The Media and Death: The Case of Terri Schiavo and the Pope

by: Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

Usually death is an extremely private and intimate affair, taboo to scrutiny by the broadcast media. To be sure, television pays homage to the death of important figures, especially those in the entertainment industry, that gives it an opportunity for self-promotion. But rarely before March 2005 did television go on a death watch and trace intimate medical, personal, and social details of an individual person’s final days and death until the very opposite cases of Terri Schiavo and the Pope.[1]

For fifteen years, Schiavo had been in a deep coma following a stroke, and after much litigation between the husband and the family, doctors and the courts agreed that Terri had no chance of recovery, was in a “persistently vegetative state” with severe brain damage, and that her husband had the right to take her off of life-support systems according to her stated expression that she would not want to live hooked up to machines. Schiavo’s family battled the husband and, twice, got the courts and, in 2003, Jeb Bush to return her to feeding-tube machines after judicial decisions ruled that she could be taken off.

When the Florida judiciary ruled on February 25, 2005 that Schiavo could be taken off of life support, once again her parents appealed and after being turned down by all courts up to the Supremes, Congress passed an emergency bill that would allow Schiavo’s parents to petition the federal courts to reinstate her feeding tube, and George W. Bush rushed back to Washington from vacation on his Texas ranch to sign the bill. This extraordinary measure in effect asserted the authority of the state over private affairs such as medical care and decisions about life and death, as well as putting the federal government over the judiciary.

But the courts again immediately ruled against this intervention, including the Supreme Court that denied the parents’ appeal, judging that Florida law dictated that the appropriate court had ruled in support of the husband’s right to terminate his wife in accordance with her wishes. The hypocrisy of George W. Bush and the Republican establishment on the Terry Schiavo case was truly incredible: although he claims to be “pro-life,” Bush carried out a record 152 executions when Governor of Texas, barely bothering to review the cases because he “trusted the courts.” He signed a bill as Texas Governor in 1999 that gave hospitals the right to pre-emptively take patients off of life-support systems when they could not pay their bills.[2] Further, the Texas Congressman Tom Delay who was most militant in attacking the courts and assailing the “murder” of Terri Schiavo had pulled the plug on his own father when he was seriously injured and faced a life on a medical-support machine.[3]

Although the Schiavo case was probably the most reviewed case in recent history by doctors and the courts, the Republican right and their Christian evangelical allies jumped in to exploit the issue with many fanatic “right to life” advocates spreading false medical information, defaming the husband carrying out his wife’s wishes, and creating a quasi-fascist mob scene, fuelled by intense media coverage, that caused multiple threats against the husband’s life and the judge who ruled in his favor. On Fox television, there were fake medical experts who said that they had personally observed “life” in Schiavo and that she had responded to her parents; the Senate majority leader, medical doctor Bill Frist, declared that upon watching a video tape he was convinced she was conscious and might recover; an assorted array of ideologues and quacks were marched out to the approving Fox news hosts, including psychic John Edwards whose TV show had failed, intoning that Schiavo was conscious, did not want to be taken off of life support, and that doing so was murder; and her parents claimed that Terri had communicated to them “I want to live.”

The dissemination of pure falsehoods about the Terry Schiavo case provides another example of how the rightwing and their media apparatus spread untruths with impunity in a new post-factual situation.[4] Another bevy of commentators vilified the husband who ordered the termination of her life-support system and judges who ruled that this was his legal right and the rational thing to do after the intense medical scrutiny and multiple court hearings.[5] As critic Sam Parry indicated, it was truly frightening to see the rightwing media machine on cable television, Talk Radio, the Internet, and the press use the Schiavo case to push their rightwing antiabortion and anti-right to die “Culture of Life” agenda, while attacking “liberal” judges, politicians, and values.[6] The case showed the power of the right to dominate the media agenda and relentlessly use it to promote its agenda.

But polls indicated that up to 80% of those queried reacted against the Republican intervention and Bush’s approval record dropped a record seven points in one week to an all-time low of 45% and the Republican establishment backed off of the case. This example provides another case of what I call reversal of the spectacle where a media spectacle concocted to push through a specific agenda flip-flops into its opposite as did the rightwing attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, or Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” spectacle to prematurely declare victory in Iraq.[7] Of course, the spectacle itself is always subject to contestation and reversal and in the long-run the right may well be able to exploit the Terri Schiavo case to promote its “Culture of Life” agenda but for the moment there appears to be a backlash against rightwing extremism and attempts of the religious right to promote their agenda.

Yet while reaction against the rightwing mob and Bush manipulation of crucial matters of life and death has been encouraging, the wave of irrationalism, hypocrisy, mob thuggery, and constant noise of the rightwing Republican media echo chamber has been highly disturbing. The spectacle of Schiavo slowly dying was extremely gruesome and macabre, while the constant media exposure of this event showed the ghoulish extremes that the media would go to in order to attract audiences and the ways that small groups of rightwing fanatics are able to drive the media agenda.

While dying is the most personal of all individual and family events, and people caught up in the drama should have their privacy, the media spectacle relentlessly focused on every twist and turn of the Schiavo case, at the same time when the Pope was in a terminal condition and the media also engaged in an intense death watch over his condition until his death shortly after Schiavo died on March 31.

