hitler Youth but later had to issue a retraction.

The spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was working to counter both criticism of the speech - blasted in the press here as at best a bland missed moment for a German pope who experienced the Holocaust firsthand - and hostility from some in Israel to the pope himself.

Donadio noted the remarks were "blasted" as "bland," but the Times offered a mere six words from the speech, which doesn't let readers decide. Take this passage:

I have come to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah. They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names: these are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners, and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again. Most of all, their names are forever fixed in the memory of Almighty God.

In Donadio's account, the Pope is put forward only to take a beating from critics. There are no Christians quoted to rebut papal critics, or suggest that some papal opponents are so harsh, there is nothing Benedict could say that would truly win them over. The former Joseph Ratzinger is perpetually distracted by the focus on his days as a draftee in the Nazi army:

It also revealed the extent of the Vatican's defensiveness over criticism of Benedict's speech on Monday, when he mused on memory and expressed the "deep compassion" of the Roman Catholic Church over the "millions of Jews killed" in the Holocaust but never used the word German or Nazi. Nor did he speak about his own experiences, though many said they were waiting to hear about them.

In a scathing front-page editorial in Haaretz, a columnist, Tom Segev, wrote: "Benedict chose to phrase even the most universal lessons of the Holocaust in abstract terms. These may still have a place in the lecture hall of a German theology professor, but in the Internet age, they are little more than empty banalities."

Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of Israel's Parliament, said: "The pope spoke like a historian, as somebody observing from the sidelines, about things that shouldn't happen. But what can you do? He was part of them."

Once a Nazi, always a Nazi - that's the message the New York Times sent on Wednesday. Later, they found one more Jewish critic of the pope:

"It shows a lack of emotional understanding on the need to say certain things in certain places even if you've said them before," said Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee and one of the Vatican's main Jewish interlocutors.

Donadio's story seemed designed to underline how the pope could never escape his past:

Even before the pope spoke on Monday, the day he arrived in Israel, a cartoon in the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot showed him at Yad Vashem looking at a photo of a group of Hitler Youth and saying, "Hey, that's me."

....Father Lombardi quickly changed course, but that only served to complicate the issue of Benedict's wartime record and underscore what critics and supporters alike say is the Vatican's problematic public relations apparatus, which does not seem to have improved despite repeated missteps. He said that he had opened the issue of the pope's wartime past - which in most minds was long settled in Benedict's favor - to counter negative accounts, especially in the Israeli press, that Benedict was an enthusiastic Nazi in his youth.

And the concept that the Israeli press were smearing the Pope's past? Donadio seemed to place all the blame on bad publicists, not on the nastiness of the Israeli press itself.