NEW YORK, N.Y. – The election of a new pope presented news organizations Wednesday with a slowly unfolding mystery governed by centuries of tradition.
Television news personalities were clearly uncomfortable with the uncertainty. But it may have been the best thing for their networks, with the story revealing itself like a reality show competition, only this time without a manufactured conclusion.
White smoke or black smoke? Who’s that sneaking a peek through the curtains at St. Peter’s Square? When will someone appear to announce the new pope’s name? Will it be anyone the odds makers have been predicting? ABC’s Diane Sawyer could only marvel at the mystery during the hourlong period between white smoke and the appearance of the new Pope Francis.
“In this age of multiple media devices, the fact that nothing has leaked from behind that door is pretty amazing to the worldwide media gathering here,” she said.
It must have felt strange after a seemingly endless political campaign, with new polls every day to decipher and a cacophony of consultants offering opinions. Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith was cut off by analyst Robert Moynihan of the Catholic news magazine “Inside the Vatican” when he started speculating on the front-runners in the papal election.
“We don’t know, Shep,” Moynihan said. “They could be surprising us.”
CNN’s Chris Cuomo tried to discern what it meant to get a new pope toward the end of the second day of the conclave. Was that relatively quick? Or not? Could it mean an advantage for a perceived front-runner? Or a long shot?
“Right now, there are only 115 people who know the answer to the question that is at the front of our brains,” he said.
Ultimately, the man chosen as pope — Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio — had not been considered a front-runner by most media outlets even though he reportedly was second to the retired Pope Benedict XVI in the last papal conclave in 2005.
Killing some time, NBC News offered a graphic that showed the amount of time between white smoke and the appearance of the new pope during the last three papal elections. Norah O’Donnell discussed on CBS how the new pope would be fitted into clothes.
A website, popealarm.com, that offered people a chance for a text or email alert when a new pope had been chosen did not move too swiftly. It took 12 minutes for a text to be delivered after the first appearance of white smoke.
Fortunately for reporters, it was relatively clear that white smoke was streaming from the Sistine Chapel chimney upon Pope Francis’ election. It enabled broadcast networks to quickly and authoritatively break into regular programming. Earlier, there was much discussion on CNN about how the smoke could initially appear grey, including a description of chemicals used in the burning of ballots.
“Who knew smoke was so complicated?” said CNN’s Carol Costello.
After Bergoglio was named, networks quickly searched their files and found footage of him. The key word from networks after the new Pope Francis made his first appearance: humility.
“There appears to be a humility in his choice of white vestments and in asking for a prayer for him,” said NBC’s Brian Williams.
The news quickly flooded the social media lines, along with some quick jokes. Some posts referenced movie titles: “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Pope”; “Jurassic Pope”; “Dpope Unchained.”
A Twitter account that looked like it could be the pope’s ((at)JMBergoglio) was flooded with followers, drawing more than 137,000. But it was clearly a fake, with one tweet saying he’d be loved more than Santa Claus.
There is an official pope account: (at)Pontifex. Pope Benedict XVI joined in December under that handle, but it went quiet after his retirement announcement.
Shortly after the new pope appeared, the account tweeted “HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM.” (“We have a Pope Francis.”)
Associated Press correspondent Jake Coyle in New York contributed to this report.
David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org and on Twitter (at)dbauder.