Deathwatch 2005: Terry Schiavo and the Pope Antidote

[23 May 2005]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Terry Schiavo, now there’s a name you haven’t heard in a while, right? Since she finally passed into the shadows a few weeks ago, it’s safe to say that the media maelstrom surrounding her case has not been as blustery. Why haven’t Fox News Channel and MSNBC kept their reports in constant vigil near the hospice-turned-shrine where this symbol of an unsympathetic judiciary once vegetated?

The last time anyone looked, Congress wasn’t usurping its representative duty to help individuals make tough decisions, nor was the President jetting back from vacation again to undermine the checks and balances built into the three branch makeup of the government (at least, not for non-responsive terminal patients dangling from the threads of modern medical technology). Schiavo and her sideshow have finally fallen by the wayside, and we have the mighty power of the papacy to thank for it.

When Pope John Paul II finally answered the call of his Creator on April 3rd, he successfully provided the feel good story about mortality that Schiavo and her muddled moral dilemma couldn’t provide. As JPII donned his best mortal-coil shuffling vestments and positioned his velvet slipper clad feet into bucket kicking mode, there was no court case looming to keep him hooked up to life preserving devices, no one running through the Vatican City roadblocks to deliver him food and water.

Perhaps it was because of the perceived higher mission involved or the acknowledged futility of the fight, but John Paul II definitely proved that, when it comes to pushing up the daisies, the media likes dying when it’s clean, simple and part of a pre-ordained process. When you start adding in ethics and epistemology however, the normally nonplused TV signal starts to get a little scrambled.

Let’s face it—when it comes to the Grim Reaper, our modern, 24 hour a day media has only one of two switches it can throw - the celebratory or the sensational. The former is usually reserved for the famous, or infamous: someone who wouldn’t normally warrant a mention in between all the violence and vitriol. We get the pleasant obituary, the obligatory montage of career highlights, and some person either directly or indirectly related to the deceased stepping up to deliver a sixty-second sound bite eulogy, a noble if often pointless attempt at summing up someone’s life in a couple of sentences.

But give them the sensational, let a little child be abducted and found murdered, or have a desperate employee start shooting up his ex-workplace, and the panther press springs into action. Smelling the raw meat of tragedy and sensing the ratings that such a situation procures, the image of vultures picking the bones of bereavement clean is no exaggeration. The inexplicable death is what the media truly live for, the chance to report as well as create the news simultaneously. It provides viewers a chance to live and experience misfortune, vicariously, through the plight of others.

Instead of worrying where the next headline will come from, the round the clock coverage just begins in earnest. And if the police aren’t offering up a press conference, or relatives aren’t reeling in spontaneous outbursts of emotion, no need to worry. There are dozens of agenda-lead mouthpieces just waiting in the Green Room wings to give their two hundred cents worth.

Such was the case in the Schiavo matter - sort of. Frankly, it had all the facets that make your basic cable news networks salivate. On one side was the heartsick husband, wanting to (supposedly) fulfill his wife’s final wishes. On the other side were the parents, arguing that they had the right to determine their child’s fate. In between, where no King Solomon could ever fit, was the legal system, with its rules and regulations meant to guide, not guarantee.

Thanks to its more than ambiguous attributes, the Schiavo case became the perfect premise for what TV news now does best - pontification. Gone are the days of reporting - today’s news anchors REACT! They thrust themselves deep into the fray, using prosecutorial tactics to throw bias-laced leading questions at their co-conspirator guests. Those with an opposing side are dismissed as psychotic, immoral - or the worst crime of all - unpatriotic. While it’s not an excuse for how the Schiavo case devolved into a circus, it certainly explains the morbid fascination with which the subject was treated.

It’s hard to hate the news for what they did to and for Schiavo and her family. From the original poster child for death with dignity, Karen Quinlan, to the Kevorkian cases of a decade ago, the public has a fascination, and a fear of imminent mortality. It tends to turn even the most rational mind a bit ghoulish. Certainly, there were times when everyone went a bit overboard: a so-called professional journalist on Chris Matthews’ Sunday talk show was actually heard to say that Schiavo needed to be kept alive for “the further enjoyment and entertainment of her family”.

If you think the national coverage of the Schiavo case was outlandish, you should have been in Florida during the debacle (actually, there is no real reason for anyone to be in the solipsistic Sunshine State, unless your name is Bush or you belong to the AARP). For the local media in and around Tampa, the Schiavo case was an annual rite of spring.. To your average sunstroked viewer, Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers were like the Yankees arriving for training camp, or the horrid stench of red tide returning to the beaches.

The case has defined the region, reminding the vast majority of elderly residents that, after retirement, there weren’t many spaces left on the game board called life. So as the living-will kits started disappearing from Office Depot shelves, and patients grilled their surgeons about means of extraordinary resuscitation prior to undergoing the knife, Terry and her publicity-seeking pirates seemed happy to battle it out on the local level.

