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Confusing TV Reports About Pope

Faithful gather for prayers in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Friday, April 1, 2005. Pope John Paul II was clinging to life in deteriorating condition, with his breath shallow and his kidneys not functioning properly after suffering heart trouble, the Vatican said Friday. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
AP
Fox News Channel erroneously reported the death of Pope John Paul II on Friday afternoon, backpedaled several minutes later, then apologized to viewers for the mistake.

Television networks were marshaling resources and dealing with conflicting reports as the pope's illness took a turn for the worse Friday, maintaining an electronic vigil like the Roman Catholic faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square.

Viewers could be forgiven for confusion as the cable news networks flashed reports at them. At 12:30 p.m. EST, MSNBC posted the words "Pope lost consciousness" on its screen. At the same moment, CNN was reporting: ``Pope visibly joining in prayers of those around him.''

But at 1:23 p.m., Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith reported that the pope had died. At least initially, he did not cite sources.

By 1:30 p.m., Fox reporter Greg Palkot in Rome was sending signals of caution, saying the report had not been confirmed and the network was checking into it.

"The exact time of death, I think, is not something that matters so much at this moment for we will be reliving John Paul's life for many days and weeks and even years and decades and centuries to come," Smith said.

Smith explained to viewers that a Fox sister company in Italy had been listening to an inaccurate report and it was transmitted to Fox.

Fox spokeswoman Irena Briganti said a Fox producer, monitoring a translation of reports from Italian media, erroneously shouted that the pope had died and it had gotten on the air through an open mike. Smith was responding to the producer's words.

On air, Smith said: "You must prepare for all happenings, all major happenings on the planet and this is one for which we have planned. Im sure the Vatican is dealing with things they could never have thought of just as Im dealing with never having to think of a young producer screaming 'the pope has died, the pope has died.' Our technology, we certainly get ahead of ourselves sometimes."

About 1:55 p.m., Smith apologized to Fox viewers for the initial unsubstantiated report.

"As way of explanation, I am very sorry, which is all I can say,'' Smith said.

About five minutes after Fox's report, CNN reported that there were conflicting news agency reports about whether the pope was still alive. One of its Vatican reporters, Delia Gallagher, said CNN had no independent confirmation and "we have to be very careful."

The Associated Press sent an advisory to its members at 1:31 p.m. that some Italian media were reporting the pope was dead and that the AP was trying to verify the reports. At 1:55 p.m., the AP sent a NewsAlert that the Vatican had denied he was dead.

"There are a lot of conflicting reports over there and we apologize for the confusion," CNN's Miles O'Brien told viewers.

CBS News was aware of the Italian news report of the pope's death but decided not to air the report without additional confirmation.

Television networks have been preparing for this story behind the scenes for years, renting apartments and space on roofs overlooking St. Peter's Square so their anchors and reporters will have backdrops for the story. They were starting to use some of that space on Friday.

CBS News correspondents Allen Pizzey, Richard Roth and Manuel Gallegus are in Rome. John Roberts, Jim Axelrod, and Sheila MacVicar are en route, and Elizabeth Palmer is in Krakow, Poland.