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Terri Schiavo and the Tabloidization of the Media

Friday, 08 April 2005 12:00 AM

So I believe the Terri Schiavo case is important. What I don't believe is that anything was accomplished by beaming her image out on 24-hour newscasts and effectively stripping the final few days of her life of any dignity.

Like hyenas circling around pre-killed carrion, the media swept in, mounting a 24-hour death watch. They camped out at the hospital, mounted cameras in her hospital room, and intruded upon her final few days. This isn't news, its tabloid media, and it's remarkably successful in reducing great national issues into trivial dimensions.

This trend toward tabloidization started with the cable network explosion in the '90s. Overnight, the television market splintered. Competition became brutal, as fledging networks vied for the viewing public's attention. The question became how to distinguish your network from the competition.

The answer came from media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who used his Fox television station to belch out one enormous orgy of tawdry and titillating television morsels. His populist model proved wildly successful. Soon others followed suit, until shocking and salacious imagery became the dominant mode of expression on TV.

We've now reached a point where this tendency toward tabloid media has infected even our so-called hard news outlets. Indeed, what's striking is not that television networks would camp outside Terri's hospital room, but that our so-called hard news outlets would depict the issue with so little depth or introspection.

This case raised profound questions. Should there be a presumption toward death for comatose, terminally ill patients? Is physician-assisted suicide a legitimate medical practice? Should Congress pass tough federal legislation that would subject doctors to harsh penalties if they actively cause a patient's death? Or should this matter be left to the judiciary to decide?

These rousing questions were supplanted by images of feeding tubes and bed pans and politicians who would knock over old ladies to get some air time.

The worst part was how the politicians camped out on Terri's doorstep claimed to be fighting for what she would want. Do you really think Terri would want to have her final few days beamed around the globe for public consumption? Do you think she would want to be stripped of all dignity during the last moments of her life?

It is tasteless and shameful, even by political standards, to suggest that this media circus was for Terri's good. Terri has been in that bed for years. Where were the politicians until last month? Where are they now, when serious and profound issues about the sanctity of life remain? Where is the federal law to deal with this issue?

This wasn't a policy debate. It was political grandstanding. It was a political ad campaign. Somewhere along the line, the bigger issues about the sanctity of life fell by the wayside. In the rush to get on TV and spout out sound bites and beam images of Terri across the globe, the politicians and TV stations degraded the final few days of Terri's life. That they did this in the name of protecting Terri is a shame and a crime.

This was about political grandstanding. It was about TV stations using images to shock people into paying attention.

This is what hard news is becoming. It's about summing up complex situations with images designed to shock the audience into paying attention. This is how we learn about the world around us. No longer do we learn through subject and verb, but rather through a verbal hybrid of images and slogans designed to make it easy for our eyes to absorb what's going on. Finally, we are left to judge serious issues like race not based on thoughtful discussion, but on a barrage of visual constructs.

What the Terry Schiavo case tells us is that this tabloidization of the news has reached some sickening level of artificiality. The media have become first-person participants, intruding on the lives of subjects, rattling the cage as they did with Schiavo's relatives, and then filming the fallout for public consumption.

We don't discuss issues. We gulp images. And so, even the most compelling issues in our lives are distilled into pictures of feeding tubes. This is meaningless and offensive, even by television standards.

www.armstrongwilliams.com

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So I believe the Terri Schiavo case is important. What I don't believe is that anything was accomplished by beaming her image out on 24-hour newscasts and effectively stripping the final few days of her life of any dignity. Like hyenas circling around pre-killed...
Terri,Schiavo,and,the,Tabloidization,the,Media
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2005-00-08
Friday, 08 April 2005 12:00 AM
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