By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Pope John Paul II led the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years, and as his health began to deteriorate news organizations everywhere began to plan for the eventuality of his death.
“One prepares for an event like the death of the pope for a long, long time,” said ABC News Special Events executive producer Marc Burstein. “The end of this papacy, because of the length of it, would have such an impact on a worldwide audience that it warranted careful planning in advance.”
Mr. Burstein, who has been in his position at ABC News for almost nine years, took his first trip to Rome eight years ago, with Special Events senior director and VP Roger Goodman, to look at possible anchor locations. With the help of ABC News Rome bureau chief Phoebe Natanson, they secured a prime location: the residence of a cardinal whose balcony was only feet from St. Peter’s Square. “A few months before the pope died, in February, the cardinal died, so we had to scramble and make sure that location was secure,” Mr. Burstein said.
Likewise, the roster of theologians and experts changed over time: New York Times reporter Tad Szulc-who wrote a biography of the pope-died; the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit priest and liturgical professor, became available. In addition to anchors Charles Gibson and Bob Woodruff, other primary correspondents in place were Bill Blakemore, who had covered this papacy since the beginning (and who wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Pope John Paul II), and Cokie Roberts, whose mother once was the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
Peter Jennings was very involved in the coverage’s pre-planning, Mr. Burstein said, and his last broadcast prior to announcing his illness took place during the coverage at the Vatican. “To say I’m sorry he wasn’t able to be there is a gross understatement,” Mr. Burstein said.
With a small staff and infrastructure in the Rome bureau, the logistics of moving in engineering, production and editorial people-and equipment, including satellite uplink-were immense. “You want to move in far enough in advance to be prepared, but not too far in advance so it’s prohibitively expensive,” Mr. Burstein said.
The announcement of the pope’s death on April 2 was just the beginning of a story that would last until April 24, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was installed as Pope Benedict XVI. Covering the funeral meant getting reactions from far-flung destinations, including the pope’s home in Poland, Westminster Cathedral in England, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
“We were very conscious of balancing things,” Mr. Burstein said. “There were many sides to this pope, and people had different views about what his papacy meant and his legacy. We showed all sides.”
The next challenge was to cover the selection of the next pope. “Our experts had helped us narrow it down to 15 to 20 most likely candidates,” Mr. Burstein said. “We had brief taped bios prepared for each one. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was, fortunately, on everyone’s short list.”
When the bells started clanging in St. Peter’s Basilica on April 19, the news team knew that a new pope had been chosen. Five days later, ABC News covered the installation of Pope Benedict XVI.
“We had to keep energy going for a story that lasted a month,” Mr. Burstein said. “But the excitement and passion of the story more than compensated [for] it. The years of planning paid off. People knew what their assignments were and they performed superbly. Everyone delivered what was expected and much, much more.”