The O'Hannity Factor: how Terri Schiavo became big news

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The O'Hannity Factor: how Terri Schiavo became big news

The anatomy of a made story

by Steve Perry, with additional reporting by Molly Priesmeyer

No right-to-die case has ever attracted the kind of media saturation coverage that the Terri Schiavo case received. Not even Karen Ann Quinlan, the first such story to hit national media (in 1975), and certainly not Nancy Cruzan, Christine Busalacchi (an early-1990s Missouri case in which then-Governor John Ashcroft intervened), Lucio Bretano, or Michael Martin. Why? The press has tended to plead zeitgeist, to claim that this was an issue whose time had come. But the real answer would appear to lie in the efforts of Fox News and the Bush family and the pack tendencies of the media at large.

Schiavo was 26 years old in 1990 when her heart stopped owing to a potassium imbalance probably caused by a long-term eating disorder--not unlike the case of 32-year-old singer Karen Carpenter in 1983, except that Schiavo did not die; she went into a coma. It became a news story about 10 years later, as the court battle between her husband, Michael, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, dragged on. A Nexis news database search of "Terri Schiavo" turns up 65 stories from 2000, 373 from 2001, and 127 from 2002. During that period it was a local/regional story. But in August 2003, Governor Jeb Bush began to take a more public interest in the case, first asking the court to appoint a guardian for her and later, after her feeding tube was removed in October, ramming a "Terri?s law" through the Florida legislature that allowed him to order the tube reinstalled. It was. (About six months later, that law was found unconstitutional and overturned, sending the matter back to court.) Around the time Bush jumped in, Bob Schindler appeared as a guest on Fox?s Hannity & Colmes, on August 13.

Besides Bush family involvement, one other factor played heavily in gaining the case national attention. In October 2003, as the date set for removal of Schiavo?s feeding tube approached, her parents enlisted Randall Terry to publicize their cause. Terry, the Operation Rescue anti-abortion zealot, made a name for himself in the 1990s with his Christian-avenger, "by any means necessary" rhetoric (he talked, for example, of praying for the death of abortion providers). It was Terry?s involvement that won the story its first big national exposure.

The pivotal date was October 13, 2003, and once again it was Fox?s Sean Hannity leading the charge. On that night, Randall Terry appeared on Hannity & Colmes discussing the case, minus any mention of his past affiliations. ("Randall," said Hannity, "it?s been a long time. Welcome back, sir.") Terry had scarcely been introduced when he started vilifying Michael Schiavo: "Listen, Sean, he's gone on to so many women between his wife and his status now. He's living with a woman. They have two children. So for him to insinuate that this is somehow him caring for her is a flat out scam. I mean, it would be much more interesting to follow the money. But in any event, why have her killed? Why just not get a divorce, marry the girl that you're living with, and let Terri go home to her mom and dad?"

What happened in the next 48 hours is an object lesson in the follow-the-leader ecology of modern news media, with Fox News, as usual, playing the role of Pied Piper. Before Randall Terry?s appearance with Hannity on October 13, the case had been mentioned in Nexis news database stories fewer than 200 times all year; during the remainder of October 2003 it appeared over a thousand times. Hannity featured the story again the very next day, this time with another Schindler interview.

The day after that, October 15, it got over two minutes on each of the three major networks? evening newscasts. The talking heads on CNN and MSNBC/CNBC immediately took it up as well: Paula Zahn, Anderson Cooper, Brian Williams. Other Fox pundits chimed in too; Bill O?Reilly featured the case on October 16. For that matter, so did NPR. It quickly drew the attention of mainstream disseminators of conservative hype: the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, talk radio, and right-wing blogs such as the then-fledgling Twin Cities-based Powerline blog.

From that point onward, it remained a major national story, the coverage waxing and waning in step with court developments--and peaking in the past two months as George W. Bush and Congressional Republicans like Tom DeLay seized on the case. For the most part, these national figures quieted down considerably after polls began to indicate how wildly unpopular their position was. In Florida, however, Jeb Bush persisted, even sending state police agents to seize Schiavo after the tube was removed, a gambit that failed when local police told them they would resist. But the grandstanding over Schiavo was not a net loss for the Bush family: The Karl Rove calculus is likely that those who cared most will remember the Bushes? efforts, and everyone else will forget--which is probably correct. As Adam Nagourney wrote of Jeb in the New York Times (3/25), his "last-minute intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo may have failed in a legal sense, but it cemented the conservative and religious credentials of a man whose political pedigree is huge and whose political future remains a subject of speculation."

Links:

Hannity & Colmes interview with Schiavo parents, 8/13/03

Hannity brings back Randall Terry, 10/13/2003

Media Matters bio item on Randall Terry

In These Times on Randall Terry, 11/03

NYT on the political capital Jeb Bush has earned through Schiavo, 3/25/2005

Miami Herald: Plan to seize Schiavo fizzles

PBS Frontline transcript on Nancy Cruzan case

A short history of the Karen Ann Quinlan case

NOTE: The NYT reported last week that one of the major purveyors of Florida TV news reports on the Schiavo case, Mike Vasilinda's Capitol News Service, has gotten state contracts from the Jeb Bush administration for the past four years. It isn't clear whether Capitol News Service's reports played an important role in breaking the story to Florida media; that seems doubtful in view of the dates and volume of CNS's archived Schiavo coverage.


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