What media coverage of the papal conclave says about the media

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Cardinal Dolan. ()
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The Lineup collects the media stories, big and small, that are on our radar each day.

The papal conclave starts tomorrow. It's a huge media event, and one that rolls around so infrequently that the landscape seems completely different each time.

Still, some things never change.

For one thing, it's an important business to attempt to divine the sentiment of the cardinal-electors who will gather starting tomorrow morning in the Sistine Chapel. Since conclaves have rarely lasted more than four days in recent history, it's somewhat academic. We'll know soon enough—and what advantage will we have if we've guessed right? More news authority when the next conclave rolls around?

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But the speculation is useful in its own way as one of the few clarifying moments in the media's treatment of Catholicism, at least to American audiences. Stripping away the question of how the church ought to govern (a question which usually prompts answers that are absurd in their practical improbability) engenders clearer thinking about how it actually does govern. For instance, it is a reminder how far to the left of American political sentiment the church is on most matters of global importance, from war to poverty to hunger to tyrannical regimes. The fact that an American is unlikely because the cardinals have historically been loath to place someone from a world superpower on the throne of St. Peter is some evidence of the church's self-awareness as a global geopolitical force. The relative unimportance of American moral pecadilloes to the Vatican becomes pretty clear in a time like this. An article that points out how rarely Benedict or John Paul II actually invoked infallibility (never) will be a surprise to lots of readers and viewers, as it is every time this point in the life cycle of the church comes around.

It's also a moment for more sober examination of the top American clerics. Timothy Cardinal Dolan has been divisive in the U.S. for his statements about abortion and birth control, and he's often used as a quickly obtainable sound-bite to encapsulate the "conservative" reaction to, say, Obamacare.

In many major media outlets this has often obscured the reason for the fairly broad appeal of his tenure as archbishop of New York, even among the city's relatively liberal Catholic base: His easygoing charm, and his skills as a diplomat. In the greater scheme of things, these, rather than the rather predictable positions of the magisterium, are the things that will be the hallmarks of his reign. Mainstream media seems to understand it only when they're rooting for the home team outside the conclave.

They are bolstered by this by reports in Italian newspapers, for whom unsourced reports from inside the Vatican are a longstanding practice between conclaves. So when La Repubblica suggests that Dolan could squeeze out the election because of divides in the thinking of the Vatican, the American press is there to amplify.

It's fun, if nothing else.

And the rare opportunity to get to the substance of the church makes it, for me, a good reading season. Really, people are surprisingly good and sophisticated, from Vivan Lee's reports from the Vatican for NY1 to CNN to The New York Times (Rachel Donadio and Laurie Goodstein in particular), Jason Horowitz for The Washington Post, and anybody who quotes the brilliant Thomas Reese, S.J. (Pats self on back.)

Media news around the web:

British tabloid website Mail Online has more readers in the U.S. than the U.K. [Financial Times via Poynter]

Matt Lauer comes clean on L'affaire Ann Curry: "We were seen as a family, and we didn’t handle a family matter well.” [Howard Kurtz]

Raju Narisetti would like The Wall Street Journal to up its morning game a bit more. [Jim Romenesko]

"Somebody Should Figure Out How to Pay for Journalism, Says Guy Whose Job It Is to Do That" [Hamilton Nolan/Gawker]

David Carr's SXSW keynote on the Times meter and the "theologists of free" [Laura Hazard Owen/paidContent]

Crunching the numbers at Amazon: It "likely takes [selling] around 300 copies per day to reach Amazon’s top five" bestseller list [Gabe Habash/PW]

Looking at recent hiccups in the hyperlocal news business, Jeff Jarvis sees "a model for what’s possible in blog-rich Brooklyn." [Buzz Machine]

Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on leaks, prosecutions and the Times [The Public Editor]

One Hollywood wag estimates Netflix spent more than $4.5 million per episode on "House of Cards." [Variety]

How a satirical post about Paul Krugman's "bankruptcy" made it onto The Boston Globe website Boston.com [Erik Wemple]

In the Martha Stewart retail flap, one columnist sees a reflection of her evolution. [David Carr]

Could Al Jazeera America end up in the old New York Times building? [Keach Hagey and Eliot Brown]

And in case you missed it Friday afternoon, Jack Schafer is funny and acerbic as usual on the topic of "native advertising." [Reuters]

Quote:

It is easy to forget that Ms. Stewart, who has aspects worthy of “Saturday Night Live,” altered the way that people live by decoupling class and taste. Part of the reason that she seems embattled — her media empire is shrinking fast — is that she won her corner of the culture war. When you go into Target or Walmart and see a sage green towel that is soft to the touch, it may not carry her brand, but it reflects her hand. Her tasteful touch — in colors, in cooking, in bedding — is now ubiquitous; she just doesn’t get to cash all the checks anymore.
—David Carr on Martha Stewart

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From our Inbox:

Porn-enthusiast site Fleshbot, newly independent of Gawker Media, will start an erotic e-book business:

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