Although the Terri Schiavo spectacle was horrific, it had the positive consequences of raising important issues of life and death, including what constitutes a life worth living, what are the conditions of a dignified death, how does one deal with intense suffering and hopeless medical conditions, and who has power over life and death decisions. Many people reflected on these issues and were educated on the importance of families and doctors discussing the need for a living will to document one’s personal decision. Yet crucial issues of life and death were rarely debated on network television and the gruesome Terri Schiavo spectacle showed the corporate media at their worst sending hordes of reporters on a death watch in Florida after the courts ruled that she should be taken off life-support systems. Until her death at the end of March, there were hours of daily coverage of the ordeal and numerous pictures of the poor woman on life support, being visited by her parents who were complicit in the media spectacle, and allied with rightwing extremists like antiabortion fanatic Randall Terry who was an official spokesperson for the family. Randall Terry had for years threatened women going into clinics getting abortions, and organized mobs to picket and sometimes assault abortion clinics and doctors. This extremist had been frequently arrested and jailed for his fanaticism, his followers had bombed and burned abortion clinics and killed doctors who performed abortion and yet there he was, everyday on mainstream television, spouting his extremist views and exploiting the grief of a tragic case of a young woman dying.[8]

In fact, there were only a small number of protestors actually at the hospice where Schiavo was dying, but the media intensely focused on the demonstrations and privileged the voices and messages of the demonstrators and Schiavo family. Protests, by contrast, against Bush administration Iraq policies were ignored by the mainstream media. Corporate television also failed to note that many of the same rightwing extremists, who railed against “judicially-sanctioned murders” and denied the hard fought struggles for a right to end one’s life with dignity and according to conditions of one’s own choosing, does not care about state executions, the killing of over 100,000 civilians in Iraq, or other government-sponsored torture and murder. Yet they went into hysteria over a poor hopelessly vegetative and dying woman and continued to threaten those who sanctioned the act, with Tom DeLay railing that “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.”

The invasion of Terry Schiavo’s privacy and dignity by the rapacious media and exploitative politicians was astonishing. While there was a gender issue involved in the case with the old Southern ideology of saving innocent white girls from vile forces, male politicians and the media were exploiting Schiavo for their own ends. Tom DeLay and rightwing Congressman debated summoning Schiavo to Washington and bringing her to Congress to “save” her from the doctors and the courts. There were reports that Jeb Bush had ordered Florida state troopers to seize her and carry her away a la Elian Gonzalez, but that this had been prevented by local law enforcement officials who refused them entry.[9] It’s also symptomatic that in his intervention in the case, George W. Bush said that the government should help the weakest and least powerful members of society. This is highly paternalistic, as it advocates acting on behalf of the “victim,” rather than empowering the oppressed and is also hypocritical since the Bush administration has cut back in its budget on programs that help the poor, children, the elderly, women, and various oppressed groups.

Terry Schiavo
Terry Schiavo

Thus the highly personal and complex question of rights for life and death were hi-jacked by extremist and opportunistic politicians who poisoned a serious debate with their venom and hypocrisy since DeLay had ordered the termination of his own father’s life and Bush had signed a bill legislating that the state could take patients off of life support systems if you could not pay for further life support (this is state-sanctioned murder!). The media allowed rightwing extremists to define the terms of debate and to advocate their fanatic positions, making a vulgar spectacle of the whole sad affair.

While the Schiavo death watch was gruesome and exploitative, the Pope’s death was presented by the mainstream media as ennobling and celebatory, in the most sustained advertisement for conservative Catholic religious ideology in memory. The Pope’s decision to leave the hospital for his Papal Chambers was praised as a choice of a dignified death of his own choosing. During his last days, every medical announcement was accompanied by a theological message: the Pope was greatly suffering, as Jesus did; the suffering Pope was pleased to hear read documents of the stages of Christ’s Passion, thus equating the Pope with Jesus, as Catholic doctrine propagated; a Vatican spokesman announced that the “Pope’s faith is so strong and full, and the experience of God so intensively lived, that he, in these hours of suffering already sees and already touches Christ”; and just before John Paul II died, the Vatican announced that the Pope was serene in the face of death knowing that he was soon going to join his Heavenly Father, propagating the Christian myth of the afterlife. Finally, when he died on April 2, 2005, the Pope was said to have exhibited great courage in the face of death and showed how to die a good death, having served his Church faithfully, he was ready to pass on with dignity to the next stage.

The Pope’s death was a major media spectacle and great P.R. for a beleaguered and declining Catholic Church. Thousands rushed into Vatican Square to mourn the Pope’s death and celebrate his life. The US TV networks had their anchors and top reporters on the scene and ran repeatedly prepared footage on the Pope’s exemplary life. Catholic officials were interviewed in-depth on the Pope’s life and significance, and ordinary people were brought on camera to testify of their love for the Pope.

On his Sunday morning ABC Talk show, George Stephanopoulos intoned that John Paul was “the most famous Pope the world has ever seen” and many programs featured George W. Bush’s praise of the Pope as a champion of the “march of freedom” and “Word of God,” covertly identifying the Pope with his own self-image. On CBS’s 60 Minutes there were homages to the Pope and one official said that only two Popes, Leo and Gregory in the fifth and sixth centuries, were deemed “the Great” and that there was talk of bestowing this honor on Pope John Paul; many programs discussed the probability of a fast-track to Sainthood for the deceased Pope. There were repeated references on all the networks concerning the great “charisma” of Pope John Paul, but the accompanying footage showed him tonelessly reading precanned speeches in a barely understandable English and I rarely saw any TV footage of John Paul speaking spontaneously. But despite the absence of confirming TV footage, commentators repeatedly extolled John Paul’s eloquence, charisma, and greatness.

