Networks Hype Obama's 'Special Bond' With the Pope, Downplay Disagreements

Thursday's network morning shows tripped over themselves in their rush to fawn over President Obama meeting Pope Francis for the first time at the Vatican. At the top of ABC's Good Morning America, co-host Robin Roberts touted how the President "feels a special bond with the Pontiff." On NBC's Today, chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd spoke of an "ideological comfort level" between the two leaders, while on CBS This Morning, White House correspondent Major Garrett described their "genuine connection." [Listen to the audio]

While ABC, NBC, and CBS provided a combined 14 minutes 30 seconds of coverage to the papal meeting on Thursday, only 2 minutes 21 seconds of that air time referred to the fundamental disagreements between Obama and the Pope on a host of issues. Instead, the morning broadcasts chose to play up the "common ground" between the two men on issues of "income inequality" and "social justice."

On GMA, White House correspondent Jon Karl declared: "The White House has said that the President hoped to use this meeting to get to know Pope Francis, somebody who he has clearly been fascinated by, as most of us in the United States are, and he has expressed gratitude to the Pope for his commitment to social justice and equality."

Todd touted on Today: "It's a meeting the President has been talking up for months, been more excited about it than he usually is for other meetings with world leaders....the President said he wanted the main topic of his conversation to be about income inequality across the globe, saying, 'It's not just an economic issue, it's a moral issue.'"

On CBS This Morning, Garrett proclaimed: "Mr. Obama told the Pope the audience was a great honor and that he was a great admirer....At this year's National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, the President identified with the Pontiff's actions and his call to aid the impoverished."

NBC spent the most time – 1 minute 22 seconds – on the contentious topics that divided the Obama White House and the Vatican:

TODD: Now it's worth noting that yesterday the Vatican put out an official press release, not highlighting the ways that President Obama and Pope Francis agree, but on some of the big disagreements. Calling this "a complex time," noting the fact that the Pope disagrees with the President's contraceptive coverage on health care and not happy about the growing movement of gay marriage being legalized in the United States. Matt.

MATT LAUER: Well, Chuck, let's follow up on that, then. Do we know anything about the tone of the discussion when those subjects, the ones you just mentioned and some others where they disagree, were brought up?

TODD: Well, we know that the President really wanted to talk about income inequality and he keeps bringing that up, had that interview this morning with the Italian newspaper. And it's our understanding that the Pope himself was not going to be digging into the details and getting into the pointed ways.

Somebody who's very close, a close watcher of the Catholic Church said he would be acting more like a pastor, that the more pointed disagreements were going to come up in a meeting afterwards that takes place between the Vatican secretary of state, the President, even John Kerry would be in that one. And that's where these political disagreements, the issue of religious freedom – which of course we've got that big Supreme Court case that's tackling that right now, on that issue of contraceptive coverage – that's where these topics, uncomfortable topics, frankly, for the President politically, were likely to come up.

Karl mentioned those divisions for 20 seconds on ABC, and dismissed them just as quickly:

Well, clearly they don't see eye to eye on many social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, but there is a lot of common ground between this President and this Pope, particularly on the issue of incoming equality and social justice....So while the Pope and the President don't see eye to eye on a lot of those social issues, there is certainly common cause on the issue of equality and fighting poverty as a moral issue.

Despite Garrett offering two reports at the top of the 7 a.m. ET and 8 a.m. ET hours respectively, no mention was made of the controversial issues until the end of an 8:30 a.m. ET story by fellow correspondent Bill Plante, which amounted to 39 seconds:

For President Obama this is a second trip to the Vatican. He and Mrs. Obama met with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 during which the pope pressed the president on the issues of abortion and stem cell research. While there was talk of policy differences today, there is a little more personal common ground for President Obama and Pope Francis....

We may never know what they talked about in private, but there was a hint yesterday on the authority of the Vatican radio. They noted the controversy over heath care in this country requiring mandatory coverage of sterilization, contraception and abortion and about other issues like same-sex marriage.

Contradicting Plante's assertion that "we may never know what they talked about," the Vatican released a statement about the meeting, which said in part: "...there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country [the United States], such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection..."