March 26, 2005
The Old Media Game

By Thomas Lifson

It seemed so long ago that the old media and their liberal cohorts were able to mount successful campaigns manipulating the public into support for dubious propositions: Bill Clinton’s veto of a GOP budget as a “Republican shutdown” of the government; the public “demanding” Campaign Finance Reform, or Linda Tripp as demon.

The formula was simple: provide a carefully selected mix of data, hammer away on themes making the conservatives look mean, extreme, stupid, corrupt or narrow-minded; take polls with questions designed to elicit majorities favoring the liberal solution, and then wield the polls as irrefutable evidence of the need to let the people have their way. Intimidate wobbly conservative office-holders. Snatch victory and pound-home the manufactured memes of conservative depravity with casual press references well into the future.

The rise of the new media was supposed to change it all. Bloggers would expose inconvenient facts. Fox News Channel and talk radio would place the facts before enough people that water cooler talk, family get-togethers, back fence conversations, and other casual encounters would enable the conservative view to get exposed to a critical mass of Americans.

But in the case of Terri Schiavo, the old media game has worked. Most Americans do not realize that MRI and PET scans have not been used to determine the actual state of Terri’s brain, and that there is significant medical disagreement about the degree of her brain damage and mental and sensory impairment. Most Americans do not know about the affidavit from a nurse indicating Michael Schiavo seems to have wanted his wife dead. Most assume that Terri is brain dead. Many assume she is being “kept alive” by heroic medical intervention. Few realize Michael Schiavo started another family with a “common law” wife and children, making his guardianship of Terri morally suspect.

So what is different about Terri Schiavo’s case?

First and foremost, there is very little time for the facts to become widely known. Few people expect that denial of food and water will take more than two weeks to kill her. Once she is dead, the issue will become moot in the minds of many, and the mass media can be expected to move on to other stories. Unlike the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, for example, there is not an entire election season for facts inconvenient to the liberal agenda to percolate into the American consciousness.

The new media gain power because they can raise considerations the MSM would prefer to ignore. But the new media cannot reach everyone directly. Not yet, at least. It takes time for arguments to be heard, for contradictions to be exposed, and for embarrassed editors, reporters, anchors, and editorialists to respond. In other words, the reach of the old media remains a formidable advantage in pushing one side of a story when time is constrained.

A second major factor is the role of the “experts” – in this case, the medical community. The protests over the killing of Terri Schiavo have included very few physicians. While there are doctors who are committed to preserving life, the majority of physicians today take a far more detached view of the matter, seeking to “balance” competing views and considerations. The original Hippcratic Oath required that physicians abstain from abortion and euthanasia. Once upon a time, new physicians swore fealty to it. But these prohibitions are no longer insisted-upon by the medical profession. In place of absolute respect for life, we have a calculus of the costs of sustaining life, the wishes and mental health of a pregnant woman and relatives of an invalid, and the dubious notion that some lives aren’t of sufficient “quality” to deserve care.

Physicians know better than most people the enormous cost of extended care of elderly or severely impaired patients. The largely unspoken but universally-known elephant in the bathtub is the huge “demographic bulge” of baby-boomers who will, in a decade, begin to become the concern of geriatric medicine. If this group demands that all measures be taken to extend their lives, they will push the overall cost of medical care to far higher than its current level of 15% of GNP. Extending the lives of invalids is not the stuff of glamour or even a great deal of satisfaction for most physicians, compared to other uses of their time and skill.

Physicians are also notoriously averse to criticizing one another. What goes around does indeed come around, they know. If the physicians attending Terri Schiavo came to their conclusions, others who did not have access to as much data are understandably reluctant to criticize them. So there hasn’t been a flood of medical experts countering the version of events found in the MSM. Most people readily accept what appears to be a consensus of the experts.

Finally, the issues raised by the Terry Schiavo case are extraordinarily personal and meaningful to virtually everyone, so reactions to the case tend to be deeply-held and perhaps more dependent on emotion than on reason. All of us are going to die. All of us are going to have relatives and friends who are going to die. All of us think about what it might be like to be in Terri’s shoes, or what it might be like to be in her parents’ shoes, or her legal, though morally-putative husband’s shoes.

In such circumstances, many people do not really want to think or analyze. Many simply want the whole issue to go away. They may be more than normally amenable to arguments that death by starvation produces “mild euphoria.” If this is true, would the Supreme Court allow states to execute condemned murderers by this means? One suspects that a different analytical calculus would be brought to bear on this question. But the current atmosphere does not encourage dispassionate analysis.

Those who seek to draw their attention to the matter and prolong Terri’s life become objects of resentment. In such a personal issue, outside intervention, especially in the form of governmental action, is extremely touchy. People just want the issue to go away, so they can move on to March Madness, the glory of Spring, and other more pleasant topics.

As of Friday morning, March 25th, it looks as though Terri Schiavo will soon expire. The issue will be championed on a continuing basis by those who believe Terri should not have been euthanized. But the MSM and probably a majority of Americans will want to have nothing to do with it.

The cultural left will want to see this episode a turning point. The pro-life force and new media advocates will call it a last hurrah. The reach of the new media will grow, but the precedent of Terri Schiavo will continue to instruct politicians, media, and the public. Euthanasia is becoming an established practice in the United States.

As John Maynard Keynes observed, "In the long run, we are all dead." But the timing, manner, and causality do matter. As a baby-boomer, I am not comforted.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.

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