All that changed, of course, when the State Legislature decided to play a little game of Constitutional Challenge and special sessioned its way to something called Terry’s Law. It is still an amazing concept to consider: the entire governing body of Florida, representing millions of residents with an equal number of important issues, took a so-called ethical stand to protect a single citizen. Wow. If only we had all known it was so simple. There are probably thousands of private disputes and personal problems the government could step in and cure right now. Apparently, all we have to do is ask - oh yeah, and be on the right political side once Election Day comes back around.

That such an intervention would eventually happen at the national level was hardly conceivable. Yet, there were the Republicans demanding a jurisdictional change to the legal branch so that another series of lawsuits could be filed in Federal Court, and our President, taking a moment away from the less pressing matters like war in Iraq or Asian nuclear proliferation to make sure the Schindlers got another few days in court.

TV reveled in all of it. It was like a very special episode of The West Wing. Sides were drawn up pretty quickly. Few stations championed Michael Schiavo’s position. Most just tossed up that highly misleading footage of Terry “responding” to her family, and called the contest in their favor. Of course, no context was provided for the film - no date, or factual circumstance. All the public saw was a young woman, misshapen by illness, smiling and moving. Naturally, she should be saved - especially from a man with questionable motives and even more concerning morals.

But when John Paul went from Pontiff to patient, he seemed to instantly wipe Terry and her hot button harangue off the map. When he was shown in those annual rituals of media related religious recognition - Christmas and Easter, he was referred to as “frail”, or “weak but courageous”. Even his last, most memorable public appearance, where he tried but was unable to speak to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square, was couched in the terms of a wounded war hero, not the recognizable death throngs of an enfeebled old man. For many, John Paul II was a great man. To others, he was a symbol of something - religion - that is ancillary to their reality. But for television, the Pope’s death was a chance to make amends for all the misguided messages offered during the Schiavo case.

Indeed, John Paul’s passing was something everyone could all get behind, no matter your denomination. Public opinion polls post-Schiavo had not been kind to the Congress, or the coverage, and the building antagonism toward sensationalism run amuck was reaching critical mass. But when this simple man born into a nation that would know both Nazi invasion and Communist occupation, finally called it a day, it was time for a little objective absolution. Instead of condemning death, the end of life could be distinguished as the natural part of the process that it always has been. Fear could be replaced with fanfare, the pain of loss juxtaposed against the glorification of good works.

It worked. No sooner had the announcement be made that the Pope was being hospitalized, than the respectful vigil began. In stark contrast to the Schiavo case, John Paul II’s imminent demise was treated with dignity and respect. Certainly, there were talking heads who were looking for beatification before the Cardinals came calling to do their enclave thing, but hushed tones and courteous commentary met every update, every sign of a post-mortem papacy.

It was an obvious ruse, a self-congratulatory ploy that screamed for attention like a grade schooler in a toy store. The media was demanding to be seen as sincere, to be forgiven for taking the Schiavo case to such sorry extremes. And they had the perfect pawn from which to make their plea.

Of course the public bought it - hook, line and subterfuge. The normal viewer forgave the media for overdosing on death - with or without decorum. Gone were the angry voices shouting their slogans about playing God. Gone were the politicos trying to worm their way out of obvious questions about Federalism and the questionable co-mingling of government in deep personal intimacy. In their place , an equally sinister sentiment curdled, one just as nauseating as the entire staged morality melodrama performed for Schiavo. Failing to celebrate the Pope as he fearlessly headed off into the afterlife was seen as a sign of spiritual malaise, or worse, that you were the Anti-Christ come to destroy God’s kingdom on Earth.

Even as they tried to push the Pope’s case precariously close into overdose mode - reports of his would-be assassin weeping, the sudden sightings of the pontiff’s image in church’s and in malformed sticky buns - the media kept the mistakes of Schiavo in the rearview mirror, and proceeded with calm and caution. If one was so inclined, they could argue that Karma, or some manner of cosmic synchronicity, was actually at work here, an attempt to realign the planes of reality before the entire human race went completely cable news catawampus. Schiavo showed us that no matter the diagnosis, we hang onto any amount of life, no matter how immaterial and empty. John Paul II proved we could accept death, as long as it is given the proper amount of respect and recognition.

Maybe, had the media tried to turn Terry Schiavo into some manner of symbol, a woman who was leaving behind a treasure trove of charitable and Christian acts of kindness, the whole plug pulling, tube removal scenario could have been downplayed. But instead, they turned over that card more insidious than race or hate: the card of unapologetic grandstanding. But instead of trumping the television audience, journalism almost lost the entire hand. Thankfully, the Pope was around to take the last trick. It just goes to prove that when the media sticks its favoritism foot in its always-open mouth, they require divine intervention to extract it.

Since deciding to employ his underdeveloped muse muscles over five years ago, Bill has been a significant staff member and writer for three of the Web's most influential websites: DVD Talk, DVD Verdict and, of course, PopMatters. He also has expanded his own web presence with Bill Gibron.com a place where he further explores creative options. It is here where you can learn of his love of Swindon's own XTC, skim a few chapters of his terrifying tome in the making, The Big Book of Evil, and hear samples from the cassette albums he created in his college music studio, The Scream Room.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/050523-deathwatch/