Sunday, March 27, 2005

Editorial: There Must Have Been Nothing Else Going On In The World

There must have been nothing going on in the world that week, because my haircut got an absurd amount of press coverage. There was wild speculation as to why I'd done it; some said it was to spite Frank, and back in New York, Dali, never one to minimize, labeled it "mythical suicide."
-- Farrow, Mia. What Falls Away p. 107

Terry Schiavo wasn't a haircut. But then the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman weren't a haircut either. The issue isn't whether something was news.

Obviously, threats of sending in people to put Schiavo back on a feeding tube (as the Miami Herald reported Jeb Bush attempted to do initially Thursday) is news. News is a court verdict, an appeal. News is what Bob Somerby did at The Daily Howler when he exposed one of the "expert" pundits as not very expert at all.

But there was also a lot of non-news. Was their a pundit or op-ed writer who didn't attempt to weigh in on this topic? Was their a web site that didn't?

(Yes, a few in both categories.)

You saw a lot of opinion. Nothing wrong with opinion, sharing your thoughts can inspire something in others. But nonstop? And on the right and the left. When Faux News goes into saturation on a story, we aren't surprised. But what's the excuse of the mainstream media and, for that matter, the alternative media including the newer media of web logs?

There was a danger, and Rebecca noted it at Sex and Politics and Attitudes and Screeds, of a backlash as people became more vocal in their opinions and often made tasteless statements. [See our blog highlight this edition to read Rebecca's post.] That is a serious concern. Here's another: not backlash, but borelash.

If you follow the news, you pretty much knew everything you needed to know on the first day this story broke. But over and over, like first grade teachers attempting to drill the alphabet into you, we heard all the details.

The feeding frenzy is great for the non-news crowd. It's a sensational topic that can peak their interest and this constant drilling let's them feel informed no matter how little they've paid attention. But for people who follow the news, we didn't need the constant, incessant and repetitious coverage.

It truly was a feeding frenzy as various radio and TV programs devoted their entire programs (repeatedly) to Schiavo, Schiavo, Schiavo.

We also didn't need to keep hearing it in the same manner. What could have been an opportunity to seriously discuss quality of life, living wills and the disabled (make no mistake, many disabled people were offended by some of the "jokes" made this past week), instead became a continuous feed on the parents and husband of Terry Schiavo.

The Republicans overplayed their hand and the polls show that (the polls showed that early in the week). But why were they willing to risk it? Partly to toss out meat to their base for 2006.
But also with the hope that other stories would be buried (there were developments in the Valerie Plame case and certainly questions of Tom DeLay's ethics coming out of Texas were muted).

That was the game plan. And on the left, people did tremendous work in exposing the hypocrisy of the Republican leadership, no question. But as the media continued to focus on it (all forms of media), the Republicans got what they wanted: one story dominating and drowning out all else.

You had a school shooting that was largely ignored which offended some people (including Native Americans). And while the story was spared the feeding frenzy and false reporting
of Columbine, it also left many feeling that media interest depended on skin color. When the efforts of Stephanie Tubbs-Jones were ignored, that also led some to raise the issue of
skin color.

Make no mistake, a lot of issues and stories got ignored. But also be aware that when you've covered, for instance, Ohio in relation to Barbara Boxer and you then ignore Stephanie Tubbs-Jones' continued fight on this important issue, people start to question why. And coming in the same week as the tragedy on the reservation, you begin to create even more questions in the minds of many. Add in the voices of the disabled, voices that were not heard, and it often appeared the whole thing was intended to play to certain segment of the population, for a certain segment of the population and by a certain segment of the population.

The alternative media especially should be concerned because they are supposed to shed light to the stories that the mainstream doesn't touch. They are supposed to give voice to the subjects that otherwise would not be heard from. At a time when inclusion should be strived for, we went through a week of exclusion.

In this regard, the overall media's failure is not surprising. The alternative media's failure is suprising and, honestly, a little saddening.

As some sort of reverse Sleeping Beauty narrative, this story was easy to cover, so easy that few resisted. And it was damn easy to flood the story nonstop. That's why radio hosts (on all sides) could fill up entire shows (day after day) with this topic. They knew they'd get callers because this isn't a budget proposal, for instance. No one feels like they have to do a great deal of thinking on the subject the way they might if it involved numbers. So everyone had an opinion and everyone shared. It was a week long feelings-check passed off as news. People noting highs and lows as they kept droning on and on.

Again, a few people (in all media formats) either covered it it as news (which didn't require devoting a great deal of time to the story -- Democracy Now!, for instance, did two stories and otherwise merely covered it in headlines at the top of each show) or else they noted that everyone else was covering it and elected to go with other stories that were being drowned out. But those were very few voices and what was especially saddening was seeing some of them crack as the week went by, suddenly apparently feeling that they just had to toss in their ten cents worth.

When a political party grandstands, absolutely, that's a news story. It isn't, however, the only news story. Nor is it really necessary for either side to offer speculation of what led to Schiavo's state. And speculation led to an increasingly "loose" atmosphere. Jokes about feeding tubes for a bulimic victim were not funny. A bad joke isn't a crime. But at a point when jokes like that start being cracked (by callers or hosts of programs), it's probably a sign that it's time to move on to another story or at least not let this one story dominate.

Here were all the facts you needed to know until Jeb Bush's attempt to go Elian on Schiavo (as reported by the Miami Herald). Schiavo was married. Her husband and her doctors did not feel her status would changed. As the husband, he and not her parents had the final say. Consistently, the courts sided with the husband. The parents repeatedly appealed. "Experts" weren't so expert. The Republican leadership produced a set of talking points and tried to make political hay out of the tragedy.

That's really it. And it can be summed up in a paragraph. But day after day, we got nonstop coverage, around the clock. Was that due to the fact that we ended up having serious bio-ethical debates? No. That didn't happen. We didn't leave the situation/case of one person: Schiavo.

So what really was the point of the media feeding frenzy? And why did people so willingly participate in it?

That's a question that people should ask themselves. But they probably won't. They'll attempt to justify it on the basis of it being a Constitutional crisis (a term tossed around repeatedly in the media). They'll say they were talking about quality of life issues. No, they were speaking of the quality of one life, Terry Schiavo's.

When an issue is so simple (and the issue of Schiavo is simple from a purely legal standpoint), everyone is an expert. Which is why you saw people who never stopped to discuss anything other than Hillary Duff or CSI weigh in with their own "expert" opinions. When that happens, the media has the opportunity to do what it should be doing all the time: educate and enlighten.
Instead it was just talking points over and over. People who usually don't follow news weren't educated on the debate, they didn't have their world view enlarged. Instead, the same points of this one specific case were repeated over and over so often that even the non-news watchers were "experts." Right away, that should tell you there's a problem with the coverage. Not just that's it's too much but that what's being offered is highly superficial.

We'll note that some people (a few) did try to enlarge it beyond "oh there go the Republicans again!" by actually tying this effort into past efforts with more than mere shout-outs. A few people did actually probe into the history of past efforts that led up to this latest insane power grab. But for the most part, the coverage was mere talking points and served to silence all other stories of the week.

Though we doubt it will happen, we still hope that those who participated will take a long hard look at what their nonstop coverage actually provided. And that they may grasp that beyond the non-white world, the non-disabled world, a lot of people are asking questions about why this one story dominated at the expense of all others.
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