Life, Death, and Silence

Why the media elites won't tell the full story on Terri's prognosis and Michael Schiavo.
Wesley J. Smith
The Daily Standard
October 31, 2003
Print ArticleWesley J. Smith will speak about media coverage of the Terri Schiavo case at Discovery Institute, Wed. November 12 4:30pm to 6pm. Click here for more information.

FOR MONTHS, as the Terri Schiavo case roiled much of the country, the establishment media all but ignored the story. But then, in the midst of her dying by dehydration, the Florida Legislature passed "Terri's Law," authorizing Governor Jeb Bush to place a moratorium on the dehydration deaths of certain cognitively disabled patients, including Terri. When that happened, the media blackout transformed into media frenzy.

It soon became quite clear, however, that increased media attention was not synonymous with increased dissemination of relevant facts. For despite carpet coverage of the controversy in establishment outlets, the full story still isn't being told for the simple reason that most media refuse to report it.

What are these ignored facts?

(1) Michael Schiavo has lived with his fiancÚ for nearly eight years and has sired two children by her. In the years since Terri's devastating disability, Schiavo has gone on with his life, fallen in love with another woman, and started a family. Few would hold this against him--if he would turn Terri's care over to her parents. Instead, Schiavo insists that he should retain all the rights of a husband--including inheritance and retention of marital property--as he simultaneously enjoys connubial bliss and sweet domesticity with his fiancÚ.

By siring two children with another woman, Michael effectively estranged himself from his marriage. Surely, thinking people would want to know this fact. Yet Schiavo's new family is consistently unmentioned. Instead, he is almost always depicted simply as a "husband" struggling in-laws and right-to-lifers to fulfill his wife's stated desire to die.

The entire episode is beginning to take on the feel of a conspiracy of silence. Consider the following very partial list:

Newsweek's extensive report on the story ("Who Has the Right to Die" by Arian Campo-Flores, November 3, 2003) laudably mentioned both sides of many of the controversies in the case--indeed more than most other stories--but significantly omitted Schiavo's new family.

Similarly, in the New York Times's many recent articles, opinion columns, and in its editorial against Terri's Law, Schiavo's extracurricular activities were completely ignored. It's October 23 editorial merely stated:


Michael Schiavo, her husband and legal guardian, went to court seeking to cut off the feeding tube that was keeping her alive. He testified that Ms. Schiavo, who did not have a living will, would not have wanted the feeding to continue.
Sounds reasonable. But imagine how different readers' impression of the case would be if the editorial had included the total context, by stating, "Michael Schiavo, who remains legally married to Ms. Schiavo but has sired two children with his fiancÚ, went to court seeking to cut off the feeding tube."

The Christian Science Monitor editorialized on October 29 that challenges to spousal decisions in these matters by other family members "could lead to chaos." Would the editors have been able to express that opinion with a straight face if they had included the facts about Schiavo's new life?

Could it be that the reporters and editors who are writing and editing these pieces don't know Schiavo has established a new family? That's hard to believe. Indeed, in at least in one case I know the reporter knew the story because I told it to him and he still failed to report it (or perhaps, the editor removed it from his final copy).

Manuel Roig-Franzia interviewed me for a story on Jeb Bush's ordering Terri's food and water restored. We spoke at some length during which I made a point of emphasizing Schiavo's current domestic circumstances. Yet, when his front page story appeared (including a brief quote from me), there was no mention of these facts, despite their clear relevance to the following assertion:


Terri Schiavo left no written instructions, but her husband testified that she told him she would not want to live in a vegetative state. The courts have been clear, legal experts said, that spouses have the authority to make decisions in such cases.
But the real issue is whether estranged spouses have the authority. In this case, shouldn't that be the pertinent point?

(2) Many medical experts believe Terri can be improved. Most media reports depict the medical prognosis for Terri as being settled fact. Thus, stories have described her as "comatose," which she is not, and vegetative, which remains a matter of dispute despite courts ruling otherwise.

But it is a matter of court record that many doctors and medical therapists who specialize in rehabilitating people with profound cognitive disabilities have testified that Terri's condition can possibly be improved. This includes board certified neurologists and reputable speech therapists, such as Sarah Green Mele from the world-renowned Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Indeed, Mele stated in an affidavit that Terri would, "within a reasonable degree of clinical probability, be able to improve her ability to interact with her environment, communicate with others, and control her environment if she were given appropriate therapy and training . . ."

But since the judge sided with Schiavo's experts, the media has acted as if that settles the matter. But this isn't akin to a situation of "he said / she said." We don't have to believe one side over the other. There is a simple way to find out for sure whether Terri can be improved: allow her to receive therapy for six months and then take another look. Too bad the media generally refuses to report that Judge George Greer of the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in Clearwater, Florida, won't permit that.

(3) Many opponents of dehydrating Terri are not "pro-life religious fundamentalists." The establishment media's consensus view is that the Schiavo controversy is being driven by religious, pro-life fundamentalists who have insinuated themselves into a family tragedy in order to further their own narrow sectarian purposes. Thus, when Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry briefly surfaced as a defender of Terri's life, the New York Times happily splashed the story all over its front page warning darkly that religious conservatives intend to parlay the public interest generated by Terri's case as a wedge to "chip away at court rulings allowing abortion and banning organized prayer in schools and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, among other issues." (The article was titled "Victory in Florida Feeding Case Emboldens the Religious Right.")

It is true, of course, that many Christians--most of them conservative--have joined the fray, and good for them. But so too has Joe Lieberman, a top tier candidate for the Democrat presidential nomination. Lieberman, who is not Christian, not conservative, and not pro-life, courageously supported Jeb Bush's efforts to save Terri's life, telling the Associated Press, "where there is not a living will . . . we ought not to create a system where people are being deprived of nutrition and hydration in a way that ends their lives."

The politically liberal disability rights movement has also committed itself to saving Terri's life. Indeed, activists almost unanimously declare that dehydrating Terri would be an act of bigotry against her because of her cognitive disability. There was even an effort in Canada to obtain asylum for on this score. This is why more than a dozen national disability rights groups signed the National Disability Groups Joint Statement in Support of Terri Schiavo, which reads in part:


In this matter of living as a disabled person, those of us who live with a disability are the experts--not husbands, not parents, not doctors, not ethicists. We know that life with a disability is worth living, and we know something we find appalling is the attitude of "better off dead"--an opinion that drives much of the thinking surrounding people like Terri-Schindler-Schiavo.

SO WHY IS THE ESTABLISHMENT MEDIA covering the Schiavo story as if it wants Michael to succeed in his campaign to end Terri's life?

The establishment media usually reflects the attitudes of society's elites, who do generally believe that people like Terri are better off dead. On the other hand, talk-radio and the Internet--what I call dissident media--generated the unprecedented outpouring of support for Terri's life that culminated in Terri's Law. Members of the establishment disdain dissident media and perceive it to be a threat.

Thus, the Schiavo case has, for the mainstream media, become a potent symbol both of the culture wars--pro-life versus pro-choice--and an acute challenge by dissident media to its hegemony over news dissemination.

Too bad for Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri's folks: They aren't trying to lead a crusade. They don't want to undercut the cultural and media status quo. They just want to save their dear daughter's life.


Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an attorney and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. He is the author of "Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder."