Dear Blog Readers –
After nine thrilling days of dragging my computer bag and camera tripod all over Cuba and the United States chasing after Pope Francis, I am back in Rome and ready to do my behind-the-scenes post on traveling on the Papal Plane.
There were a total of 79 journalists traveling on the Papal Plane from many countries – the US, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Britain, Russia, Australia, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, and Poland, and the group included print reporters, photographers, TV camerapersons, producers, and correspondents. At each location we split up, with most of the print reporters heading to the various media centers to work on tables where the wifi was guaranteed and they could watch the events on big screens. The photographers and TV types were taken to the events to participate in the tight pools. Those of us in the tight pools are required to wear black so as not to stand out when we are close to the Pope. The instructions in our “work program” provided by the Vatican say “dark suit and tie for men, dark dress for women, thus my title “hacks in black.”
My cameraman, video-journalist Paolo Santalucia (more on him below) and I were serving as agency television pool for Associated Press and Reuters and so we had to cover every single event where the press was given access, a total of 23 papal events including masses, speeches, prayers, and meetings.
As with any group confined to a bubble, stuck in the same airplane, buses, hotels, media centers and press events, we developed a “Boys on the Bus” pack journalism mentality, becoming giddy with exhaustion, joking endlessly about frivolous matters, battling for the quickest, goofiest tweet, obsessed with food and finding toilets.
While we were degenerating into teenage behavior on the bus, the Pope was soaring. One Vatican official told me ahead of time “it is going to be a love-fest” – and it was. Americans loved the Pope. They thronged to his masses; they lined the roads to catch a glimpse of him in his Popemobile; and they stretched out their hands to touch him, while attempting a selfie with the other arm.
In the US, the Pope made crucial stops in the halls of power delivering weighty speeches at the White House, Congress and the United Nations, but also made time for the homeless, school children, immigrants and jail detainees.
He expressed strong opinions on many issues: the environment, immigration, poverty, abortion, the death penalty, nuclear weapons, and religious liberty, zigzagging from what is considered left to right in the US political spectrum without falling into the trap of entering into American culture wars. He stayed above it all, earning the respect of many.
I must add though there have been two spoilers for the Pope since he departed the US that probably could have been avoided. First the announcement that he met with Kim Davis (the Kentucky County Clerk who refused to give marriage licenses to homosexuals, or her allow her assistants to, and was briefly jailed for it) while he was in the US and urged her to “stay strong.” This meeting and reported comment, for days not confirmed or denied by the Vatican, is clearly lowering the Pope into internal US debates where he did not want to go. The second was a comment on the plane harshly denying that he had invited the Mayor of Rome to the World Meeting of Families (the Mayor of Rome has been a big proponent of gay marriage). That comment dominated the Italian TV and newspapers on the day after the Pope’s return. The Pope would do well to stay above the political fray in Italy as well.
As I am writing this post, I feel like a whirling dervish trying to keep up on all the spin on the Pope-Kim Davis story. Today the Vatican distanced itself from her, only to be contradicted by her lawyer. Then this evening the Vatican made a statement that the Pope has met with an Argentine Chef who is openly gay. What a confusing mess!
On the way to Cuba, the Pope came back and briefly greeted all the journalists and then came around and shook our hands one by one. He told us that we should all try to build small bridges of peace which eventually could help construct a larger bridge of peace in the world. Bridges and walls became a theme of the trip. On the way back from the US to Rome, a journalist asked him about barriers and walls being constructed in Europe to keep out migrants and the Pope responded that walls and barriers only increase hatred and eventually fall down, that they are not a solution. When he came back to Rome he said that he saw his flight from Cuba to the United States as a symbolic bridge – a bridge of dialogue, rapprochement and peace.
On his flights the Pope goes around and says hello to each journalist. We are asked to stay in our seats and simply greet the Pope, not give him a long sob story about our sick grandmother or lost dog or bore him with tales of our childrens’ accomplishments. This time, that rule seemed to be thrown to the wind. Many journalists tried to engage the Pope in conversation. The charming Marie Antonieta Collins of Univision gave the Pope a gift of scrumptious Empanadas, which were later offered around to all of us. Andres Beltram Alvarez of Notimex made the Pope listen to his child singing some song on his cell phone. I don’t think the Pope could hear anything, but he was gracious about it. Others gave gifts and asked for interviews. When he got to me, I was a bit shy and stiff (my Waspy DNA kicking in, in contrast with my more voluble Latino and Mediterranean colleagues) until my cameraman Paolo reached out his hand and said “Auguri per il suo viaggio Santo Padre!!” (Goodluck with your trip Holy Father) and which point I chimed in my good luck wishes as well.
TECHNOLOGY AND TENDENCIES
From the moment I stepped on the Papal Plane, I knew this trip was going to be a whole new game in terms of technology. As Paolo and I set up our tripod and cable for the inflight press conference, across the aisle from me Alan Holdren of Catholic News Agency, and Eternal World Television News had a cell phone on a mini-tripod attached to the seat in front of him and was Periscoping. For those ignorant people like me out there who do not know what Periscoping is, let me explain what he was doing. Alan was sending out a live video report of himself sitting on the plane getting ready to go, talking about the trip and showing what was going on. This live feed was going out through his Periscope-Twitter account. Any of his followers could send him comments or questions that would pop up on the bottom of the screen and he would reply.
Meanwhile other colleagues were busy texting and tweeting, sending photos and messages as we waited for the Pope to arrive and the plane to takeoff.
One of the most important roles that the Agency Television Pool plays on the Papal Plane is covering the Pope’s inflight press conferences and making sure it is transmitted as soon as we land.
As we winged our way from Santiago de Cuba to Washington on September 23rd, Pope Francis spoke at length with us about the trip to Cuba. Among other things, he was asked if he was anti-Catholic. He response was amusing. He told the story of a woman who thought he was the anti-pope because he refuses to wear the traditional red papal shoes, then he said that he may have given the impression of being a bit of a lefty because of his views on the environment and on capitalism, but that all of his words and deeds fall within the social doctrine of the Church. He then said he would recite the creed for us journalists if we really wanted to hear it. (We did not).
I whipped together an edit of the press conference on the plane and then pulled out my special US Mifi (portable wifi device) that had been sent to me from the US ahead of time. Eight minutes out from Andrews Air Force base I turned the device on and miraculously it connected to T-Mobile. I began transmitting. There was an embargo until the Pope landed, but I wanted to get the material to our Master Control so they would broadcast it as soon as we hit ground. While I was transmitting, AP Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield (more on her below), was sitting next to me frantically writing. As soon as I finished sending my edit, we sent her story and transcription notes. AP had the story before the wheels touched ground. Yeah team!!
What immediately struck me coming to the United States from Cuba is that everyone in the US had a cellphone or an Ipad and immediately lifted their electronic device into the air upon seeing the Pope. (No one had cell phones at the Masses in Cuba). Often covering events in the United States I felt like I was behind a forest of arms, each one with a cell phone leaf at the end. When he arrived at a school in Harlem, a line of kids was waiting behind a barrier outside the school. As the Pope went down the line greeting them, every single kid held out a cellphone and either took a photo or attempted to do a selfie with him. It seemed as though people were communicating with the Pope through their electronic devices rather than speaking to him directly.
Speaking of new forms of communication, throughout the trip I was madly tweeting. I constantly tweeted photos of the Pope, the faithful, colleagues covering the Pope, tidbits from the Papal speeches. I have never had such success with tweets. I casually tweeted a photo of Catholic News Service photographer Paul Haring taking a photo of the crowd as we were waiting for the Mass to start in Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, and I got over 4,000 views. Here it is:
I was getting thousands of views of tweets with photos of my colleagues and one tweet showing the Pope arriving at a Mass got over 100,000 views!! I even got a little silly sometimes. I tweeted a photo of Cardinal Chibly Langlois of Haiti in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia declaring he was voted the best-looking Cardinal by the women in the Vatican Press Corps. I received some replies from infuriated followers telling me I was being sexist and didn’t I have anything better to do. I promise my critics that when there are women Cardinals, I will give them the same sexist treatment.
“THE LAND OF THE FREE AND THE HOME OF THE BRAVE”
As soon as the Papal plane lands anywhere in the world, the back door is opened and the Pope’s security details rushes out. Right behind them are the photographers and camerapersons who have to cover the Pope getting off the plane. Pope Francis has sciatica and a bad knee and of course wears ankle length vestments so stairs can sometimes be difficult for him.
On this trip, while I was putting away my computer, AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia was already out the door, down the steps and in place to film the Obama family walking out the red carpet to meet the Pope at the base of the stairs. He told me later he was impressed by the cool elegance of President Obama, the way he walked, gestured and spoke with such grace and self-assurance. As we edited the video there was so much noise from the crowd cheering we could not hear the conversations, so we tried to read their lips. We saw Obama saying “This is my wife, Michelle” and Michelle saying “It is a pleasure to have you here.”
We saw Sasha walking confidently next to her father while Malia held back with the First Lady and seemed very shy, keeping one hand self-consciously on her stomach, but when she had to greet the Pope, it looked as though she spoke to him in Spanish.
Shortly after the arrival, we were all blown away when we saw the Pope step into a little Fiat 500L and drive away dwarfed amidst the giant SUV security vehicles escorting him. It was true Francis style – no armored vehicles for him. The gesture probably earned someone in the marketing department at FIAT a big promotion too.
I will skip ahead here to arguably the most important speech of the Pope’s trip, the one to the Joint Session on Congress. He made history becoming the first Pope to address Congress. Unfortunately, only some print reporters and photographers from the Vatican group were inside. I was kept outside with the other TVs because live coverage was provided. So I watched the event on a large screen on the Capitol steps (where the new Presidents give their inauguration speeches). One advantage of being there was that I could record the reaction of the thousands of people gathered on the mall. I think the biggest applause he got was when he opened his speech by saying: “I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The crowd went wild.
In his speech the Pope used four American figures to address four issues – Abraham Lincoln on liberty, Martin Luther King on dreaming for a future with equal rights for all, Dorothy Day on striving for justice and the cause of the oppressed, and peace and contemplation as shown by Thomas Merton.
A little aside, I was stunned afterwards when my father emailed me that he had met Dorothy Day several times and that she had been a friend of my grandfather who was active in social justice issues. (I will dedicate another blog post to my grandfather, his work, and the fascinating figure of Dorothy Day).
In his speech the Pope condemned fundamentalism in any religion but also warned about simplifying into categories of good and evil. He warned against violence to counter violence saying “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”
He spoke about eliminating global slavery, called for the abolition of the death penalty, and condemned exporters of weapons saying that they do it for money, “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” Then he added, “In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and stop the arms trade.”
The Pope spoke about the environment, urging action. He got a big applause when he spoke about immigrants noting: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”
Interestingly, he accidentally skipped an important paragraph of his speech when he was to quote the Declaration of Independence and conclude with a bit of a scolding for members of Congress saying: “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”
Later the Vatican spokesman told us it was purely an error and we could consider that paragraph as part of the delivered speech.
Although I did not see it personally, I learned later Speaker of the House John Boehner was sniffling and teary-eyed through much of the visit earning him the title “Weeper of the House.” Poor guy, I feel sorry for him.
Another important speech was the one he delivered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to tens of thousands of migrants stretched out on Independence Mall. He stood at the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address.
During this speech he made a special greeting to the Hispanic population of the United States saying, “I greet you all with particular affection! Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation.”
