ROME – The Vatican on Thursday abruptly canceled the planned live broadcast of U.S. President Joe Biden meeting Pope Francis, the latest restriction to media coverage of the Holy See that sparked complaints from White House- and Vatican-accredited journalists.
The live broadcast of Biden’s Friday visit was trimmed to cover just the arrival of the president's motorcade in the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the revised plan reflected the “normal procedure” established during the coronavirus pandemic for all visiting heads of state or government.
That protocol also has meant an 18-month ban on any independent media being in the room for the beginning and end of the audience, as would normally be the case for a visiting head of state.
Cancelled was the live coverage of Biden actually greeting Francis in the palace Throne Room, as well as the live footage of the two men sitting down to begin their private talks in Francis’ library, at which time the cameras would have stopped running.
The Vatican said it would provide edited footage of the encounter after the fact to accredited media. Bruni didn't say why the Vatican had originally announced fuller live coverage only to dial it back on the eve of the visit.
Biden, the second Catholic U.S. president, has met Francis three previous times, but this will be his first as president.
The audience was being closely monitored since U.S. bishops are due to meet in a few weeks for their annual fall convention, with one of the agenda items inspired by conservatives who contend that Biden’s support for abortion rights should disqualify him from receiving Communion. Though any document that emerges from the bishops' conference is not expected to mention Biden by name, it’s possible there could be a clear message of rebuke.
Francis has strongly upheld the church's opposition to abortion, calling it “murder." But he has said bishops should be pastors, not politicians. As a result, the Biden-Francis body language could have given a clue about their mindsets going into the meeting.
The Vatican has provided live television coverage for the visits of major heads of state for years, including President Donald Trump, and had scheduled such coverage Friday for Biden and for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is also in Rome for a Group of 20 meeting.
Asked to comment on Vatican access during a gaggle with reporters on Air Force One, the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the administration was “actively engaged” in the issue and would see what Friday brings.
“The United States will always advocate for access for the free press, and especially for our good friends in the American press who travel with us on these long flights over, to be able to capture and chronicle the president’s engagements,” he said.
A live broadcast was particularly important because the Vatican has barred independent photographers and journalists from papal audiences with leaders since early 2020, even though external news media are allowed into other papal events.
It is during those moments in the pope's library that reporters can view the gifts that are exchanged, watch as the formal photograph is taken and overhear remarks as the leaders arrive and depart to get a sense of how visit is going. Only the pope’s official photographer and Vatican video journalists are now allowed in.
The Vatican correspondents' association has protested the cancellation of such pool access and several media outlets, including The Associated Press, formally complained about Thursday's cut of the live Biden-pope broadcast and asked for an explanation.
The head of the White House Correspondents' Association, Steven Portnoy of CBS News Radio, expressed disappointment at the lack of live coverage as well as the absence of independent media access. Biden is travelling with his own pool of reporters who would normally be allowed into the pope’s library for the beginning and end of the audience alongside reporters accredited to the Vatican.
In a series of tweets, Portnoy noted that the White House travelling pool was fully vaccinated and that such a substantial meeting between a Catholic president and the head of the 1.3-billion strong Catholic Church “demands independent coverage."
AP correspondent Zeke Miller contributed from Rome.