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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Three Ring Spectacle

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; 10:27 AM

Every morning we got up and the plot was the same, like Groundhog Day. Terri Schiavo was hanging on, the media circus got under way, the publicity-seekers, headline-hunters, sign-wavers and assorted kooks got their 15 seconds of attention.

Now that she has died this morning, the medical part of the melodrama is over. But the battle over her fate is still very much in high gear.

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Let's face it: The Schiavo saga, which once showed signs of at least sparking a national debate about the end of life and the role of government, has long since become a media-driven spectacle that is increasingly about itself. The echo chamber is the message. Is there a columnist, blogger or street-corner pamphleteer in America who hasn't written about it? Didn't the high-decibel arguments become less about Terri and more about the political fallout, religious extremism, selling fundraising lists, Jesse Jackson and Randall Terry?

Context, too often, is lost. Take Randall Terry, who was once prominent for chaining himself to hospital beds as the leader of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. How many journalists have mentioned that his church in Binghamton, N.Y. censured him in 2000?

"Many of his longtime friends . . . are shocked and bewildered that a man who has traveled the country pleading with Christian people to think and act biblically is now thinking and acting so anti-biblically," wrote church pastor Daniel Little. The letter accused Terry of leaving his wife and their two children and a "pattern of repeated and sinful relationships and conversations with both single and married women." Terry called the charges "absolute nonsense, insanity."

Terry was also sentenced to five months in prison for helping another activist try to give a fetus to Bill Clinton during the 1992 Democratic convention.

In 1989 I went to Binghamton to interview Terry, who likened his struggle against abortion to that of Martin Luther King on civil rights. The high school dropout also told me that he "hates" radical feminists, believes that homosexuals and adulterers should be shunned as "immoral" and opposes use of birth-control pills and IUDs as "killing babies."

Here is what Margaret Johnston, who ran the area's only abortion clinic, told me about Terry and his followers when women came to the clinic: "They would push little bloody fetus pictures on them and say, 'Don't go in there, you're killing your baby.' They said, 'You'll never have kids again, you'll die on the table, they use a sharp serrated knife, your baby dies in pain, you'll hear it scream.'"

My point is not whether Terry or his tactics were right or wrong. It's that the media have amnesia and are interested in people like him only as walk-on players who provide fodder for the continuing Schiavo melodrama. Does anyone mention that Jesse Jackson, who showed up in Pinellas Park to plead for Schiavo's life as a matter of morality, acknowledged four years ago fathering an out-of-wedlock child? Of course not. That's old news, and Schiavo is new news, and anyone who keeps media hope alive by keeping the story alive is welcomed.

(What are the odds, meanwhile, that the Pope would be put on a feeding tube while all this is going on?)

"A federal appeals court in Atlanta refused Wednesday to reconsider the case of Terri Schiavo," reports the New York Times, "with one of the judges rebuking President Bush and Congress for acting 'in a manner demonstrably at odds with our founding fathers' blueprint for the governance of a free people.'"

In judicial language, that's a smackdown.

"An emergency appeal the Schindlers filed with the Supreme Court Wednesday night, asking that Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube be reinserted while they made further appeals, was rejected. It was the sixth time the court declined to intervene."

Also, "the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who met with her parents for the second day in a row, later said he was urging them to accept her probably imminent death."

This post caught my eye because it's from Neal Boortz a staunchly conservative radio talk show host in Atlanta:

"May I suggest that the principal reason for the precipitous drop in Bush's popularity ratings might be due to the fact that Americans . . . not all, but many . . . are just a little bit upset that Bush so eagerly injected the federal government into what should be a private family matter? Right now we have the staffs of two United States Senators, Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, and Martinez, a Republican from Florida, working to put together a law that would require federal court review of any family dispute about a patient without a living will. Why a federal court review? Why can't this be handled in the state courts? Why do we have to expand the scope and power of the Imperial Federal Government to the point that the tentacles of government reach into the very heart of intra-family relations?. . . .

"We all know the answer here, don't we . . . and the answer points us to one of the principal reasons for the decline in Bush's approval ratings. There is one reason that the Congress got involved in this unpleasantness in Florida. One reason that Bush rushed back to Washington to sign legislation injecting the federal government into that situation, and one reason Harkin and Martinez are working on their legislation to expand the powers of the federal government. That reason is pressure from anti-abortion advocates and religious extremists. . . .