Shortly before the Pope arrived, a young woman who was helping with the organization asked me if I could come with her to speak to a woman attending the event who wanted to talk to someone in the Vatican press corps. I followed her to the edge of the crowd where I saw a thin, elderly woman clinging to a manila envelope. She had two pairs of glasses on, one on top of the other and looked at me with large magnified eyes. She did not speak English, but addressed me in Spanish and asked me if I would please give her envelope to the Pope. On the envelope there was written “Por Papa Francisco.” I promised her I would and she gave me a huge hug. I know she will not be reading this blog post, but for the record the envelope was delivered through the figure of Matteo Bruni of the Vatican Press Office (more on him below).
As usual we were taken out of the Independence Hall event early, so that we could get back on our bus and start heading to the Festival of the Family event. While the Pope was still speaking, we gathered up our cameras, cables, tripods, camera lenses and computers and headed for the bus. Unfortunately, we bumped into a rigid Philadelphia cop who blocked our path and would not let us go anywhere. There ensued a furious argument between Matteo and various security officials and we were worried that he might get arrested. Finally, they let us through and we rushed back around Independence Hall to get to our bus. But we were stopped short. Suddenly Matteo turned around and said, “all of you in a line, against the wall.” We stopped, dropped our stuff and stood there. Suddenly a row of police on motorcycles revved their engines and pulled out, and then around the corner came the Pope in his little Fiat. When he saw his “hacks in black” lined up like a bunch of school children against the wall, he waved enthusiastically, and between photos and filming video, we waved back and yelled “Ciao!” (Which is actually not a word for addressing a Pope, but we used it anyway.)
OVAL OFFICE ANGST
A highlight of the trip for all of us was the visit to the White House. But for me it was filled with some angst because I had to take on a double roll as camerawoman.
There were two events at the White House, the ceremony on the South Lawn, which included speeches by both Pope Francis and President Obama and then the photo opportunity in the Oval Office. The Vatican gave us the option of covering one or the other. We opted to cover the ceremony on the South Lawn, but then Paolo suggested that we separate and I use a small camera to film the Oval Office event, while he continued on to the meeting with the American Bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington.
I am not a camerawoman and have only occasionally, in 20 years working for AP Television, picked up a small camera to shoot something. So, I was pretty nervous that I would blow the Oval Office shoot. In a photo-opportunity with two leaders in the Oval Office, a cameraperson had to be sure to get a wide shot to show where the leaders are, a medium shot with both of them in it, close-ups of each one, shots of camerapersons and photographers filming them to use in the edit. Photo opportunities usually last about five minutes and each shot has to be about 6 seconds, and a total of about 1 minute is necessary for an edit. Then there is the question of focus and white balance as well. On top of that, a photo opportunity has to be shot without a tripod, which often leads to shaky, wobbly video that does not look good.
The ceremony on the White House Lawn was a colorful event with the US Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps marching up and down and playing “Yankee Doodle” just like they did for Benedict XVI back in 2008. The crowd was exhilarated and we had fun chatting with people and taking photos before the event began.
I got this photo of two Air Force women, which I just love.
The Pope finally arrived and delivered his speech in English that was a bit rough and rigid but the crowd did not seem to mind. “English is not my strong point,” he had told us on the plane. He said he came “as the son of an immigrant family” and told them he hoped to “listen to, and share, many of the hopes and dreams of the American people.” He touched on some of his themes of the trip: climate change, poverty, and religious liberty.”
As soon as he was finished, I was taken off with the small group that was included in the Oval Office pool. But to my surprise we didn’t go straight to the Oval Office, they put us in a position in the Rose Garden and explained to us that we would film the President and the Pope walking under the portico past the Rose Garden and into the Oval office. Groan!! That meant I would have to first do a moving shot, a pan, in the bright sunlight and then rush into the Oval Office. “Ok, ok, you can do this, Trisha” I reassured myself.
Then a White House employee gave us a mini-lecture on the rules for the Oval Office: “When you go in – do not sit on the furniture, do not touch the furniture, do not take anything, do not leave anything or you will not see it again.”
