December 21, 2005
Top Story - No StoryTopics: Commentary
In recent days, major press and media outlets have produced and published their considerations for the top news stories of 2005. According to the Associated Press, a survey of the country's editors and news directors overwhelmingly tapped the story of Hurricane Katrina as the most significant and the most exhaustively reported.
Like most Americans, I watched in profound horror as Katrina annihilated populated areas, brought about the deaths of more than 1,300 innocent people and set into play a domino effect that would leave portions of the south devastated for months--if not years--to come.
I will not soon forget the almost relentless media coverage of the human tragedy, the faces of terrified people and their wailing children, the images of widespread destruction throughout several states or the surreal portrait of the Superdome, packed from floor to ceiling with desperation, sorrow and too few bottles of fresh water.
Though the coverage--at times--seemed incessant, the press and the media actually did a very good thing with their treatment of Hurricane Katrina. For, when it was revealed that local, state and federal agencies may have failed in their initial responses to the disaster, all eyes watching were opened wide to serious problems that plague our emergency response systems. Reporters, editors and columnists alike gave no quarter to those agencies and reported, with gusto, about their lack of aptitude.
Because of that glaring exposure (and following a few weeks of compulsory finger-pointing by the involved officials) the public was given a unique insight on an important and extreme problem effecting all of us--the failure of our public agencies to provide us adequate or timely relief in the event of a catastrophe.
Yes, the media did the public a great service by exposing some very valid issues and did so in such a manner that was rather unforgiving towards the failings and trespasses of the responsible parties.
For that, they should be congratulated and I won't take that from them. I will, however, point out their utter shame in the coverage of another disaster. This one can be easily seen as far smaller than the ghastliness of Katrina, but it is no less relevant to the American public. It is the case of Terri Schiavo.
Since before 2002 and, prior to my becoming involved in Terri's case, I watched the media's handling of her story with not just a diminutive amount of dismay. For years, the media reported Terri's condition as 'brain-dead', even though no such diagnosis had ever been proffered by examining physicians. They repeatedly referred to her as someone on life support, in a coma, terminally ill and dying. None of their descriptions had any basis in fact and they painted a very dismal image for the public to rely upon to form their opinions.
Terri was diagnosed by three of five examining physicians at trial to be in a persistent vegetative state. The media, however, failed to note that one of those doctors chosen by Michael Schiavo (Ronald Cranford) is, by his own admission, a proponent of 'death with dignity' and has gone so far as to suggest withholding ordinary care from patients with dementia. The media also failed to disclose that the other physician (chosen by Michael Schiavo), James Barnhill, is a business associated of Schiavo's attorney, George Felos (The pair have given seminars in end of life ethics during educational cruises for University at Sea).
Finally, the court-appointed examining physician, Dr. Peter Bambakidis, is brother to Dr. Gust Bambakidis. Gust serves in the same Greek association (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association or AHEPA) as Schiavo's attorney, George Felos. AHEPA is a national association, but small enough in members that the connection is a bit disquieting.
This information was given to a number of outlets, yet it was only reported in two small online publications. The mainstream quickly and predictably gave it a pass.
Not surprisingly, the mainstream also gave a pass to Judge George Greer's ruling from February of 2005--that did not simply allow Michael Schiavo to direct the removal of Terri's assisted food and fluids--it ordered that he do so. Some, including myself, view this as a violation of Terri's privacy in that the state, the government, forced something upon her body: her death.
The media also fell down in reporting that the removal of enteral nourishment from a non-dying patient was not permitted in Florida (and only under certain circumstances) until 1999, months after Michael Schiavo petitioned the court for that authority. As Terri suffered her neurological injuries in 1990, it is impossible that she could have legally given informed consent to being dehydrated to death in such a predicament. After supporting documents, that outlined those statutes and retained protections, were given to major press and media outlets, not one reporter bothered to make mention of this particular.
Equally depressing are the reasons for the changed law in 1999. An End of Life Panel was commissioned to advise the Florida legislature on ethics at the end of life. Of that panel, three of George Felos' board-mates at the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast (Mary Labyak, Michael Bell and Lofty Basta) were members. This suggests a conflict and occurred was just months prior to Felos and his client, Schiavo, transferring Terri Schiavo to the Hospice's house at Woodside in Pinellas Park, Florida without a terminal diagnosis.
Again, more than 400 news outlets were given hard copies of the End of Life Panel's report to the Florida legislature, Michael Schiavo's 1998 petition to the court, the 1999 amended statute and Terri Schiavo's Hospice admitting record, yet none tapped out a single word about the apparent conflict.
Not one of the majors asked a single question, did a minute of investigative work or threw the first hardball inquiry at the involved parties. Instead, they took the posture that Terri Schiavo had been well represented and her husband was a perfectly swell guy for ensuring her 'dying' wish.
To be fair, at least one local outlet kept their reporting of the Schiavo matter down the center and objective. Another, in the competing market, has been nothing short of an unpaid public relations agency for Michael Schiavo, insistently skewering those who would support Terri Schiavo's retained rights (under Florida law) to ordinary care. We were made out to be religious freaks and, although a good many religious people demonstrated when Terri's feeding tube had been taken away, the sum total of those objecting came from every political, social and cultural walk there is. A loud voice came from the disabled community, but you likely never heard it. Since sensible people don't sell newspapers, what you saw was sensationalistic and ugly.
Perhaps the most egregious trespass the media committed in Terri's case was the panic-selling of living wills shortly after her death. To be certain, living wills, advanced directives, surrogate or proxy arrangements and even protective medical declarations are all things that warrant studious and careful consideration. They should not be entered into lightly or as a knee-jerk reaction to an emotionally troubling news story. Those in the written press and in the media who coaxed their audiences into the notion that a living will would have circumvented the drama of the Schiavo case should retire their pens and hang their heads in shame.
I'm looking at you, St. Pete Times.
Though the Schiavo coverage was almost non-stop during the two weeks she was made to go without food and fluids, I maintain the opinion that it was poorly researched, badly slanted and did a tremendous disservice to the viewing public. Even those on her side fell far from dealing with the real issues her case presented. The spider-web of troubles in Terri's case is, as I see it, not just interesting but important. People should understand what can be done to them without their consent but, instead of treating the story as a public service opportunity, the media handled it like a well-crafted advertisement for the death with dignity movement, never once telling you why the case is cause for concern.
If I could pick my own top story for 2005, it would be the media's hatchet-job on reporting the Schiavo case, how millions of Americans were lulled into thinking what they witnessed was ethical and how the most apparent of things can be buried by irresponsible and arrogant attitudes.
When I look back on this year, I'll certainly remember those who suffered through Hurricane Katrina, the many scandals the government has been caught up in, the devastation from earthquakes around the globe, the soaring petroleum prices, CIA leaks, political infighting, the deaths of Shirley Chisholm and Rosa Parks and the great sadness and waste that is the Iraq war. For those stories, the media has been thoughtful and deliberate.
Most of all, however, I will remember Terri Schiavo and how the press and the media went to such great lengths to hush the world into believing that what happened to her was, somehow, okay.
Posted by tim at December 21, 2005 9:48 PM
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