Cable News, Terri Schiavo, War Protesters, and Swift Boats

Polls consistently show that 70-85% of Americans think that the President and Congress should not interfere in the Teri Schiavo matter. The sentiment is that it's a private matter between family members and best handled by the courts.

Naturally, cable news offers us not only a complete shredding of any privacy concerns, it also demeans the process by which gut-wrenching decisions are made and, to top it off, reads the 70-85% response as "A Nation Divided".

No doubt that the media will convene yet another forum at which the sorry state of journalism is decried by its own members who, while shedding crocodile tears, will again proclaim, "We only give the public what it wants!"

To expose that falsehood, to see how the amount of coverage bears no resemblance to the impact of a story from a national and/or international level, and to show how this skewed coverage has ramifications one need only look back to the Iraqi War protestors and the 2004 election. In those two instances, a complete disregard for substantive discussion, investigative journalism, and a "damn the torpedoes" approach to consequences is clearly evidenced.

First, the hundred or so (according to reports) people physically present outside of the hospice housing Teri Schiavo pale, in number at least, to the unprecedented hundreds of thousands physically protesting the war in this country and the millions throughout the world. If one were to view the importance of the story from a cable coverage point of view, the Schiavo story makes the war protests seem like they were completely unremarkable in size, scope, and intensity.

As for not giving the public what it wants and the consequences thereof, the coverage of the 2004 election is telling. In August an informal study was undertaken to see how cable news would perform in informing the public on the issues as the campaign began to come to a head.

The basis for the study were two polls. One each was taken by 'liberal' TIME (August 3-5) and ‘conservative’ FOX News (August 3-4). Both asked which issues were most important in the presidential election.

In both polls, the public chose the economy, Iraq, terrorism, health care or Medicare, moral value issues, education, and taxes. The answers were used as benchmarks to gauge cable’s responsiveness to addressing the public's concerns.

A sampling of programs from August 5th - 26th revealed that cable news provided more than 283,593 words and over 34 showings of an attack ad(s) on Kerry and his Vietnam service. Publishing industry standards place 283,593 words beyond the reach of regular novels and into the realm of a 1,134 page “epic” novel or a trilogy (requests for a copy of the full story- sources, quotes, etc.- are available upon request).

Kerry led in the polls after the Democratic Convention. When the Swift Boat orgy fully kicked in, his numbers began to drop and at the end of the 3 week period he was behind. When his his poll numbers dropped below that of Bush, pundits began fingerprint removal by relentlessly repeating, “people don’t know where he stands”, and attributing credit to “Bush’s convention bounce”.

On September 14th, analyst and poll aficionado Bill Schneider broke ranks and pointed out, “…Then came weeks of attacks. By late August, the number who said Kerry's military record made them more likely to vote for him had dropped by half. Kerry's advantage was neutralized by the controversy”.

He added, “In early August Kerry had the edge over Bush as the more honest and trustworthy candidate. In late August just before the Republican convention, the advantage had tilted to Bush”.

None of this is to say that had cable news covered the war protests as much as they have the Schiavo story the war would have been prevented and that thousands upon thousands of lives (American and Iraqi), as well as $300 billion tax dollars for the war, would have been spared. It is to say that the protests deserved a serious look which may have, in turn, caused a reconsideration of the conflict by certain elected members of our leadership. As it was, the coverage did nothing to show the fact that, on this issue, the country was truly "A Nation Divided".

As for the 2004 election, the coverage may or may not be blamed or credited with the outcome. That may or may not matter to the reader depending on the outcome desired. One thing is not open for discussion. The Time and Fox polls taken asking the public what was important to it was an exercise in futility. The facts show that determining what's important to the public is apparently best left to cable news.


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