It made me wonder: What do all the photographers do when they get in there? Take a selfie sitting on the President’s desk? Grab a pen off the desk to take home? Write “I was here” on the wall with their name? Try to take a nap on the Oval Office couch? Stick an Oval Office throw pillow under their shirt?
“What about my computer bag?” I asked the White House lady plaintively.
“That, you can leave by the columns outside and get it right after you come out or it will be mine,” she replied curtly.
It seemed like I was standing in that Rose Garden for an eternity with my little camera pointed at that door, arms and knees feeling a little weak. Finally it opened and the two men sauntered through, President Obama nonchalantly pointing out something in the Rose Garden, as though there were not a bunch of sweaty, stressed out photographers and camerapersons standing in the middle of it filming their every move. They rounded the corner, stepped into the Oval Office and the door was closed.
Then there was the stampede towards the door. Everyone wanted to be in first. I rushed up the steps to the portico, dumped my computer bag by a column and shoved my way up to the front of the pack.
Then the Oval Office doors were opened and like the “running of the bulls” in Spain we charged through the door busting past anything in our way. As one of the first, I instinctively adopted a strategy to get the best pictures. I dropped to my knees behind a sofa and rested my elbows on the back (yeah, I know, I forgot I wasn’t supposed to touch the furniture). Then using my elbows as a tripod I had a steady camera to film both the Pope and Obama who were only about a meter away from me. At one point they even both looked straight at me. The Pope was probably wondering what I was doing down there, and Obama gave me one of his huge smiles (or at least I like to think he was smiling at me).
It lasted only a few minutes and as I dragged my computer bag out of the White House grounds and back onto our bus, I nervously wondered whether I had gotten decent footage or not. Turns out it was nearly perfect.
Tony Gentile a photographer from Reuters who was the Agency Pool photographer on this trip caught me in the side of his photo just after I jumped up to get one last shot before being ushered out.
TRIALS, TRIBULATIONS AND TOILETS
When journalists travel on the Papal Plane, they have the opportunity to get copies of the Pope’s speeches for the day in the hotel room of the Assistant to the Vatican Press Office who handles the traveling press, the charming, gracious Matteo Bruni, secret heartthrob of many Vaticaniste. My cameraman colleague Paolo, perhaps envious of anyone stealing female attention from him, nicknamed Matteo “Mr. Fifty Shades of Gray” because his hair is a mix of blond and grey.
The copies are given out for 15 minutes at dawn, and then later distributed by email. For me, and many others, it is important to get the hard copies. The copies come in both the language it will be delivered and in various translations. I always need to get the original language and English. On this trip the Pope made 24 speeches of which only 4 were in English. I needed the original Spanish so I could follow along, see where the Pope went off the speech and ad-libbed, and note where crowds applauded. I also needed the English to carefully read through and look for soundbites we could use in our stories. This was even more important on this trip because at nearly every event in the United States we had access to a mult-box where we could attach an audio cable and get proper sound of the speeches (this was not the case in Cuba).
Let me tell you the distribution hours for the speeches during the trip: 5am, 4:15am, 4:45am, 6am, 5:30am, 5am, 4:15am, 7:30am. Those of us who felt we needed the hard copies of the speeches became very neurotic, often waking up before our alarm clocks. Two people misread their clocks and got up in the middle of the night and started throwing on clothes to go get the speeches before they realized their error.
Once we got our speeches, we would have breakfast in the hotel restaurant before our fearless leader, the above-mentioned Matteo Bruni, made the roll-call (known as the Verifiche in Italian) for the pools. You cannot miss the Verifiche or you risk losing the pool altogether. What does one do at a breakfast at 5am when you’ve been averaging 4 hours of sleep a night? Drink mug after mug of coffee. However, this can lead to a lot of discomfort later during long masses or other Papal events with huge crowds. As Catholic News Service’s Vatican Bureau Chief Cindy Wooden warned me one morning as I re-filled my mug of coffee before the prison visit, “I would be careful with that coffee, I don’t know how many toilets will be available in the prison.”