"Someone who openly calls for a theocracy in America, as Randall Terry has done, is an extremist. Randall Terry is at the center of the Florida controversy. Bush's actions were seen by some as pandering to Randall Terry. These Florida hospice protestors who wandered down the street about 10 days ago to harass an auto shop owner for daring to work on a Sunday would be examples of religious extremists. Bush's actions were seen as pandering to these zealots. This frightens people."

In Reason, Cathy Young sounds a bit disgusted:

"I wish I could see something good or noble in the political and media circus over the sad fate of Terri Schiavo -- such as a nation's willingness to focus its attention on one person's life or death. No doubt, some people trying to keep Schiavo, or her body, alive are driven by sincere humanitarian passion. But, mostly, this spectacle has been a sickening display of cynicism and fanaticism.

"According to every credible source, there's no such person as Terri Schiavo anymore. Her cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that governs consciousness, was destroyed 15 years ago by oxygen deprivation during a cardiac arrest. What remains is a body in a vegetative state, capable of physical reflexes including random eye movements, meaningless sounds, and facial contortions that may look like smiles or frowns.

"Loved ones often wishfully mistake these reflexes for signs of awareness; no one blames Schiavo's parents for clinging to such hopes. Far more blameworthy are the know-nothing activists, politicians, and pundits who tout video clips of Schiavo as proof she is fully conscious. These clips of Schiavo exposed in her pathetic state strike me as a far worse indecency on television than Janet Jackson's exposed breast."

Robert Kuttner in his Boston Globe column, sees a silver lining:

"Some good may yet come of Terri Schiavo's sad story. More of us will think hard about how we'd want to be treated if terminally incapacitated. More of us will write living wills, making clear who is in charge. And more people will gain a truer understanding of the religious right.

"The Republican Party may also hesitate, out of its own life-support instincts, before rushing so recklessly to embrace extreme zealotry.

"And the Democrats, often cowed by America's latest apparent romance with fundamentalism, may wake from their own persistent vegetative state. Much to the shock of Republican operatives and opportunists, polls show that most Americans deeply resent the plain meddling reflected in the right-wing dash back to Washington to write a one-woman law to keep Terri Schiavo on a feeding tube. Bill Frist, the doctor-senator, looked like a perfect idiot when he purported to diagnose her condition via videotape. Even Jeb Bush is backing off."

Not so fast, says National Review's Jonah Goldberg to those who foresee a conservative crackup:

"First, keep in mind that what has prompted the most recent bout of panic is the passionate -- and legitimate -- differences over the Terri Schiavo case. Just as hard cases make bad law, they also tend to make for bad analysis. Lots of people are pointing to the fact that the polls do not support Congress's decision to intervene on Schiavo's behalf (even as the nature of that involvement has been often wildly exaggerated). The Republican party has exposed itself, if these pessimists are to be believed, with a dangerous overreach that will haunt it for years.

"Uh, not likely. Whatever you think of the legislative branch's involvement, it's doubtful the issue will be a political albatross for the GOP any more than, say, the Elian Gonzales scandal permanently tarnished the Democrats. Indeed, recall that the Clinton impeachment drive was far more deleterious for the GOP's standing in the polls over a far longer period of time, and if that effort did permanent damage to the Republican party, it's hard to find today. The federal government is run by Republicans for as far as the eye can see.

"True, the conservative coalition has its share of contradictions, but that's to be expected of any growing ideological movement or political party."

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds makes a rare (possibly unprecedented) appearance on liberal Salon to argue that "the entire notion of the 'rule of law' -- itself once a favored slogan of conservatives -- seems to have fallen into disrepute. Quite a few conservatives are unhappy about that state of affairs, and I wonder if it doesn't presage a realignment within the Republican Party, and the fracturing of some alliances on the right.

"Schiavo hysteria certainly has some Republicans in its grip. Bill Bennett wrote that state law doesn't deserve our respect if it conflicts with natural law. Bennett went on to urge Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to risk impeachment by violating the orders of the Florida Supreme Court. Fox News' John Gibson was less measured. 'Just to burnish my reputation as a bomb thrower,' he wrote last Friday on the Fox News Web site, 'I think Jeb Bush should give serious thought to storming the Bastille.' In other words, Bush should consider sending police in to remove Schiavo from the hospice and reattach her feeding tube."

