Chris Jansing Talks About The Upcoming Conclave…
In March of 2005, MSNBC’s Chris Jansing and then MSNBC producer (and now TVNewser chief) Chris Ariens flew to Rome, ostensibly to spend a couple of weeks covering the Pope’s Easter mass as well as explore some other areas in and around the Vatican. Neither could have known at the time what would come next; the Vatican announcing how ill Pope John Paul II was followed closely by the Pope’s death. What was a two week assignment of not major import instantly became one of the biggest stories of the year as, for the first time in 27 years, a new Pope would be chosen. The rest of the world’s TV media quickly joined Jansing and Ariens and for the next four weeks Rome was the center of the news media universe. Eight years later, Jansing is back in Rome to cover the conclave that will pick a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. ICN interviewed Jansing last week as she prepared to return to Rome to cover the upcoming conclave.
In 2005 you covered your first conclave for MSNBC. What is different this time?
Everything about this conclave is historic because of Pope Benedict’s decision to step down. And unlike 2005, when Joseph Ratzinger was considered a favorite, this election is wide open. And it’s all playing out against the backdrop of the priest sex scandal, a church with diminishing influence in Europe while growing in Africa and Latin America. As elections go, this one could get very, very interesting.
Do think you will find yourself mentally comparing conclaves and if so how do you fold that back into your coverage?
One hopes experience gives insight! I also am painfully aware of the difficulty of discerning whether the smoke is black or white, and how hard it is to HEAR the actual announcement of the name of the new Pope. It comes in the midst of a formal announcement in Latin and is easy to miss. I don’t know if it will be any easier to figure out this time, but at least I have a good idea of what to expect.
One of the dominant storylines last conclave seemed to encompass this question of how the next Pope could possibly emerge from the large shadow Pope John Paul II cast. Which storylines will you be most interested in watching for this conclave?
Even before Benedict became the new Pope, there was a lot of discussion about how difficult it would be for anyone to follow the internationally popular Pope John Paul. I had met him personally and covered his appearances in St. Louis, Israel, and Rome, and the effect he had on individuals and crowds was extraordinary; unlike anything I had ever experienced. That’s a very high standard. But from many conversations with experts in and out of the Vatican, I do believe that pastoral and evangelical ability will be high on the list of criteria for voting Cardinals. Equally telling will be age and geography. Could there be a Latin, African, or even North American Pope? The consensus seems to be while that may not be a probability, it’s a real possibility.
The last conclave was the first for an entire generation of people who never saw nor experienced one. Time has not passed nearly that far since the 2005 conclave. Do journalists need to guard against a creeping “been there, done that” sameness in their coverage or is this more like Presidential election season where the process rarely changes and there’s a general cynicism about everything but the interest never wanes and media still finds ways to find relevance in covering it?
There was a heightened emotion to the last conclave because it followed the funeral of a loved and respected leader who had been Pope for 27 years. That isn’t the case this time; Pope Emeritus Benedict is happily ensconced at Castel Gandolfo. But the conclave will also be a lot easier to follow through social media and the proliferation of information in general. And the diversity of possible Popes – papabili – makes me think there will be no shortage of interesting storylines.
Though there had been several conclaves since the advent of television, the 2005 conclave, I would argue, was the first real Papal election that maximized the potential of TV with its own dedicated pool feed and Archbishop John Foley of Philadelphia doing play by play of the Inauguration. Since that time, the internet, and particularly social media, have started encroaching on TV News’ traditional turf. While I don’t think we have to worry just yet about monitoring Twitter to see if a name leaks out before the white smoke emerges from the chimney, social media undoubtedly will play some kind of factor in how the conclave is handled by the Vatican and covered by everyone in the world. What social media aspects will you be keeping an eye on while in Rome?
I am definitely not worried about leaks, given that they’re punishable by excommunication! But it will be interesting to see how widely it engages people and what the trending topics will be.
Do you plan on harnessing social media in your coverage and what forms will it take?
Absolutely. Twitter, Facebook, nbcnews.com. I have found that for my Jansing & Co audience, they love “insider” photos. With literally thousands of reporters in Rome from around the world, the challenge is to be a place where people can find some unique content or perspective.
When then Cardinal Ratzinger had been announced as the new Pope I heard someone off camera – possibly then NBC News Rome Bureau Chief Stephen Weeke – say, “Let’s get the book” (yes, I have an annoyingly long memory). Do you (NBC) maintain dossiers on prospective Popes or notable Cardinals and what kinds of information goes into those documents? Just how big are these files?
I’m looking at the book now. It’s an old-fashioned, three ring binder and it’s filled to overflowing. There’s a section on the “tick-tock”: what happens day-to-day in the conclave. Another section on the history of conclaves. Another on Pope Benedict. But the largest section is biographical information on all 115 voting Cardinals, since any of them could become the next Pope. I keep other notes and books on my iPad. And PS – that’s a scary good memory.
Related to that, your hard research reputation is well known inside 30 Rock. Just how blurry eyed are you right now as you re-familiarize your brain with all things Vatican?
Huh? Sorry, I dozed off….
You’ve had more intimate Vatican experiences than most TV journalists who will be sent to Rome and, while it’s not widely known, anyone with an internet connection can see that your Catholicism extends beyond the realm of merely going to church every Sunday. My question is how do you hold one passion in check while exercising another? How as a journalist do you keep from getting overwhelmed as a Catholic experiencing one of the biggest moments that religion has?
It’s a good question – but I honestly don’t think it’s much different than the emotion I feel as a human being covering a tragedy like Newtown, or as an American moved by an Inauguration, regardless of the party of the President. I think that to report a big story, you can and should FEEL it; the challenge is not to let that emotion overwhelm you. As far as reporting it, I think my knowledge of the Church made the learning curve much easier…
You put in long hours with little sleep sitting on a balcony scanning in vain for white smoke waiting for a Pope to be elected, all the while surrounded by a mass of hundreds of thousands of people having…well…a religious experience in a very intense tightly compacted space. Are you jazzed? Drained? Euphoric? Overwhelmed? All of the above? How does Chris Jansing feel at a moment like this?
Challenged, because I go into every story trying to make it better than the last one I reported. Excited, because as a journalist you always want to be covering the big story. It’s kid-in-the-candy store thrilling. And humbled to be entrusted with reporting this.
Oh – and depending on how long it goes on, adrenalin gets you through, usually followed closely by exhaustion!
Your 2005 Rome experiences, I dare say, will likely rank as one of the top five moments of your career. What do you personally hope to get out of covering this next one?
I don’t know, honestly. I will learn some things, I always do. I will make new friends – that’s one of the great perks of the job. Covering a big story in a small space, you share experiences and memories that bond you with people for a lifetime. But I hope more than what I get out of it… my viewers feel they’ve been well-served. That’s the ultimate goal.