Well, there was one, and obviously I was rushing for it, trying to get in and out before the detainees were brought in to meet the Pope. The toilet problem haunted us throughout the trip and we often found ourselves desperately looking around Mass sites for the nearest Porta-Potty. We noticed that in Philadelphia at the World Meetings of Families, the city was lined with porta-potties, some with unusual names. One group of porta-potties was blazoned with the name “The Royal Flush” – which begs the question – why would you name a latrine with no flush at all “the Royal Flush”?? Later we noticed a line-up of porta-potties each bearing the name “Celebrity”. How enticing, we all thought, makes you feel like a star as you rush to the loo.
There were a couple of occasions where the toilets were quite decent. Before the Pope spoke to the United Nations General Assembly we were ushered into our own booth in the translators section. Anyone remember the film “The Interpreter” with Nicole Kidman? We were given a booth like the one she used in the film. Nearby there were some very decent bathrooms and every roll of toilet paper had a message on it. It said: UN Water, 19 November, WORLD TOILET DAY. 1 in 3 people still don’t use a basic toilet. #WeCantwait to end this deadly crisis. Share your support for #goal16 and #worldtoiletday. Taking advantage of a captured audience like that is not a bad way to make a case. I had no idea that the lack of toilets in the world was a deadly crisis, and now I do, just because I drank a lot of coffee when I was in New York.
By the way, the mult-box in the interpreter booth turned out to be a nightmare. We were all packed into the little booth, camerapersons and photographers at the front and others at the back. We had plugged our cable into the box in the corner.
The Pope started speaking and Paolo whispered to me loudly, “hey, Trisha, you plugged into the English translation, we need the original natural sound in Spanish.” Together with Javier from Rome Reports I started crawling around on the floor near the Mult-box between the legs of the camerapersons and photographers. I shoved the cable into a different plug.
“That’s Arabic translation,” Paolo exclaimed. I tried another, “That’s Chinese!!” Paolo declared. I tried another, “That’s French!”
I started getting mad. “Stop, pulling my leg.” I hissed back, “it’s not funny, we are missing the speech!!!”
“I’m not kidding!!” Paolo shot back. Finally Javier Lopez Lopez of Televisa Mexico interrupted our back and forth. “I got it,” he said, “Hook your cable into my camera.”
So Paolo hooked our cable into Javier’s camera, and I pulled myself up off the floor so I could listen to the speech. Ah, the glamour of TV news.
Speaking of glamour, entering into the UN we had to go through the usual massive security checks. I had just completed my check and was waiting for my colleauges when a woman security officer said to me, “Hey, do you like Shakira?” I was contemplating that for a second when she added, “Well, there she is, coming through the gate.”
I quickly snapped a bunch of photos which I tweeted right away and whammy — gazillions of re-tweets and new followers. Here she is:
I must admit I loved every minute of the time we spent in New York. There is so much to say that I cannot fit it all in. I laughed as I watched Mayor Bill De Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Chuck Schumer all lavishing attention on the Pope when he got off the Popemobile on 5th Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There was a whole riser filled with cameras on the other side of the street and the pols were determined to get their photo-op.
I loved the gigantic poster of the Pope that we saw shortly after we stepped off the train at Penn Station.
One of the highlights of the New York visit was a packed Mass in Madison Square Garden. We were all surprised to learn that Mo Rocca, a reporter for CBS Sunday Morning, and an openly gay man, was one of the readers at the Mass. His brother Frank Rocca, the Vatican Correspondent for “The Wall Street Journal” was on the plane with us and he had never breathed a word about it.
On the second to last day of the trip were were collapsing with exhaustion and absolutely giddy. Matteo, and his assistant Salvatore, brought us to the World Meeting of Families evening celebration called the “Festival of Family.” The Pope was not to arrive until 730pm but we were there hours early.