Hence, just as rightwing religious extremists used the mainstream corporate media to promote their “Culture of Life” ideology during the Terri Schiavo affair, so too did the media allow the Catholic Church to promote a conservative version of its theology and elevate its spokesperson to Divinity and Greatness. Although George Stephanopoulos had the temerity to question Boston archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law concerning whether or not the Pope was quick and decisive enough concerning the Church sexual abuse scandal, Cardinal Law quickly brushed off the question and few commentators raised the embarrassing issue in their discussions of John Paul’s Papacy.[10] Likewise, while there were copious references to his theological conservativism and general anti-modernity stance, there were few discussions of how many Catholics neglected his teaching on the prohibition of birth control and abortion, his polemics against homosexuality, or the role of women in the Church.[11]

On the other hand, while there was much praise of Pope John Paul’s admirable concern for the oppressed and marginalized, poverty, and world peace, there was little on his strong opposition to the death penalty or his principled opposition to Bush Senior and Junior’s Iraq interventions. In fact, the term “culture of life” was introduced by Pope John Paul II in a 1995 text “The Gospel of Life” which included polemics against capital punishment, gun culture, and war, as well as against abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and genetic engineering of humans. The Bush administration and religious right have appropriated the latter part of John Paul’s teaching, but not the first part that conflicts with their rightwing political agenda.

Bush’s conservative project was to enlist Catholic support in alliance with part of the Pope’s agenda and he used the notion “culture of life” as a political mantra to appeal to Catholics as well his evangelical Christian base. It worked in the 2004 election as Bush received 54% of the Catholic vote, the first time that a majority of Catholics voted against Democrats and a Catholic candidate. The mainstream corporate media aided the Bush agenda in the Schiavo spectacle and presentation of the Pope’s last days, death, and funeral by failing to note contradictions between John Paul’s concept of the “culture of life” and the Bush administration and US conservative position. Thus, both the Schiavo and Pope’s death coverage were driven by the ideological conservativism that is emerging as the hegemonic discourse of the corporate media, especially television.

Notes

[1] Media representations of the massive Asian Tsunami of December 2004 broke a taboo against the depiction of dead bodies. While US corporate media coverage of Iraq rarely depicted dead bodies of either Iraqis or US soldiers, and when they did there was massive rightwing protest, the Tsunami coverage showed masses of dead bodies, floating in water, heaped up on land, or buried in mass graves. Yet most of these victims were anonymous, so I am arguing that the Schiavo and Pope John Paul II cases broke taboos against showing intimate processes of death and dying.

[2] During the period of the intense Schiavo death watch, a young African American boy of six months was taken off of his life support system when a hospital and court ruled that despite the mother’s wish to keep the boy alive, the hospital had the right to pull the plug according to the Advance Directives Act signed into law in 1999 by then governor George W. Bush which said that hospitals could take patients off of life support systems if they could not pay and their condition was deemed hopeless. Young Sun Hudson suffered from dwarfism and underdeveloped lungs and his mother hoped that his lungs might develop. See Leonard Pitts Jr., “‘No One Noticed when Little Sun Died,” Hearld News, April 9, 2005.

[3] Walter F. Roche Jr. and Sam Howe Verhovek, “DeLay’s Own Tragic Crossroads. Family of the lawmaker involved in the Schiavo case decided in ’88 to let his comatose father die.” March 27, 2005 at The LA Times.

[4] On Bushspeak and the institutionalization by the rightwing of the politics of lying, see Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder: Paradigm Press, 2005 discussed in a previous Flow column.

[5] While mainstream television was dominated by the rightwing “Culture of Life” discourse and often the vehicle of outright lies on the Schiavo case, the Internet documented her medical and personal history in detail. While there were, of course, websites spreading the rightwing spin, promoted by her parents (see [The Foundation Site]), there were also well-documented sites detailing her case history and containing key medical documents; see Schiavo Timeline; Tale-of-Two-Scans; & Abstract Appeal. Time magazine also had a good detailed analysis in their April 4, 2005 of Schiavo’s hopeless medical condition.

[6] Sam Parry, “Terri Schiavo and the right-wing machine”, April 1, 2005. Parry also notes the hypocrisy of Bush’s active involvement in the Schiavo case and failure to comment on the March Red Lake Inadian reservation “Minnesota school shooting that claimed the lives of 10 people, the worst such incident since the Columbine massacre in 1999. The apparent logic behind Bush’s differing reactions was that the Schiavo case was a cause celebre for Bush’s Christian conservative base, while the Minnesota school shooting carried the risk of reviving demands for tighter gun control, which might offend another powerful Bush constituency, the gun lobby.”

[7] See Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003 and Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy, op. cit.

[8] On extremist Randall Terry’s bizarre life and return to media prominence in the Schiavo case, see Tina Susman, “Crusading Once Again,” Newsday, April 3, 2005.

[9] See Carol Marbin Miller, Police showdown over Shiavo averted,” Miami Herald, March 25, 2005.

