High-Tailing His Holiness and Humoring Hizbollah

Pope John Paul II with Mario Biasetti

PART V – Globe-Trotting with Pope John Paul II and Humoring Hizbollah

An important part of any journalist’s job in Rome is covering the Vatican.  Working in the Rome bureau of CBS News Mario extensively covered the historic papacy of John Paul II. Below are some of Mario’s reflections:

“How much does that camera weigh? I see you running around all the time with that camera on your shoulder, you must get tired,” the Pope said to me.  “No, it isn’t so bad. I get so involved in what I’m doing that I hardly feel the weight of the camera” I said.

“John Paul II was not just a Pope, he was a man. How many times did I see him get mad, at something or at somebody? Once, aboard the papal plane coming back from Seoul, South Korea, and having made a stop in Thailand to visit a refugee camp, an Italian television reporter questioned his visit to the camp as politics. The Pontiff cut him off, his eyes and cheeks blazing red with anger, “that was a pastoral visit, a pastoral visit, do you understand?” yelled the Pope. The 50 or so journalists on board were stunned. We really thought the Pope was going to let him have one.”

“There were many instances when I found myself face to face with the John Paul II. I was seated across from him while flying in a helicopter along the Hudson River in New York, when a wind blast lifted the papal vestments and showed the Pontiff wearing pants, WEARING PANTS! Sure, it was an extraordinary sight. What a picture! Joaquin Navarro Valls, the Pope’s spokesman, looked at me, perplexed. I could see him thinking,  “Now what is Mario going to do now?”  I didn’t move. The lens cap on the camera stayed put.”

“My working relationship with John Paul II was warm and almost personal. I made many Papal trips to Africa, the Far East, Middle East, the US, Latin America, and many times he’d look my way and acknowledge my presence, be it only with a slight nod… “don’t you ever get tired? I know that you have to be in place one hour before I arrive, and you have to file your story one hour after I leave” he’d say.  Once, on one of the many trips to Africa, I was being harassed by local security guards for filming the Pope as he slowly went by me on an open jeep at an outdoor gathering of thousands of people. I began yelling, ”Holy Father, Holy Father…”.  On the jeep were only three people, the Pope, the driver and the Pope’s personal secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz. Dziwisz heard my yelling and waved for me to jump on board the jeep behind the Pope. There wasn’t much room there, and with the big camera on my shoulder I found it next to impossible not to whack the Pope on the back of his head. But I got the greatest shot of the Pope waving to the ecstatically happy thousands of people in that open field!”

13) Part of Mario’s talent is his ability to use humor  to put people at ease and to make friends in high and low places,  from the Coast Goard duty-officer in Boston who let him know about the Andrea Doria sinking (see LINK), to the Pope’s personal secretary who yanked him into the back of the Pope’s jeep.  Following an interview with Mario several days ago for this post we hopped into a taxi together.  As the taxi driver headed into the heavy, late-afternoon Roman traffic, Mario, who’s bald now, piped up and said to the driver, “Hey do you mind telling me what hair dye you use?  It looks great, I could really use some of that stuff.”  Knowing how vain most Italian men are, I was taken aback and quickly reassured the taxi driver, “he’s just joking with you.”  But there was no need.  The taxi driver was laughing and Mario had that guy in his pocket.

Mario recounted to me a funny story on a trip to Africa.  He said Pope John Paul II had a meeting inside a house with a tribal leader.  Outside dozens of African women were dancing in grass skirts with no tops.  Mario said he used a wide angle lense so as not to go too close on all the bouncing breasts.  Just then a tall, dignified Cardinal who worked closely with the Pope stepped out and the crowd got momentarily confused thinking he was the Pope. A roar of approval exploded and the women jumped enthusiastically.  Mario filmed the Cardinal as he lasciviously scanned all the topless dancers, his mouth dropping open as their breasts bounced rhythmically before him in what Mario described as “pure lust.”  Mario filmed the whole thing. A bit later during a pause in the activities the dignified Cardinal appeared at Mario’s side, tugged gently on his arm and said, “I beg you, kindly, please to not use that film you shot of me.”

14) Advice to TV journalist, be ready to record at unexpected moments, you never know what you are going to capture. You may not end up using it, but it can still be useful.

Humoring the Hizbollah

Mario was sent to Beirut in 1985 to play catch-up on a ABC News scoop.  Hizbollah terrorists had hijacked a TWA flight from Athens to Rome and was holding the crew and passengers hostage on the plane on the tarmac at the Beirut airport.  ABC News had managed to interview the pilot, Captain John Testrake, through the window of the cockpit in a stunning scoop.