The evening’s host was Mark Wahlberg. I had never heard of him before, but some friendly local TV journalists informed me that he used to be a Calvin Klein underwear model, so a quick Google search resolved my ignorance about him. The evening included dancers and musicians to warm up the crowd before the Pope got there.
All of a sudden the group “Sister Sledge” burst onto the stage and got the crowd rocking and rolling to “We Are Family”. Even the nuns were jiving along. At that point Rai cameraman Marco Sanga and I could not resist the temptation – we forgot about our work and bogeyed down.
We had settled down by the time the Pope arrived and watched him listen to the testimony of one family after another. Their stories were long and dramatic, the evening was chilly, and everyone was tired. Even the Pope looked a little bored. At one point the Pope asked an aide for something and looked like he was going through his prepared speech crossing half of it out. Then it was time for his speech. He stood up, figuratively tossed his speech to the wind, and delivered an off-the-cuff monologue on families. He earned a big laugh when he said, “In families we quarrel, sometimes plates fly, and children give us headaches, and I am not even going to talk about mothers-in-law.”
MR. PROTOCOL, THE SOPHISTICATED PHOTO-BOMBER, POPS INTO THE PICTURE
Spending a lot of time with photographers on the Papal trip, I soon learned who drives them crazy, the Vatican’s debonair Chief of Protocol, Dr. Alberto Gasbarri. Gasbarri is tall, has a head of silver hair that he sweeps elegantly back across his head delicately covering some emerging empty patches. He is always impeccably dressed, the picture of elegance.
The Pope was constantly accompanied on this trip by several individuals that we all know—his chief of security, Domenico Giani and his team of Gendarmes and Swiss Guards in plain-clothes, Monsignor Mark Miles, his quiet translator, Father Federico Lombardi, the Papal spokesman, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, and a few others. But only one of them is nearly always in the photos, Dr. Gasbarri. The photographers explained to me that no matter where they are in the world from the Vatican to the Philippines, when they are about to snap that perfect picture, peek-a-boo, up pops Gasbarri’s silver head. I believe Americans refer to that as being a photo-bomber. As soon as they pointed this out to me, I realized a lot of my own photos, and our video had the same problem, an elegant photo-bomber.
THE KILLER AP TEAM FROM ROME
One of the greatest joys of this trip was working closely with my AP colleagues. First and foremost was my dashing, video-journalist colleague Paolo Santalucia. Paolo is an incredibly talented producer and cameraman with an unusual combination of editorial and technical abilities. He is also good-natured and his endless, playful joking helped keep me laughing throughout the trip. His looks made him a magnet for the women journalists on the plane and I would often notice the Spanish and French journalists bending his ear during long waits. He ate up the attention. His looks were not lost on American women either. As our pool of reporters was taken through the US Capitol building and down the steps leading towards the Mall, an American woman waiting to see the Pope looked at Paolo and said, “Ah, are you Italian?” When he said, “yes”, she declared, “Oh, you Italian men are so sophisticated, you have such panache.” As we continued to move towards our television position, my foreign colleagues turned to me and asked, “What is panache?” Well, here he is, Mr. Panache himself.
The Queen of the AP wire coverage of the Papal trip was our Super-woman Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield. Nicole should be the poster-woman for the “Lean-in” movement. Like me, Nicole is a mother of three, and her kids are younger than mine. But while I went part time after the birth of my second child, Nicole has leaned-in becoming AP’s Vaticanista (Vatican Correspondent) as well as Rome Bureau Chief. I have often wondered how she does it and can say after this trip it is a combination of incredible talent, hard work, organization, determination and willpower. I would see Nicole at the dawn speech pick-up in sweats after which she would whip off to the hotel gyms for a workout before slogging it out through the day writing AP news stories and staying on top of every unexpected event. Whether it was the Pope meeting with Fidel Castro or with victims of sexual abuse, Nicole was all over it, getting it right and getting it first – as usual. On top of that, she is a generous team player, sharing her knowledge of events, her contacts and making sure AP Television and photos gets everything we need to make the story a multi-media success for AP. I enjoyed working with her on the plane, deciding what the priorities were in terms of the comments from the Pope and making sure we got them out fast.
And last, but absolutely not least, another Super-mamma, AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino. Alessandra was not given a spot on the papal plane (there were apparently 60 people who applied who were not given a seat due to lack of space), so she got the tough job of having to try to cover all the Papal events without being in the Papal entourage. That meant flying ahead to Havana, and to Holguin, and then bouncing through the Cuban countryside in a crowded van to reach Santiago de Cuba.
Alessandra was always one step ahead or behind us having all sorts of horror stories (leaving a 10,000 euro camera lens in a taxi in Santiago de Cuba – she later got it back), and eating food that sent her stomach for a ride. Despite getting sometimes only one hour of sleep, Alessandra kept on marching, never missed an event and always had a smile. Twice she shared my hotel room when she did not have time to get back to her own hotel and it was such a pleasure to have a roommate to gossip and laugh with. Some of Alessandra’s extra photos are in this post. During our train ride from Washington to New York she copied for me some of her best extra photos from Cuba which I will use the in the next post.
BLOWING UP BRIDGES – BICKERING OVER EMBARGOS
While the Pope was building bridges of peace, the Vatican press corps was sometimes less than peaceful. On this trip there were two inflight press conferences, one on the flight from Santiago de Cuba to Washington and one on the flight from Philadelphia back to Rome. That makes two opportunities for journalists to ask questions. As I mentioned in my earlier post on the trip (Pope Francis: Heading for the US), the journalists are divided into language groups – English, French, Spanish, German and Italian, and each group chooses three questions and three journalists to ask them. The Pope takes one from each group and then begins the rotation again.
The English language group is particularly difficult with a lot of egos getting in the way. The rule is that people who have never asked a question before get priority and new journalists on the plane get to go first. In the English language group there is then a big battle over what the questions will be and then several journalists draft the questions.
The process seems to be dominated by heavyweight Vaticanisti John Allen of “Crux:, Frank Rocca of the “The Wall Street Journal,” Phil Pullela of Reuters and Gerry O’Connell of “America” Magazine. I started a campaign early on in the trip to rally the others to change the system. With the help of my female colleagues: Elena Pinardi of Eurovision, Phoebe Natanson of ABC, Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service, Nicole Winfield from AP, and Courtney Walsh from FOX, we managed to convince the group that the questions cannot be dictated – we agreed on themes and each journalist got to ask the question as they wished. We pushed hard to get Siliva Poggioli of National Public Radio to ask a question on the Cuba-USA leg and Elizabeth Dias of Time Magazine to ask a question on the USA-Italy leg.
Speaking of Sylvia Poggioli, the Vatican had not originally wanted to give her a seat on the plane. The story goes that other Vatican correspondents, including Phil Pullela of Reuters went to the Papal Spokesman to help him understand how important she is. They said to him something along the lines of sending a Papal Plane to the US without Sylvia Poggioli is like sending the Ark without Noah. She got a place, and she got to ask a question.
Once the final press conference was finished, US Network pool producers Phoebe Natanson of ABC News, and Anna Matranga of CBS News stayed up all night transcribing every word. We were all grateful to them. But as the flight got closer to Rome, the embargo battle began. Many reporters like to keep an embargo on the Papal Plane inflight press conference for an hour or two after landing. That way they have more time to get home and get to work. The Italians seem to like the embargo the most while many of the English-speaking press don’t want it. The TV journalists do not want it because they want to go on air immediately to talk about it. I won’t go into the details here but there was some nasty bickering on the flight about it, a vote was taken, and it was decided to impose a two-hour embargo. Some journalists threatened to break the embargo, others cried foul. It was a bit of a mess, but par for the course. As far as I am aware, the two-hour embargo held, we were all too zonked to break it.
Coming Soon: Reflections and Photos from Pope Francis’ Visit to Cuba