[10] American Politics Journal 4/5/03 — Papal Pap noted that Cardinal Law did “as much as he inhumanly could to sweep hundreds of instances of crime by pedophile priests in his diocese under the rug. Remember the notorious child abuser Father John Geoghan? Geoghan operated in Law’s diocese — and some of Geoghan’s victims have accused Law of having known he was a child abuser as early as 1984 (Boston Phoenix). Cardinal Law later presided over one of the major funeral masses for the Pope leading to sharp critique by members of the Survivor Network of Those Abused by Priests and Catholic liberals; see Larry B. Stmmer, “Bernard Law Given Prominent Funeral Role,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2005: A13 and “Advocacy Group Leaders to Protest Cardinal Law,” The Associated Press, April 9, 2005.

[11] For critiques of Pope John Paul II’s Papacy of the sort absent in the mainstream media, see Barry Healey, “Pope John Paul II, a reactionary in shepherd’s clothing” and Terry Eagleton, “A British Obituary of Pope John Paul II. The Pope has blood on his hands”.

Image Credits:
1. Pope John Paul II
2. Terry Schiavo

Links
Culture of Life Homepage
Terry Schiavo – Official Web Site
Make Them Accountable – Terri Schiavo

Please feel free to comment.

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23 comments

  • Pingback: FlowTV | This week on FLOW (April 29, 2005)

  • Mediated Thanatos

    The “Culture of Life” movement is indeed an ideological chimera. Consider this legislative gem … On April 6th, Florida lawmakers passed the Republican-sponsored and ominously titled, “Stand Your Ground” bill, which was later signed into state law by Governor Jeb Bush on the 26th. The bill states that “gun license holders over 21 years of age who feel threatened in public can shoot to protect themselves, without trying to escape first” (see, http://www.abc.net.au/news/new.....339831.htm). Jeb Bush argues that the bill is a good anti-crime measure, defending it against the critics who have dubbed it, “Kill Bill.” Remember, this is the same Gov. Bush who, only weeks earlier, was lauded for exhausting every possible gubernatorial power at his disposal to try to save “poor Terri.”

    The “Stand Your Ground” bill is yet another piece of evidence suggesting that the calculated conservative opposition to Terri Schiavo’s own wishes has less to do with the value of life, than it does with the value of power. Kellner and Robert Reich (in his May column in ‘The American Prospect’) both rightly note that the so-called “judicial war on faith” is really about framing the popular discourse for broader, longer-term political goals. The Republicans would just kill for the chance to control the one branch of the Federal government that still eludes them – the judiciary. Given this political bloodlust, someone should warn the Supreme Court Justices about threatening anyone during their next trip to the Sunshine State.

    ps – Don’t miss David Rees’ contributions to the feeding tube debate at:http://www.mnftiu.cc/mnftiu.cc/war45.html

  • Is this article about television or politics? I cant tell.

  • The Media and Death

    I couldn’t agree more that the excessive media coverage of the Terri Schiavo case was used as a soapbox for the right. What bothered me more than the extremist right agenda being shoveled and thrown at me was the total lack of respect and tact cable news and legislators had when dealing with this woman’s death. The irony is that this whole argument over the sanctity of life that the right posed gave way to a circus atmosphere surrounding what should have been a solemn and respectful time as Terri passed away. The whole situation got so out of hand that television creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone jumped in the mix. A whole episode of South Park was centered on the lunacy following the Schiavo case. In typical South Park fashion the situation was parodied and blown way out of proportion. The funny thing was that this episode, with its protests and cable news covering every little development to the point of exhaustion, wasn’t so much of an exaggeration but an imitation of real life.

  • Political Discourse

    Kellner’s article reads as more of a political response to the right-wing’s exploitation of “Media and Death” then it does as an analysis of the change in the treatment of death in the media. It is a fact that the recent coverage of both the Schiavo case and the Pope’s death was highly political, highly intrusive, and in my opinion (and what I believe to be many others’) highly redundant and exhaustive. Kellner makes this point in about as many words and then falls into the same arena of political mudslinging that he is criticizing. He does present a strong argument with good evidence, but it comes across as a direct response to claims made by the media during their coverage as well as negating some of those claims. Kellner never offers a solution to the problem at hand either; the article serves solely as a call to the awareness for the reader on matters that are readily apparent (such as the political agenda held by the pro-life in relation to the Schiavo case). I agree with a good majority of what Kellner argues, I just feel like FLOW is the wrong channel for his discourse. There is nothing like a little counter-spin to slow the conservative media-abusing political machine.

  • Unbridled Senstationalism

    Images of life are a sacred symbol that unites all people, it is one of the only things we all have in common. It seems in society today, it has become a marketing tool, another statistical issue, used to spread fervor amongst the masses. The conservative right hijacked morality to spread political agenda; the church, faith, pray, marriage, and medicine, all must be scrutinized by public figures to decide if they serve the relative will of man’s morality. The media uses these issues in the programming strategy as ratings vacuums; it seems that our media culture has turned into a boiling pot of mod mentality. If the media can stir up enough trouble, more people will come to the station to get breaking information. All blame does not lie in the hands of the media conglomerates, while most does. The people of America have been socialized into a consuming machine. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Now they don’t even need to show the blood, just imply it, and repeat the same story over and over again to rile the masses. This issue is an evolution of media privatization and deregulation in the past 50 years.

    If one looks across the border at Canada, the only stations covering these types of issues are the American stations. To the north, media retains a public service orientation instead of a market centered media organization. I believe that in a cyclical theory on this issue and the preferences of American people. The people in all will keep consuming this type of information until the public consensus believes that it has been taken too far, hopefully soon. Awareness will rise the masses will cast off the stone of unbridled Sensationalism.

  • Clayton Tefteller

    Media and death: Shiavo in prime time

    Although this entire article is frustratingly saturated with biases against Bush and the Republican administration, I think that it does bring up a very interesting point with regards to the relentless airing of Terry Shiavo’s death. First off, I am really not a strong Bush supporter. However, I am also not one of those Bush haters that ignorantly label him the worst president ever and so on and so on (learn your U.S. history before you talk to me about that). I understand and agree that he has many faults and so on, but I at least like to be as objectionable as I can with any of the criticisms towards him and his administration. That said, the constant claims of hypocrisy and so on really hurt this article as none of them are backed up with relevant facts. It just adds unneeded emotion on adjacent issues to Shaivo, The Pope, and the media. This paper, with regards to politics, is a little too biased for me. For example, the author writes, “The hypocrisy of George W. Bush and the Republican establishment on the Terry Schiavo case was truly incredible: although he claims to be “pro-life,” Bush carried out a record 152 executions when Governor of Texas, barely bothering to review the cases because he “trusted the courts.” The constant and annoying statements like this really hurt the good overall meaning of the article. I hardly see the connection between Bush’s pro-life stance and his execution statistics while the Texas Governor. And more importantly, neither of those issues have the slightest amount of relevance to the Shiavo situation. Aside from that constructive criticism of this article’s rhetoric, I certainly agree that it makes a very valid point. It really is amazing how the media jumped all over it and turned what should have been a private matter into a national frenzy. I understand that once the courts got involved it kinda got out of hand, but even then without the news camera’s hounding the situation, it never would have reached such a high stage. I personally, think that it should have been a private matter and that the government, at any level, should have zero input into the matter. It really does seem that Bush’s administration is really trying to take more and more of our civil liberties since he got the Patriot act passed. The entire matter should have never left her immediate family, meaning her husband, not her parents. Furthermore, it is really sad that the news cameras felt that it was there right and duty to be so intrusive, whether welcomed or not, into the situation. There really ought to be some sort of ethics here. I mean, seriously, what is broadcasting the story to the entire country going to do, nothing. No one’s opinion matters except the people already involved and regretfully, the courts. The general public shouldn’t have even been informed. They had no decision making power, and their protests and voices do nothing to better the situation. I have a lot to trouble believing that the media and news had any type of motive other than selfishness here. It just helps to get better rating for their programs. This is the reason they swarm and blow every event they can scrounge up out of proportion. I guess there really is no news like bad news. And showing Shiavo’s current state, for example, makes the situation seem that much more real. It also gives the viewer a chance to try and determine his stance on her mental condition which brings in more ratings as the people begin to feel like they are part of the story. I also agree with Kyle’s post about the recent episode parody of the situation on South Park where Kenny is left in Terry’s position. The whole episode centers on his lawyer trying to find the second part of Kenny’s will which will tell them what to do with his life support position. Finally, the last page of the will is found and read. Kenny wrote, “If I ever end up in a persistent vegetative state and have to be kept alive on machines……Please, for the love of God, do not show me on national television in that condition.” Its pretty sad when it takes an infamously vulgar cartoon show like South Park to come up with the most relevant and rational answer to the situation; Shiavo probably wouldn’t want to and probably shouldn’t be shown on T.V. so much in her condition regardless. But in the end, I guess the news stations got some good ratings and maybe even boosted their credibility a little regardless of what happens to Terry; mission accomplished.

  • My 2¢

    The use of media spectacle to push politics is a phenomenon based on hypocrisy, power, and money; I definitely agree with Kellner’s position as far as that goes. The issue surrounding the Pope’s death came up in an Iranian Identity class I was taking this semester, and I think my instructor put the hypocrisy of the media into perspective really well. He talked about remembering how the death of the founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989 was portrayed by the American media.

    Khomeini was a figure for the Shii Muslim world whose position relative to other systems of religious hierarchy paralleled if not topped that of Catholic popes. Upon his passing, millions poured into the streets of Iran to mourn the death of their beloved Imam. Many American and international news organizations were there to cover the event and to get in depth coverage of the hordes of Iranians weeping and screaming between prayers. The reactions from the right wing pundits on several American news networks were basically all the same “This is what fanatics and fundamentalists do”.

    Fast forward 16 years to 2005 and the death of Pope John Paul II; This time around, there were right wingers taking advantage of every second of the media spectacle to peddle their ideological wares. White Anglo Saxon Protestant men sat in these cable news studios and for hours at a time commended the life of this man and, just as much so, the faith of those who made a pilgrimage to attend his wake for one reason…V-O-T-E-S. I see this “Holier than thou” attitude and misuse of the media as a perfect example of who is wielding the power of public attention and the use of television as a tool for strengthening the forces in our current political system that do so.

  • Galen Carter-Jeffrey

    I agree that the cable news channels did over cover the Teri Shaivo case. The channels, especially towards the end seemed to cover the story non-stop all day. However, I am sure many people in the country were interested in the outcome either way. The writer of the above article seemed like he has more of a problem with the opposing political views than the actual coverage of the events.

