The Media and Death: The Case of Terri Schiavo and the Pope
by: Douglas Kellner / UCLA
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.”
 See Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003 and Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy, op. cit.
 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.
 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”.
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