“Pope Not Dead.” This headline, which appeared on Fox News at 2:18 p.m. ET today, pretty much sums up the ghoulish tone of the nonstop cable news coverage of the pontiff’s decline. During the three or four hours that have passed since the Vatican released a statement announcing that the pope’s condition had worsened (a second announcement is now pending), here are some of the variants on that theme provided by the major news networks, in the form of a below-the-screen banner headline:
Fox News, 1:10 p.m. ET: “Pope has lost consciousness.”
MSNBC, 1:28 p.m. ET: “Pope’s breathing has become shallow.”
Fox News, 1:50 p.m. ET. “Pope’s Brain, Heart still Functioning.”
CNN, 3:50 p.m. ET: “Pope Clings to Life as Organ Function Deteriorates.”
At around 1:40 p.m., CNN and Fox News erroneously quoted an Italian news story stating that the pope had died; 10 minutes later, Fox had revised its tagline to “Conflicting Reports among Italian Media about Pope’s Condition.” At around 2:00 p.m., just to mix things up, CNN went for a Cochran-esque rhyme: “Medical sources say no more hope for the Pope.”
Keep in mind that none of these headlines constitutes, in any meaningful sense, news; all are more or less euphemistic elaborations on the same medical update from early this afternoon. As the physician Sherwin Nuland explains in his grimly fascinating book How We Die, there’s a fairly limited number of ways for human bodies to shut down: In one order or another, the organ systems fail, eventually cutting off oxygen flow to the brain. We don’t need computer-animated mitochondria-cam inside the pope’s collapsing cells to get it: An 84-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease is dying in a room in Rome. But like awkward relatives in a hospital waiting room, the cable networks just keep standing around trying to think of something to say, culminating in the bizarre voyeurism of questions like Monica Crowley’s to a geriatric specialist on MSNBC: “I’m curious as to the effect of the urinary-tract infection that was reported yesterday. Did the sepsis, in fact, creep into his bloodstream?” Yes, do tell, Doctor. We’re just so darned curious.
If it weren’t for the death of Terri Schiavo yesterday, and the nation’s recent obsessive conversation about the definition and meaning of the end of life, would the coverage of this pope’s demise have such a relentlessly grisly, medicalized tone? It’s as if the 24-hour networks, primed by the last few weeks of eagle-eyed vigil, have developed a taste for the gory details of infection and uremia, feeding tubes and EEGs. On shows like the Discovery Health Channel’s Birth Day Live!, you can now watch babies being born; maybe soon, there’ll be a channel devoted to watching old people die.
In Schiavo’s case, of course, the invasion of privacy was more egregious; unlike the pope, she was a private individual, famous only for the story of her prolonged, embattled death. But should the mere fact of being a public figure—even one as important as the head of the Roman Catholic Church—turn one’s death agony into a peep show, to be accompanied blow by blow by perky newscasters? When Pope John Paul II finally does breathe his last, who will be next on the cable networks’ slab?