    During the coverage of the Terry Shaivo events I wondered if anyone from either side cared about Terry Shaivo herself. Did the news ever stop and ask themselves if it was too disrespectful to show the woman in the state she was in? If I were in her position, the last thing I would want is for everyone in the country to be watching me. I did think the coverage brought up important issues about death as talking points.

    I am glad that the whole situation is over and her family and the whole country can move on. Now that the 24 hours news channels are not showing her anymore I can get back to watching the Michael Jackson case in peace.

  • Christopher Kaiser

    Elongating News Stories

    The most sickening displays of journalistic voyeurism in these two cases came from the 24-hour news networks. Since they are so ratings-driven, they have become more and more like water-cooler gossip channels. Whenever a “big” story is taking place, all other news is forgotten (or relegated to the scroll at the bottom of the screen), because the producers are afraid of viewers switching to a news station that is covering that story. And how do you cover a single news story for hours on end?

    First, the more footage that can be shown to visually draw attention to the news story the better. The amount of video footage of the vegetative Terry Schiavo shown on television during the last month is appalling. The millions of people watching television do not know the Schiavos personally, and yet could tune in at any hour and see Terry in her debilitated state. Of course, her family probably gave permission for this footage to be shown in order to get the public on their side, and the news networks showed the footage gladly to hold their ground with the competition, but would Terry want her privacy invaded on such a large scale? Another thing the networks can do is call in a parade of “experts”, or really just about anybody, and interview them. The above article states that Fox News brought John Edwards in for his opinion on the Terry Schiavo argument. I’m so glad I missed that one. In these ways, the 24-hour news networks marginalize keeping viewers up-to-date on current events (literally marginalized to the bottom half-inch of your TV set) for the sake of focusing on spectacle events like people who gather to watch what is happening at the scene of a crash.

  • Who really exploiting the Death of the Pope?

    This was a really interesting article. One part that I thought was particularly interesting was the idea of glorifying the dead to the excess. The idea of Pope John Paul being considered for Sainthood or being deamed “The Great” was kinda shocking to me when I heard about it. I think it is very interesting how our media and how we as individuals often glorify the dead. This isn’t to say that we should not remember the good things about people but we should be realistic. I side with Kellner, in that I really don’t think the Pope was all that great. While George Stephanopoulos may be right in saying that John Paul was the most famous Pope the world has ever seen, we should take into consideration the communication technology John Paul has had access to. We live in the age of communication, so of course he is the most famous Pope, how could he not be. But what our media does not do is put things in perspective, being the most famous Pope doesn’t necessarily make him great. The media praises the Pope for visiting 120 countries in his papacy. What they fail to mention is that there are 194 countries in the world. The Pope just visited a little more than half the countries in the world! I would really like to know what is wrong with those other countries? I mean it’s not like the Vatican ran out of money. It was also very interesting how quickly such a plethora of documentaries about the life of the Pope materialized. I think it would be interesting to know who paid for those documentaries. Kellner portrays Bush as taking advantage of the Church to support himself, which is probably true, but the bigger reality is that the Church probably doesn’t care. Catholicism is big business and it would be foolish to think that they do not put a lot of thought and money into their own image and public relations. I think it would be interesting to see how much influence (or money) the church has had (or spent) on the media in this past month.

  • Orlando Castillo

    It’s astonishing how Terri Schiavo’s death was used by President Bush to deter the public from his actions in Iraq, while the Pope’s death was depicted as a heroic finish to an accomplished being. There’s really no proper way to portray death in the media, but Schiano’s media attention was a shameful disgrace to her dignity in the way that the progress of her death was a spectacle similar to “the bearded lady” at a circus freak show. I believe that some of the public was fascinated with Schiano because the media coverage she received resembled somewhat of a reality show following a woman in a vegetated state and the controversy on whether euthanasia is right or wrong. Although, I wonder if the “pro-lifers” who rallied against Schiano’s situation ever questioned what gave them the right to interfere in a strangers life and condition, and who deemed them worthy of judging such difficult morality issues. After all isn’t that why this country has judges.

  • Hypocrisy

    This article correctly portrays the hypocrisy of the Bush Administration’s “Culture of Life” agenda and the media coverage on the Schiavo case and The Popes death. I agree with Kellner’s argument that the poliical agenda of the media coverage was excessive and hypocritical. It is horrifying to believe that our nation actually watched the last days of a strangers life for entertainment purposes. I’m greatful that I was busy during the month of march and had no time to watch the Schiavo marathon. However, being a member of the Catholic church, when the Pope died I was tuned in non-stop whenever I got the chance. Even as a Catholic, I thought the excessive footage and commentary of the Pope’s death on every channel was exhausting. It made me think of how much leverage the Catholic church has on the media. I didn’t know being a Catholic was so popular in America, especially in a time that the Pope was shaking his head about Bush’s stance on the war in Iraq and the death penalty. It took me by surprise to see FOX news covering the death of the pope and speaking to random Catholics on the streets. But after reading this article, it all makes sence. The coverage of John Paul II’s life focused on his great stance against abortion and euthanasia, subjects that seem to fit in well with Bush’s version of the “Culture of Life” agenda. It’s depressing how the death of a revered religious leader has to be so politically charged.

