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The Tiny Screen: As Terri Dies, A Multi-Media Martyr is Born:

The recent obsession with Terri Schiavo reignites the age-old debate — which came first, the media onslaught or the public’s hunger?  It’s hard to know whether the Schiavo deathwatch would have reached its fevered pitch without the steady stream of earnest reports from network and cable journalists alike – who’ve made the days since Schiavo’s feeding tube was legally removed sound not like a woman meeting her inevitable, (relatively peaceful) end, but a suspenseful life or death drama that just has to have a happy ending.  After all, we’re Americans! We are entitled to our happy endings.

This is what happens when an entire nation relies on the fiction that everything always works out for the better.  We believe that all dramas will end the way we want them to, even real life ones.  And so our journalists give us what we want: Terri Schiavo is on her deathbed, where she’s been now for years.  But push has come to shove.  Husband Michael has won yet another legal battle in his quest to have Terri’s artificial life support removed.  Her parents are desperate.  One judge refuses an appeal to have the feeding tube reinserted, another judge refuses, then another … all the way up to the Supreme Court.  What will happen next?

Now, if this were an episode of “ER” or “JAG,” you can bet the feeding tube would be re-inserted at the last possible second in order to save Schiavo, who would suddenly become conscious enough to thank Dr. Carter or Lt. MacKenzie, or, in our fantasies, the Great People of America, for allowing her to live.

But this isn’t fiction, and the only reason the vocal minority is getting any airplay at all is because the story seemed to be headed for that dramatic conclusion.  But alas, the drama has failed the media in the last act.  Blame the U.S. legal system, blame Jeb Bush for (in the one miracle of the week) actually following the law and not storming the hospice to take custody of the dying woman, by all means blame Michael Schiavo — who’s been so demonized by the media that his own life is now in danger — but Terri Schiavo will pass over soon, and head on up to that God guy who’s been all over the talk shows these last few weeks. 

She’ll become the martyr for our generation – a helpless victim at the hands of the court system!  Or was it the right-wingers hiding from their own scandals?  Either way, it was with the lip-smacking complicity of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and every local news affiliate in America. 

You might be interested to know that on the same day that Schiavo’s parents’ appeals to “re-insert the feeding tube” were denied, two girls were murdered.  Out-and-out murdered.  Where were the panels on Larry King?  Where were the headlines?  Where were the vigils?  Where was the public outcry?

A known sex offender took a nine-year-old girl, Jessica Lunsford, from her bedroom.  The man had been in and out of his sister’s home, within eyeshot of Jessica.  The sister could have been be raked across the coals by the mob mentality, but the mob was too busy holding vigil for their martyr of choice.  Ironically, there is actual progress to be made by mounting a public mob roll for Jessica Lunsford – changes in laws to track and monitor sex offenders, for instance. 

Another girl, Deliesh Allen, was pronounced dead on March 25 after being shot by a stray bullet during a gang fight.  Could a powerful mob with signs and candles and pictures of Deliesh (or even Jesus, like the ones held outside Schiavo’s hospice) help this situation?  If it made good television it certainly would have.

The Schiavo deathwatch represents a low point in an already low television year.  It wasn’t enough that holy men spent the week speaking to “The Today Show,” CNN, Fox News, you name it, calling Schiavo this era’s Joan of Arc — Pat Boone had to chime in with his own mantra, “Joan of Arc was crucified for heresy, while Terri was ‘persecuted’ for hearsay.”  Why?  Why does Pat Boone get a say in this?  And the “it makes for good television” excuse doesn’t fly, because Pat Boone hasn’t made for good television since the late ’50s.

Then there were the “miracle cases” of people who suddenly sprang to life after a coma or a brain tumor giving their testimony – it happened to them; it could happen to Terri.  It didn’t matter how many doctors were on television explaining why Schiavo’s brain was too far-gone, or that she was never going to return to her conscious self.  It didn’t matter, because we believe in the neatness of a good drama, no matter the cost.  We, with the media makers as our companions, value drama over the actual lives of the real people involved in human tragedies. 

Is it right for the entire news media to be obsessed with one sad, pointless story?  Is it healthy to believe in this drama that has no happy ending?  The committed religious groups outside of Terri’s hospice are chanting, “Err on the side of life.”  But they’re not sure if they really still believe in medical intervention – if God isn’t keeping Schiavo alive but a feeding tube is, does it still count as God’s will?  And if medical intervention is okay for Schiavo, why isn’t it okay for those who could benefit from stem cell research? 

As a mother, it’s difficult for me not to sympathize with Schiavo’s parents.  Who wouldn’t want their daughter’s body there for them to feel and see, and even talk to, every day?  Who wouldn’t want some reminder of the person they once loved so dearly?  Even in a vegetative state, for them, Schiavo was probably still better alive and brain-dead than gone forever.  Who can’t relate to that?  And for Michael Schiavo to be made the villain of the story for trying to honor his wife’s wishes is painful and unfair.

It’s wholly irresponsible for members of the United States Congress to have become involved in — and thus, for the news media outlets to consume the entire country with — what should be a private matter for the poor woman’s family to fight through.  Their suffering is their own – it does not belong to Tom DeLay or Larry King.  And it does not belong to us.


This Week’s Notable TV


 Thursday, March 31


Benny Hill. 8 p.m., BBC.


Tru Calling, premiere, 8 p.m., FOX.

The Office, the fab English version, 8 and 8:30 p.m., BRAVO.


High Sierra (***), 10 p.m., TCM.


Friday, April 1


Manhunter (***), with pre-CSI William Peterson, 7:30 p.m., AMC.


Purple Rain (***), 8 p.m., BRAVO.


Swingers (***), 8 p.m., IFC.


The Silence of the Lambs (****), 10 p.m., AMC.


Saturday, April 2


Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, 8 p.m., ABC.


Honeymoon in Vegas (***), 8 p.m., WE.

Spy Kids 2 (***), 9 p.m., ABC.


The Turning Point (****), diva central, 9 p.m., FMC.


Sunday, April 3


The Last Waltz (****), 7:30 p.m., IFC.


Desperate Housewives, desperately seeking new episodes?  They’re finally here, 9 p.m., ABC.


John Q. (**), 9 p.m., CBS.


Mystery! Malice Aforethought, 9 p.m., KCET.


Monday, April 4


The Freshman (***), from 1925, 8 p.m., TCM.


Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy, does anyone care? 9 p.m., NBC.


American Experience: Mary Pickford, 9 p.m., KCET.


Velvet Goldmine (***), 10 p.m., IFC.


Tuesday, April 5


Gentleman’s Agreement (****), 7:30 p.m., AMC.


Diary of Anne Frank (***), from 1959, 7:30 p.m., AMC.


Before Night Falls (****), the film that put Javier Bardem on the map, 8 p.m., IFC.


Frontline, Israel’s Next War, 10 p.m., KCET.


Wednesday, April 6


The Lady Eve (****), with the great Barbara Stanwyck, 7:30 p.m., TCM.


Broadcast News (****), 7:30 p.m., WE.


Great Performances: The Little Prince, 9 p.m., KCET.


An Officer and a Gentleman (***), 9:30 p.m., AMC.

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