ROME – If you’re a fan of potboiler action novels, you probably know Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swaggart series. The hero is a world-class sniper with a keen sense of duty and tremendous backwoods smarts, who gets involved in unraveling all sorts of mysteries in a kind of loose affiliation with the FBI.
At one point, Swaggart muses aloud about why so many in the media talk so freely about guns and gun culture without knowing the first thing about either subject. A friend responds that it’s the power of narrative, in this case a narrative which tells denizens of the media universe that guns and people who enjoy shooting are bad without having to think about it.
Swaggart presses for a definition of “narrative,” and his friend responds.
“The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them. It’s so powerful because it’s unconscious. … …The narrative is the bedrock of their culture, the keystone of their faith, the altar of their church. It’s everywhere. It’s all things. It’s permanent. It’s beyond. It’s beneath. It’s above. It’s in the air, the music, the furniture, the DNA, the blood. They don’t even know they’re true believers, because in theory they despise the true believer in anything. But they will absolutely destroy anybody who makes them question all that.”
That may be slightly overdrawn, as most reporters I know are actually capable of being critical of their own assumptions at least once in a while. Still, there’s a great deal of truth to the idea that media representations of a situation often reflect a priori narratives as much as they do factual reality. Moreover, the allure of the narrative isn’t always unconscious — sometimes reporters known full well that if they supply a story that feeds the narrative, it’ll draw bigger and more immediate audiences than one which doesn’t.
On the Catholic beat, we got a reminder of the point over the weekend with the visit of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Rome.
Pelosi was in town to speak at a meeting of parliamentarians ahead of the COP26 climate change summit next month in Glasgow. While here she made the rounds of Italian officials, meeting both Prime Minister Mario Draghi and President Sergio Mattarella. She also did the by-now accustomed swing through the Vatican, meeting various senior officials as well as Pope Francis on Saturday.
Pelosi, herself a lifelong Catholic, also wanted to go to Mass while she was here, so arrangements were made for her to attend the Saturday vigil Mass at 6:00 p.m. at St. Patrick’s Church, the American parish in Rome. Pelosi actually had agreed to deliver the second reading at the Mass.
Shortly after the Mass began, however, Pelosi was whisked away by her security team. It wasn’t immediately clear why, and so word that she’d left abruptly began to make the rounds ahead of any explanation as to why.
Honestly, anyone who was in Rome that night should have suspected they already knew the reason. There was a massive protest in the city’s Piazza del Popolo by what Italians call the “No Vax” movement, meaning people opposed to the “Green Pass” mandates imposed by the government to have a certificate of vaccination in order to be able to work either in public or private concerns, a requirement which goes into effect on Friday.
Elements of the protest broke off and started marching towards other destinations, some heading towards the Prime Minister’s residence and others to the headquarters of CGIL, the country’s largest labor union. Protestors broke into the CGIL building and trashed offices while filming themselves, in scenes reminiscent of the Capitol riots in Washington.
Police responded with batons, tear gas and water cannons, and twelve people were subsequently arrested for fomenting the violence.
The chaos was playing out on TV screens in real time, and one group of angry protestors appeared to be making its way to the general area of St. Patrick’s. It thus stood to reason that Pelosi’s security detail, aware of what was happening, simply wanted to get her out of harm’s way.
Yet the capacity to make that seemingly logical connection was impeded by narrative.
In Catholic circles, the narrative about Pelosi at the moment is that she’s loathed by conservatives who object to her pro-abortion rights stance, including certain conservative bishops who’d like to deny her communion. The narrative also stipulates that those same American conservatives also loath Pope Francis, in part because he’s friendly to figures such as Pelosi, and in part because of perceptions of his larger liberal agenda for the church.
The narrative suggested it’s entirely plausible that when Pelosi went to the American parish here, she would have run into a buzzsaw of opposition. Inevitably someone put that assumption into circulation, claiming Pelosi had been “heckled” at the church, and it quickly became a viral sensation.
Perhaps one could argue “no harm, no foul” in this instance, since it didn’t take long to peel back the onion. Pelosi’s staff, the pastor at St. Patrick’s and other Mass-goers all told reporters that no heckling had occurred, and that she left because her staff was concerned about the brewing storm in the Roman streets.
(A shout-out is in order for Chico Harlan of the Washington Post, who engaged in an exemplary exercise of rumor control Saturday night.)
Nonetheless, the fake Pelosi news is a cautionary tale about the way narratives can drive assumptions among reporters, and also can create ready audiences disposed to embrace claims rooted in the narrative regardless of reality.
Will any of us learn anything from this episode? Maybe, maybe not … narratives, after all, are a powerful thing. Still, one can always hope.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr