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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2005

John Paul's legacy includes call for fairness and truth

I have in my hands the famous cover of Time magazine with a picture of the Pope and the headline, in red: John Paul, Superstar. It is a quarter-century old now, and in its zeal to capture the rock-star appeal of the new pontiff, it seems almost trivial and faintly disrespectful. Perhaps that is because we now know what we could not have known then, that before he would die this spring, John Paul would be credited with ending the scourge of communism and carrying an uplifting and irresistible message of hope, peace, and love to people beyond his flock and to nations that once were beyond the reach of Catholicism.

But if John Paul were swiftly identifiable as a media star, then he also should be recognized as an astute student, and a ferocious defender, of the media.

This is of no trivial importance, particularly in an age of mass communications and nave-to-nave coverage. It is not only because the Pontiff understood the uses of the media - the way they could be shaped, harnessed, and directed. It is also because the pontiff understood the responsibility of the media - the way the media should comport themselves, the way they should use their power, the way they should exert their moral authority.

Now, with the echoes of the Pope's funeral fresh in our ears, and with comprehensive news coverage of the succession rites already reaching its saturation point, it may be appropriate to pause for a moment of reflection on the words and images John Paul used to counsel those who work with words and images themselves. They are deeply inspirational, and they are deeply sobering.

As a very young man - I had lived fewer years than John Paul would serve as pope - I was given the greatest reporting assignment of my life, the chance to accompany the Pope on his six-day trip to the United States. I mention this not to share an editor's sentimental memories, but to say that the words he said to those of us who accompanied him have been seared in my memory. I know them almost by heart. They are words to live by, and I can only say that I have tried.

You are indeed servants of truth; you are its tireless transmitters, diffusers, defenders. You are dedicated communicators, promoting unity among all nations by sharing truth among all peoples.

There is a lot of pompous talk in our business about the truth, and I always cringe when I hear it and, worse yet, when I talk that way myself. We have no more idea what the truth is than anyone else; we're not equipped with special powers, either legal or corporeal, and we have the same flaws as our critics, except, almost always, in greater doses. All we can do is to offer a fair representation of what we believe the truth is.

The key word here is fair, a word not unfamiliar to John Paul himself, for if you distill down most of what he said, beautiful though the rhetoric was, what he represented, along with faith, was fairness. It is a gentle word, far gentler than the ones used to assail the media or to defend them, but - again, along with faith - it may be the most powerful word on earth.

Be faithful to the truth and to its transmission, for truth endures; truth will not go away. Truth will not pass or change.

Now here's the Pope talking again about truth, but I believe that what he means here, along with its spiritual sense, is that truth ought to be applied to the work of being fair. We ought to be truthful - to ourselves, to our readers, to the people we cover - about our motives, truthful about our methods, truthful about our limits.

That is because truth is a goal perhaps unattainable. I have read more newspaper stories than almost anyone within eye's length of this column. I have never read one that was fully the truth. There are stories in which every statement was true, to be sure. But truth is a question not only of what is included in a piece but also of what is omitted. There is no story long enough, broad enough, or smart enough that it does not tempt human frailty by being incomplete, or poorly focused.

And I say to you - take it as my parting word to you - that in the service of truth, the service of humanity through the medium of the truth is something worthy of your best years, your finest talents, your most dedicated efforts.

That is the best we can do. We can serve truth. We cannot achieve it. We can enlist fairness in the service of truth. Sometimes that angers our readers, sometimes it angers the people and institutions we cover. But that's our job. That's our calling.

In these days between popes, we in our small corner of the culture can emulate the last pope in searching for truth, but we probably ought to emulate him in another way as well. We should remember what is perhaps the greatest irony of perhaps the greatest figure of our age: the sheer humility of the man. He never underestimated the size of his mission, but he never made himself greater than that mission.

That's where we in the media have failed. We think we know the truth when we do not. We have been so sure of the truths that we think we know that we have sometimes forgotten to be fair. We are often not humble.

A lot of this was easier to remember when - and it is part of my memory if not of yours - we were but scribblers on a page that soon would turn to dust. The technological revolution has changed all that. But it hasn't changed the potency of the Pope's words from 1979, the text of which was recorded by a typewriter. Being servants of the truth is worthy of our best years, our finest talents, our most dedicated efforts.



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