Captain John Testrake gets cut off during interview with ABC News

Mario landed at the Beirut airport and chatted with some of the journalists gathered there.  He could see the TWA plane in the distance parked at the end of the runway.  It appeared as if there was no one around.  The other journalists warned Mario that armed men were hiding in the bushes.

Mario took his CBS News bags, his camera, and dragging his soundman behind him marched towards the plane.  As he neared the plane, he could see Captain Testrake looking at him through the cock-pit window.

Suddenly a group of men emerged from the bushes, guns pointed at Mario and screamed at them in Arabic.  Mario said he raised one hand in the air and yelled “don’t shoot, don’t shoot”, while gripping his camera with the other.

A couple of cars zoomed onto the runway, screeched to a halt in front of Mario and shoved Mario and his soundman into the car and sped off.  After a bit they stopped, changed cars and continued.  A while later they stopped a the gate of a villa on the outskirts of Beirut.  A churlish armed man at the gate asked Mario, “Where you from?”

Mario did not hesitate for a second. He only had a US passport on him and the last thing he wanted anyone to think was that he was an American, so he burst out, “I am Mario Biasetti, from Roma, Italia, you know, spaghetti, pizza…”

15) Mario says the key in a crisis moment like this is to be quick and not to lie.

The guard opened the gate and to Mario’s astonishment dozens of armed men emerged from manholes in the ground.  Mario’s soundman was white as they were marched into the villa and clip-clopped noisely across a parquet floor escorted by armed guards.  At the end of a room sat a man in shirt-sleeves.

When Mario was shoved in front of him, he looked up and said, “Where are you from?”

Mario repeated his mantra, “My name is Mario Biasetti. I have come form Roma, Italia, you know, Spaghetti, Pizza…”

The man interrupted him, “My brother Universita’ Napoli.”

That little opening was all Mario needed and he took off at a verbal gallop yammering on about everything he knew about Naples– Sophia Loren, Mount Vesuvius, Pizza, Mozzarella, Opera…

The man at the table said, “sit down,” and ordered some tea.  They sat there for three hours talking about Italy and Naples. Only Mario could sit down and have a good chat with someone technically holding him hostage.  Mario probably told him about the time he interviewed Fidel Castro (see LINK). Finally the man said, “I am going to let you go, but I am keeping your equipment.”  Mario said he responded, “Hey the camera is all yours, would you like another one?”  And the man responded, “I know it is easy for you to give away because it is not yours.”

16) Confidence and Humour can get a journalist out of many a sticky situation.

Let me quote Mario on this:

“That Hizbollah man knew I was an American.  He wasn’t stupid, but he never asked me for my passport, he had enough on his hands, he didn’t really want to hold us.  It is the approach to the people that you take.  A little bit of personal contact works wonders.  A little joke, a friendly comment, a smile.  It can get you out of a tight spot, and it can get you a story.”

Tomorrow: Part VI – Mario’s Women

Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

6 Comments

  1. Elspeth Slayter
    2012/03/21

    I am enraptured by Mario. I am thinking of assigning your blog reading to my social work grad students – these lessons in many ways apply to the process of “engaging” a new client in treatment…he is indeed a master. how much of this, I wonder, did he learn from his mamma?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/03/21

      Thank you. Mario is a real charmer– he has a lovely self-deprecating humor that is so engaging. I will ask him if he learned it from his mother.

      Reply
  2. AdriBarr
    2012/03/21

    Oh my, but I am just loving this series of posts. What a life this fellow has led! And I must say that he is really quite brave, and it is that bravery that led him to the gripping stories. Maybe there are two kinds of people in this world – folks like you and Mario who have the steely nerve and self-confidence to enter into the thick of it, and those like myself, who are quite willing to remain at home and await dispatches from the front. Congratulations on a wonderful series. I await upcoming installments. Brava!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/03/21

      Thank you Adri — Mario is certainly courageous, and a real extrovert, but we also need to appreciate talented people like you who make beautiful works of art in their kitchen and generously share them with everyone!!

      Reply
      • AdriBarr
        2012/03/22

        Why, what a lovely compliment. Thank you. I always have marveled at you news people who cover world events. It has always been dangerous, although perhaps not as very dangerous as now. This has been such a wonderful series. And hearing about his wife and his mother is the icing on the cake. Thanks again, for really wonderful reading.

        Reply
        • Trisha Thomas
          Trisha Thomas
          2012/03/22

          Thanks Adri– I was worried that I didn’t do justice to Joan Utman Biasetti and Mario’s Mamma. I probably should have interviewed Joan in person but I was rushing to finish the series.
          Another person I would like to profile in my blog– but I haven’t told her yet, is the star NPR correspondent in Rome, Silvia Poggioli….now she has some tales to tell too. Ah, so much to do. Glad you are enjoying it.

          Reply

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