Death By Television

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Like the rest of the nation, we watched the Terri Schiavo ordeal play itself out on the news networks last week. As we did, we supposed that for at least some of those millions watching, the questions raised weren’t only about states’ rights, or patients’ rights, or whether Schiavo is in a “persistent vegetative state”, or whether Republicans are saints and the Democrats are killers.

Surely, many must have wondered: Aren’t CNN and Fox and MSNBC and radio talk-show hosts making a freak show out of this sad, sick woman’s predicament? And if those listeners and viewers considered the contrived shouting matches unseemly, what then did they make of the news media who used Terri Schiavo as a ratings gimmick?

Not much, we conclude. It is significant to us that the more news there is out there—the 24/7 news cycle—the more Americans have grown to doubt it and mistrust it, and the more the news business itself has bent its own better journalistic instincts to stay competitive. Terri Shiavo’s predicament has existed for years but, for the media, the literal life-and-death struggle is impossible to resist. To jaded media-watchers, however, she is just more fodder—easiest to cover by not straying too far from the emotional argument.

The television and radio news media have by now nurtured the Us versus Them story so completely, it is not difficult to come up with medical experts with political agendas, or religious leaders who also have theirs. Roving bands of pundits travel the TV carny circuit at times like this, and even the stars at the center of the controversy show up everywhere.

Robert and Mary Schindler—Terri’s parents—and Terri’s sister, Suzanne, sat in the Florida outdoors in producers’ chairs on Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes last Wednesday night, their sound bites down pat. Terri’s father stated flatly, and without contradiction, “They’re murdering her. It’s judicial homicide.” Suzanne said, emphatically, “I know my sister. She would never in a million years want to be starved to death.” Pat Robertson, up next, said, “Why, you wouldn’t treat a dog or horse the way they’re treating Terri.” A few minutes earlier, on The O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly ended his program with letters from viewers who lamented: The trouble with America is that the power elite confuse legal right for moral right. And yes, there was just one lonely letter from a rational physician, who said he’d participated in “pulling the plug” cases and who admonished news professionals and their glib guests for referring to “killing” or “murdering” Terri Schiavo. On other networks, to varying degrees of tastelessness, the same show was repeated.

The plight of Terri Schiavo would be sad enough if there had been no media coverage. But as she evolved into a media plaything, her situation became sadder than it was before. If the question was ever about Terri Schiavo dying with dignity, her opportunity to do so ended last week, right on your TV set.

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