In blogging news, Business 2.0 says Arianna Huffington has big plans:

"Huffington, the conservative-turned-liberal author, pundit, California gubernatorial candidate, and bona fide blogger, is adding 'media entrepreneur' to her list of titles with a new online publishing venture, the Huffington Report.

"Based in New York and staffed with a full complement of editors, the Huffington Report appears to be a culture and politics webzine in the classic mold of Salon or Slate. It will have breaking news, a media commentary section called 'Eat the Press,' and its most interesting innovation, a group blog manned by the cultural and media elite: Sen. Jon Corzine, Larry David, Barry Diller, Tom Freston, David Geffen, Vernon Jordan, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Harry Evans and his wife, Tina Brown. That's just to name a few, and Huffington is still recruiting. Her business partner is Ken Lerer, the head of AOL Time Warner corporate communications until Bob Pittman lost and Dick Parsons won."

A group blog consisting of big shots. I wonder if that will work.

LAT columnist David Shaw is still taking heat for writing that bloggers don't deserve the legal protections afforded journalists. Matt Welch takes a shot:

"His reasoning is -- typically for Shaw -- flawed, ahistorical, and dripping with condescension toward journalistic life forms that don't embrace his exact reportorial mores...

"BLOGGERS require no journalistic experience.

"Either, incidentally, do many entry-level reporting positions, which are often filled with people straight outta J-school, with little or no college-paper experience. At any rate, the difference between being a newspaper opinion columnist -- like Shaw -- and being a current-affairs weblogger are at this point very few. Both write to convince, and hopefully entertain, (though Shaw usually does the latter unintentionally). Both marshal facts to prove their theses; though bloggers have the additional transparency option of providing hyperlinks to original source material, enabling comments, and quickly correcting errors. Both are subject to the same libel and defamation laws.

"The main difference is that the culture of newspaper jobs is a culture of scarcity, over-editing, editorial circumspection, office politics, and both the good and bad tradition of modern-day newspapering. The culture of blogging is one of abundance, lack of editing, exuberance of expression, home offices, and both the good and bad "tradition" of a new and dynamically evolving medium. Are the differences between the two camps enough to deprive a journalism-producing weblogger the protections afforded a journalism-producing newspaper columnist? I don't think so.

"All they need is computer access and the desire to blog.

"This, believe it or not Mr. Shaw, is a good thing. The fact that it is treated by a media columnist as a disqualifying negative speaks volumes about how the culture of newspaper professionalization and scarcity has warped the core free-speech values of the very people who claim to defend the First Amendment."

Kevin Drum however, doesn't offer the knee-jerk blogger reaction, even as he says that Shaw got the "dressing down he deserves":

"Not so much because Shaw asked a dumb question, but because his answer is mostly a series of variants on the proposition that traditional reporters are simply more deserving human beings than hoi polloi bloggers. This is journalism?

"On the other hand, for the legions of bloggers who feel that of course they deserve the same shield law protections as professional reporters, I'm not sure this holds much water either. Shield laws are already tricky things, balancing a legitimate societal desire for aggressive newsgathering with an equally legitimate societal desire to ferret out wrongdoing in courts of law. The problem is that if bloggers get the same protection as mainstream reporters, that means that practically anyone can shield themselves from testifying in court on a wide variety of topics simply by operating a blog. The scope for abuse will become so broad that shield laws could eventually be tossed out altogether.

"In other words, be careful what you wish for. The demise of shield laws would benefit none of us."

Chris Nolan wants a new moniker--and to make some money:

"For a while I, and many others have been dissatisfied with the term 'web logging.' That focuses on the technology, not on what the technology produces. So, after a little thought, I'm calling what I and others do Stand-Alone Journalism. Why Stand-Alone Journalism? Well, it's accurate. A journalist -- or a small group of reporters -- can work on the web to produce what they want as they find it appropriate. And readers are equally free to read the work of individual journalist as they see fit, on their time, not on schedules set by TV networks or the newspapers.

"And boy, if you folks are any measure, this stuff is really catching on. In less than a year, Politics From Left to Right has gone from nothing to more than 25,000 regular visitors a month (visitors who hang around, by the way). It's almost a business. We're going to try to really stand alone on our own two feet. That's why our reader survey was so important. And it's why we're taking ads."

Hey, you think bloggers--excuse me, stand-alone journalists--just do this out of the goodness of their hearts?

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