It worked for Tom Wolfe in the late 1960s, and Radical Chic resulted. He didn’t take notes typically associated with direct quotation. And he was sans tape recorder. He tapped his memory. But no one denied that Wolfe, a “new journalism” avatar, had captured the au courant societal scene at Leonard Bernstein’s fund-raising soiree for the Black Panther Defense Fund.
Wolfe was there as pop-sociologist and para-journalist. And he nailed it, over-the-top, white-guilt ambience and all.
Fast forward a half century or so.
A reporter for the Italian newspaper La Republica has apparently quoted Pope Francis from memory alone. Vatican officials are reportedly not pleased. The interviewer was not soliciting comments on Argentina’s World Cup final with Germany. The subject was sex abuse scandals.
La Republica quoted the pope as saying that the pedophiles include “priests and even bishops and cardinals”–about “2 percent” of Roman Catholic clerics overall. For those keeping count, that’s about 8,000 clerics. It’s “a leprosy in our home,” underscored the pope, according to La Republica.
Of course, media and journalism have undergone a sea change since Wolfe was passing along the insider optics of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.
But some things should be immutable. You don’t interview the pope–or the president–the same way you chat up fund-raiser attendees or in-your-face activists. When world leaders weigh in, their words impact. While others may parse them, those literal words need to be verifiable–either through recordings or transcriptions.
Tom Wolfe, for example, would not have exited a Richard Nixon interview and quoted him from memory. That wouldn’t be new journalism. That would be shoddy journalism. Pope Francis deserved better.