Accuracy in Media

The heavily covered death of Pope John Paul II raises questions about what the Pope thought about the role of the media in society. He was, in fact, a powerful media critic who declared that journalists had a “special responsibility to witness to the truth.” Many journalists are saying nice things about the Pope now but what will they do about the pressing moral problems that the Pope said the media had an obligation to confront? And since the Vatican had stated its view that Terri Schiavo had a right to life, perhaps we ought to consider what the Pope might have thought of media coverage of her death.

Interestingly, the Holy See in February issued the text of John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the media, in which he commented on the emergence and influence of new media technologies. Without proper formation, he said, “these media run the risk of manipulating and heavily conditioning, rather than serving people.” He could have been talking about the liberal media.

In recognition of World Communications Day in 1996, the Pope issued a statement strongly criticizing the major media for devaluing the concept of motherhood. Sadly, he said, “we often see not the exaltation but the exploitation of women in the media. How often are they treated not as persons with an inviolable dignity but as objects whose purpose is to satisfy others’ appetite for pleasure or for power? How often is the role of woman as wife and mother undervalued or even ridiculed?” Without saying so directly, the Pope was commenting on the negative influence of radical feminism in the media.

The Pope also warned against a media culture of “transitory news” that becomes “a forgetfulness which corrodes hope” and a “meaningless accumulation of facts.” Entertainment, he cautioned, was becoming “a soulless flight from truth and responsibility.”

Saying we were facing a time of both threat and promise, the Pope urged the creation of media that become a “friendly companion to all people, presenting them with ‘news’ wedded to remembrance, information wedded to wisdom and entertainment wedded to joy.” He wanted to see media used as “a force of love which creates not a force which destroys?”

In 1997, on the occasion of World Communications Day, he warned of evil forces manipulating the media. “The fact is that it is increasingly difficult to protect one’s eyes and ears from images and sounds which arrive through the media unexpectedly and uninvited,” he said. “It is particularly hard for parents to guard their children from unwholesome messages, and to ensure that their education in human relations and their learning about the world comes about in a way that is appropriate to their age and sensibility, and to their developing sense of right and wrong. Public opinion has been shocked at how easily the advanced communication technologies can be exploited by those whose intentions are evil.”

He was alarmed that “the proportion of media programs which deal with religious and spiritual aspirations, programs which are morally uplifting and help people to live better lives, is apparently decreasing. It is not easy to remain optimistic about the positive influence of the mass media when they appear either to ignore the vital role of religion in people’s lives, or when the treatment that religious belief receives seems consistently negative and unsympathetic. Some elements of the media?especially in the entertainment sectors?often seem to wish to portray religious believers in the worst possible light.”

We saw that trend in some of the coverage of Terri Schiavo’s supporters. Indeed, Mike Allen of the Washington Post, Linda Douglass of ABC News, Wyatt Andrews of CBS News and other journalists ran stories accusing congressional Republicans of using the Schiavo case to energize their conservative and religious pro-life supporters for partisan political reasons. The problem is that these reporters cited a so-called Republican memo that turned out to be a cut and paste job from the Internet. In other words, it was of questionable authenticity and was probably a fake. There is no evidence that the memo was distributed by or to Republicans, but a New York Times report that it had been “passed out” by Democrats suggests that it was planted with the media as part of a Democratic Party dirty-tricks campaign to make the Republicans look bad.

Something like this easily happens because liberal journalists want to believe the worst about conservatives and Republicans.

The Pope’s reflections on the media are directly relevant in another important aspect of the Schiavo case. On a radio program hosted by Mark Biznow of WMET in Washington, D.C., I repeated something I had said on Neil Cavuto’s Fox News Channel show the day before―that the liberal bleeding hearts in the media did not bleed for Terri Schiavo. I found it strange that, in this case, many journalists did not “give voice for the voiceless,” as the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists urges the media to do. Biznow seemed caught off-guard. “People might tend to think that journalists, adhering to the highest standards of the profession, would be scrupulously neutral” and “dispassionate,” he said.

Biznow’s response was understandable. But my point was that the liberal bias that exists in the media did not extend to Schiavo. Liberals are supposed to come to the aid of the downtrodden and oppressed. Yet New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd compared Republicans helping Terri Schiavo to the film, “Weekend at Bernie’s,” in which a corpse is dressed up and hauled around as a living and breathing human being. Dowd was apparently trying to be funny but I found the comments cruel and heartless. Perhaps Dowd’s anti-Republican feelings provoked her outburst. But it is still strange that Dowd, a feminist, would not show more sympathy for an innocent disabled woman whose estranged husband was maneuvering to have her killed.

Why wasn’t there more sympathy and compassion for Terri Schiavo? And why did the media create a spectacle in which the American people were, in effect, treated to her public execution? As a journalist, media critic and human being, I found the whole thing repulsive.

I remember years ago when TV talk show host Phil Donahue talked about wanting to show the execution of a convicted killer on television. Donahue, who is opposed to capital punishment, believed that such a display would cause people to react with horror. Terri Schiavo, of course, wasn’t actually on television as she slowly died but we were treated to enough graphic descriptions of starvation and dehydration to understand what was happening to her. Michael Schiavo’s attorney, George Felos, on the other hand, called the process peaceful and beautiful. This was even-handed journalism for you. One side was for death. The other side was against. I wonder what the Pope would have thought of this kind of media “balance.” This coverage sets the stage for more such spectacles and more deaths. We may get used to it, or “conditioned,” as the Pope warned.

I also wonder why the media were camped outside the hospice when they should have been camped outside the home or office of Michael Schiavo, preparing to pepper him with questions about why he was going to starve his wife to death. In one sense, the real story wasn’t her but him because he held the power of life and death over Terri in his hands. The liberal media didn’t assume the role in this case that they usually claim for themselves. Now we know for sure that their posturing for the “voiceless” is a complete fraud.

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