  • RTF 317 Response

    I agree whole-heartedly with this article. First of all the Terry schivo case was definitely over covered and exploited on behalf of right wing politics. The same people crying out for right to life and pushing conservative pro-life evangelical beliefs are the same people who are quick to support state sanctioned death penalties. What is the difference between the two other then the fact that on one hand you have a woman who in her will states she doesn’t want to live connected to machines and her husband has legal right to take her off them, and the state killing someone based on a judgment. You would think that the evangelical right would be against the state offering a judgment on someone’s life as God is the only one responsible for taking and giving like, right? These politic are completely hypocritical and it makes you wonder if prejudice plays a factor at all. It is no secret that capital punishment is racially biased and the death penalty usually involves the poor and oppressed people of society, so then it it ok for the state to sanction death in their case. However when it comes to this white woman’s life being put on the line there is pandemonium and uproar and 24 hour media coverage, for a woman who is essentially a vegetable. It also comes as no surprise that W and the rest of the right wing don’t acknowledge ALL of Pope John Paul’s Pro-Life sentiments purposefully excluding his anti – death penalty stance. This article does a good job of raising issues i think the right wing aught to be held accountable for.

  • While I agree with the author’s first argument that the right wing media spiraled out of control on the Schiavo case, I find it hard to align myself with his opinions on the Pope’s death. Both cases are so inherently different, I find it wrong to categorize them together and I found his demeanor towards the material very disrespectful.

    It is pretty clear the Republicans were bucking for a positive movement by surrounding by getting involved in the Schiavo case. Like the author states, they made it a question of right to live and die when that wasn’t the legal issue. Others have been taken off like support in the past and others will in the future, lawfully. Whether Americans realized this difference or not can not be said.

    On the other hand, the way the media handled the death of the Pope was very different. To begin, the Terry Schiavo and her family were dealing with a private matter that was turned very public and exploited. But the Pope is a world figure, in the limelight everyday. Any celebrity, religious, political, or otherwise receives this kind of treatment and to expect any different for the Pope is ignorant. Furthermore, his assaults on the conservative nature of the media are completely biased. In death, we tend to remember the positive nature of those who have died. If President Bush died today, we would not be airing descending remarks about his presidency in the weeks afterwards. They are human beings, and the natural tendency is to not insult their life by analyzing them at death.

    If my two points are true then the remaining argument is the excessive support of the Pope. To me, though, I didn’t recognize much support of his ideologies in the Media. Since his ideologies were not consistent with a large population of this country, they were not exploited as such. The defense of the networks media craze can be led back to money. When the Pope dies, Catholics are a demographic. And while the author has a strong opinion towards the Pope and Catholicism, most Americans do not. So by heralding this great man, CNN gets an audience, President Bush gets a boost of support and no is left feeling like a false deity has been proclaimed.

    Perhaps the facts the author presents are true, but I do not believe the intention he suggests is there.

  • Shayne Lechelt

    I definitely agree with this article. How is it that we can exploit these private deaths, but when it comes to arguing the war in Iraq, we just get stories of honour and success? Schiavo was a private citizen who was suffering, and our government felt the need to attempt to keep her alive to continue suffering. However, we are constantly sending out troops to die, and their deaths hardly get the exposure that they probably deserve. Our leaders need to get their ideals straight, because their “pro-life” stance is becoming more like “pro-suffering.” The far-right conservatives seem unable to understand the difference between a life worth living and a life of pain.

  • The Terry Schiavo case was a story fifteen years in the making. For starters, I had no idea that Schiavo was in a “persistently vegetative state” for that long. I don’t understand how a machine would have saved her life if she remained persistent, or in other words, showed no signs of recovering, even after five or ten years. It is ironic that the political issue involving Schiavo was suddenly the “hottest” topic. This swift move raises my eyebrows in questioning of the motives. Was it the Bush administration’s use of the media to preach its “Culture of Life” agenda? Or to divert the eyes of America from the Iraq war? Or maybe Schiavo’s parents used the media to their advantage to get the government’s attention in order to prolong their daughter’s suffering? Perhaps the media grew tired of covering the war in Iraq, wanted to curb expenses for sending reporters overseas, and looked for a different story? I would guess that the majority of viewers didn’t want to hear Iraq Iraq Iraq, over and over again. The Terry Schiavo case was something new and unfortunately, overblown. Her vision was blinded from all of the flashbulbs popping, so her dying rate probably tripled in the process. Maybe the media ought to examine itself on how it treats its subjects. And maybe the media need to get the data and present information in a non-bias, educational manner. It’s pretty apparent that Kellner is not on the right-wing side and he seems to send out the political message that Bush controls the media. Right-wing this. Right-wing that. Don’t forget there’s the other side of the media too, the left-wing. People who work within the news industry have political beliefs and it’s no surprise they spread it via mainstream media. The Terry Schiavo case and the Pope is not the same thing, same issue. Maybe it is for a left-wing extremist yelling at the right-wing extremists. I would be shocked if the media did not praise the Pope. It’s expected. It was a coincidence that the Pope died shortly after the Schiavo case. This cycle is nothing new. What was “hot” in the media last week is old news today. And Kellner should breath a sigh of relief. The political cycle is always in motion. Just maybe someday Bill Maher will replace Larry King on CNN.

