All-Schiavo TV

The latest media sensation is news for people who don’t like news.

By Steve Burgess 28 Mar 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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They’re at it again. The obsessive-compulsive monster that is American television has a new bone to chew, no slight intended. The wrenching case of Terry Schiavo, the Florida patient whose brain is not just dead but partially liquefied, has been the mono-focus of the spring TV season. As family members battle against her husband’s wish to disconnect her feeding tube and let her die, Republican politicians have made it a proxy fight for the right-to-life issue, viewing Schiavo as the adult version of an unwanted embryo threatened by liberal murderers. (It’s not just TV, of course. You know newspaper columnists have been eating too much sugar when they start using the N-word— sure enough, I recently read two different papers on the same day in which conservative columnists equated right-to-die advocates with Nazis.)

I will leave aside the political debate (except to briefly note that if we were all to adopt Republican congressman Tom DeLay as our moral compass, we would all end up in jail) and deal only with the TV issue. Is All-Schiavo TV, the successor to All-Martha TV, a good thing?

By now it’s obvious that American cable news searches diligently for such galvanizing cases, seeking to provide the sense of event that can tear viewers away from CSI and Three-and-a-Half Men. They hit the jackpot this time—surveys show Americans have been riveted by the Schiavo drama.

Schiavo as catalyst

As is so often the case where American TV is concerned, it’s necessary to look past base profit motives to determine the effect of programming. There’s little doubt that CNN is more interested in heat than light—watching the awful Nancy Grace prattle on and on about the Laci Peterson case month after month should have settled that issue.

But although one cause celebre is as good as another for cable news, the cases are not created equal. Laci Peterson showed TV news at its worst, turning an hour-long episode of A&E’s American Justice into a yearlong marathon. The Schiavo case is clearly different.

There are at least two separate news items here—the ethical and the political. Media sensations often serve the useful purpose of illuminating the current political culture, and the Schiavo case has certainly done that. It may even have kick-started a debate within the Republican Party itself, as traditional conservatives view with increasing alarm the take-over of their movement by religious zealots. Less government except where one’s most private and personal decisions are concerned? That makes many on the right nervous. The Schiavo case could well serve as an important catalyst for a struggle over the soul of conservatism.

The medical and ethical question—should the tube stay in—is far more nuanced than the political battle would suggest. With parents on one side and husband on the other, this is no moral slam-dunk for either of the fiercely partisan teams that have lined up against each other. But medical and legal opinions have been consistent throughout, affirming that Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state and that her husband is acting in accordance to her known wishes. Thus the political side of the Schiavo story is where the real heat is.

Accidental seriousness

When compared to other recent or current news obsessions—Martha, the Peterson case, the Michael Jackson trial—the Terry Schiavo controversy is positively PBS, an island of substance in a sea of scandalous trash. But is it evidence that American media culture is reforming its trivial ways?

Fat chance. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every once in awhile, and the Schiavo coverage seems almost like accidental seriousness. The Schiavo case has blown up because it’s a natural for the Crossfire format of shouting pundits, not because it represents an important national debate about personal rights and medical ethics. The sharp political divide highlighted by the case plays well to the current polarized state of American TV news, where Fox Network blowhards look for wedge issues to bash their liberal foes.

The obsessive coverage also fits the recent Big Story pattern. This is news for people who don’t like news. A truly informed public requires comprehensive coverage on a variety of topics, something that American news networks seem less and less interested in providing.

The Schiavo story may be enlightening. We’ll see about the next one.

Steve Burgess writes about television and other matters for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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