Eighth Most Troubling Media Story of 2005
Number 8: Terry Schiavo Case Hijacks the National News
It's hard to remember now, post-Katrina, how ubiquitous the Terri Schiavo case was on national news outlets toward the beginning of this year, as the woman who had lain in a vegetative state for 15 years neared the end of her life.
In particular, those who sought to keep Schiavo alive -- contesting her husband's contention that she did not want to live in a vegetative state -- seemed to play the media like a well-worn fiddle, staging protests at the hospice housing Schiavo, making the rounds of cable newschannels and network TV morning shows and elisting the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation Rescue's Randall Terry to press their case to reporters.
Because Michael Schiavo rarely talked to reporters and often came off badly when he did, the result was a lopsided war of media images in which old, heavily edited footage of Schiavo in her hospital bed played endlessly like feedback loop.
Did this coverage help push a conservative Congress into passing ill-advised legislation aimed at keeping her alive? (I believe one of the first nails in the coffin of Senate leader Bill Frist's presidential ambitions was his diagnosis of Schiavo after watching an hourlong videotape) Did it push George Bush into cutting a vacation short -- something he only reluctantly did when Katrina struck -- to sign that legislation? Did it help bolster a meddlesome Gov. Jeb Bush into thinking he might order state law enforcement agents to sieze Schiavo as a ward of the state?
These are questions we can never have answers to, of course. Many mainstream media outlets, including the St. Petersburg Times, tried valiantly to cover this hot-button issue fairly and incisively. And actvists on both sides of the Schiavo case complained about mainstream media outlets failing to report the case in ways consistent with their beliefs.
Still, the Schiavo case remains a high-profile example of how savvy activists can play to the news media's weaknesses -- an insatiable need for new material, the superficiality of reports on morning and cable news shows, the attraction to conflict in coverage -- to produce reports which inflame and incite rather than enlighten.