  • Around the time of Schaivo’s imminent death, South Park aired an episode where the character Kenny, who usually dies every episode, was almost killed and put in a non-recoverable vegetative state like Schaivo’s. Kenny’s will was found, and the last line said “If I am ever in a vegetative state, please….” but the last page was missing. In the episode, Matt Stone and Trey Parker took a parody of the frenzied media coverage surrounding Schaivo fate to epic proportions by making a divine battle between Heaven and Hell depend on Kenny’s survival. Near the end of the episode, the doctor finds the last page of the will, and the complete sentence turns out to be “If I am ever in a vegetative state, please, for God’s sake, don’t show me on television.” Thus is delivered a scathing condemnation of the bloodthirsty media’s role in Schaivo’s ordeal. This episode serves also to contradict those who claim that there’s a new generation of “South Park Conservatives” who feed on the show’s supposedly conservative messages. The conservative media was obviously a tool for the pro-life government agenda. It was interesting comparing different network’s coverage. For example, CNN usually showed current pictures and footage of Schaivo in her vegetative state, while conservative Fox viewers were treated to a majority of images of Schaivo from the 1980s when she was young and beautiful to try to gain pro-life sympathy and make Schaivo’s husband and law team seem crueler.

    The coverage of the Pope’s death should silence anyone who still claims the mainstream media is left-wing. John Paul II’s ultra-conservative moral agenda undoubtedly goes against most of liberal America, yet the media exhibited nothing but hero worship for his life and work, not daring to voice any criticisms or second opinions from detractors. The “British Obituary” from note 11 brings up a great point about how the Pope’s staunch anti-condom policy helped the rampant spread of the AIDS virus in third world countries.

  • Daniel Alexander

    Can’t Handle so much Hypocrisy =(

    The news media is forced to cover stories that are “sensational”, atories that the public are sure to watch. With the recent reality TV craze, it’s no surprise that such horrific stories are covered by the major news networks. This is all about ratings, and people seem to enjoy watching the real-life pain and suffering of others. The conservative opinions expressed in the news is a result of mass conglomeration in the media. In this case, the conservative beliefs of a few people (Rupert Murdoch, etc) impact the coverage of the countless news organizations under their control. This lack of varying perspectives creates the false impression that regular people are obsessed with the political interests of the few. This is a severe threat to free speech imo, but under a capitalist economy, I don’t think there’s much that can be done.

  • Schiavo and the Media

    Dying is a personal event, one that exposes the frailty of human life and the weaknesses inherent in all of mankind. The media coverage of the Schiavo case was as sickening as it was unavoidable and, as Kellner points out, excessively and unquestionably right wing. When this case initially became front-page news I was able to ignore it on the basis that participating in it disgusted me and I didn’t want to legitimize something I viewed as a violation of privacy with additional ratings. Eventually, I too was sucked in and became part of the problem. It was exploitation of the weakest individual possibly available by the most powerful in the political and media realms who are driven by ratings from viewers like me. This article delves deeper into the issue than any that I had read prior, which is quite a few as this was impossible to ignore, and sheds light on some of the most egregious attention seekers, such as Randall Terry, who used this woman’s death for personal advancement ny taking advantage of Schiavo’s parents’ situation. Schiavo’s parents are apparently more right wing than I had thought. Some of Terri’s father’s statements to the media had seemed pretty far right and out of the realm of mainstream coverage, but I attributed this to the strain they were under and gave them the benefit of the doubt that they’d strongly side with whomever would help them. The hiring of Randall Terry as a spokesman for them gives me reason to wonder just how much of this spectacle was created by the father’s caring for his daughter and how much of it was for furthering his political views. Based on this new information I wouldn’t be surprised to see him running for office after this controversy with full sympathy of the press who are already his pawns and the Evangelicals who have elevated him to saint status. In response to the notion that this article is too political I feel I must disagree. In this case politics dominated the media so much that to ignore politics and discuss only media coverage without establishing the backgrounds of the key players and their ideologies would be merely scratching the surface of what this whole media event has really been about: the domination of corporate news networks and their promoting of the right-wing agenda without question by the mainstream press. In many cases during the Schiavo trial individuals were given a soapbox that were so extreme right that the mere presence of them on a major media network lends them credibility they neither earned or deserve at the cost of credibility from major networks where most Americans get their news. This credibility is power which they will now use to get more media coverage of other endeavors they undertake as well as the ability to promote their views via opinion shows which are very popular right now. This in turn moves the debate further to the right to the point where extremist rightwing views are no longer viewed as extremist and even moderate left wing ideals are considered ultra liberal. If power really were money then the media just gave Randall Terry $100,000 to promote his extreme-right views. The Life Legal Defense Foundation is one of these organizations that tried to “save” Schiavo and is now in a lawsuit that is preventing stem cell research in California. As far as John Paul II goes, he probably benefited at least a little from this conservative hegemony. Were we in a different hegemonic situation it’s likely that the media would have focused less on the “charisma” of John Paul II and more on the scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in North America in recent years. The dominant conservative paradigm probably protected his memory, at least for the moment, from being subject to criticism. On the other hand he was a public figure for a very long time and regardless of his faults he had established a relationship with the world. It’s likely that he would have been treated similarly regardless of the state of hegemony in America today, though perhaps with a bit more criticism.

  • 80% skeptical? Why so many?

    Why did so such a huge majority of polled people object to the Republicans’ strategy in the Schiavo case? It seems too large a percentage to be believed.

  • Terri, Katrina and George

    Why did no one, and I mean no one bring up Terri Schivo when Bush ignored the victims throughout the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina? He left Texas to save one life for a special session of congress but wouldn’t leave for his neighboring state of Louisiana?

  • lol Twitter ought to be outperforming other social media websites

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