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Symbolism and the Terri Schiavo case.

FOR SEVERAL WEEKS in March, many of us agonized, argued, and wept as the human drama of Terri Schiavo's life and death played out on our television screens and in practically every form of media available.

One could certainly argue that Schiavo should never have been in the media to begin with. Daily, hundreds, more likely thousands, of families--including this writer's--must make end-of-life decisions for their loved ones. Most such decisions are made within the privacy and warmth of the family unit.

But, that unit was broken in Schiavo's case--the result of a rift between her parents, the Schindlers, and her husband, Michael Schiavo. Some of the principals decided to argue their cases in public forums, precipitating a "media circus" and a lab for those who study the manipulation of symbols.

Schiavo herself became a symbol for many who face death--no longer in control of her life yet hanging on to it, surrounded by people yet facing the ultimate outcome alone. Many of us watching the events have agonized as a loved one went through a similar process. As my family told my mother as she lay dying after a long bout with cancer, "we will be with you to the doorway, but we can't cross through it with you." She died in her own bedroom, with all of us around her and me holding her hand.

The difference in the Schiavo case was that her journey to the door became an "opportunity" for people with larger agenda. I'm not writing about the Schindlers or her husband here, although they did participate in the circus in their attempts to do what they thought was right for Terri.

I'm writing about the various advocate groups that argued during Schiavo's journey, politicians who saw an opportunity to push an agenda and many in the media, who exploited a human tragedy for the sake of a "big story."

Right-to-life groups used religious symbols liberally in arguing that Schiavo was being "killed" and "starved to death." They talked about a "culture of death" in the country, pointing to parallels between Schiavo's death and abortion.

Right-to-die advocates argued that Schiavo was being artificially sustained by the feeding tube, and that her case was just another example of what we can do with "high tech medicine." They talked of "death with dignity" and argued that Terri was being denied that.

Some said Schiavo was a disability case. Others said she was not.

Higher Order Abstractions

Advocates on all sides pushed what general semanticists might call "higher order" abstractions, and used the individual case of Schiavo to make broad generalizations and value judgments.

At the root of the dispute was the age-old question of "when does death occur?" The arguments, however, used deliberately chosen words and symbols to air the viewpoints of the various advocates on that question. People were actually arguing about their own "world views" and "value assumptions" about life and death in general, not necessarily looking at the very specific life and death of Terri Schiavo.

Of course, politicians often manipulate symbols to further their worldviews and value assumptions. So, conservative politicians like Tom Delay and others talked about the "right to life" and the "love of family" and "liberal judges" who "legislate" through their decisions. President Bush said it was always better to "err on the side of life."

Trampled by the 11th hour Congressional action, and Bush's signing of it, were the broader principles of American government, such as separation of state and church, states' rights, and the checks and balances between the legislative branch and judicial branch of government.

Very few public figures spoke up about these things. They feared being portrayed as crass and un-caring. Many "liberals" crossed lines and voted for the Schiavo bill.

Many on both sides of the political aisle undoubtedly knew that the Congressional action would be ineffective; that it would be found unconstitutional. But, they were more concerned about the symbolism, and possible political consequences, of talking about laws and procedure when a helpless woman was dying.

When polls ended up showing that more than 70% of those polled believed Congress and Bush should butt out of the situation, many politicians back-tracked, or became silent, or suddenly found the courage to talk about those previously mentioned principles of American government.

Of course, the media salivated over all this. Many decision-makers in media would tell you that it was a big story that had to be covered. This veteran journalist would agree, but argue that the media treatment--especially that of cable TV news--went well beyond actual "coverage."

Some of that can be attributed to the sheer number of media covering the story. You could hardly escape it. But, you also can ask if "coverage" of the story needed to include warm, sensitive music and photos of Schiavo as a younger, healthier woman between each segment of programming. FOX started that practice, and just about every cable news network was doing it by the end.

Opinion and Punditry

As often is the case in today's TV news, opinion and punditry replaced any attempt at "objectively" reporting the facts of the story. So, you saw religious representatives, medical ethicists, and politicians paraded before the screen for days; with each advocating those "world views" and "value assumptions" mentioned earlier.

You saw cable TV hosts like Nancy Grace arguing that Michael Schiavo had abandoned Terri long ago to take a common law wife, with whom he had two children. Grace asked at one point what had happened to "for better and worse" in the marriage vows. Her facial expressions were enough alone to condemn Michael Schiavo. Grace was only the most overtly biased of many biased commentators.

The story fit all the news values of media. It could easily be personalized. It was a two-valued, either-or conflict. Articulate, demonstrative advocates existed on both sides. It had visuals--with the contrasts of the footage of the helpless Terri in bed vs. those of the healthy younger Terri, the protestors praying outside the hospice, etc. So, the media, especially TV, did not just cover the story. They made it a "show," and in doing so created the circus.

Many of the issues advocates, politicians, and media ignored the general semantics principle of indexing. Terri Schiavo, the individual facing of death, did not equal all those who face death. But she was used as a symbol for those myriad cases.

Lost in all of this were the individuality of Terri Schiavo, the other principals involved and the actual details of their individual stories. I really never knew what Terri told Michael about her wishes should she ever faced a life-or-death situation; only what advocates on both sides said she said, or believed she would have wanted.

I never knew the real details of what the relationship between the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo had been. I never knew the facts that had been used in the previous court cases by both sides of the argument. I really did not have the details to judge who was telling the truth, and who was lying; who might really have the best interests of Terri at heart. I would argue that none of you had those details either.

Instead, I saw an individual, and those who loved her, become symbols for broader arguments and issues backed by biased advocates with bigger agenda. For a couple weeks, the Terri Schiavo story became the O.J. Simpson trial, Princess Di's marriage and death, the Clinton-Monica affair, the War on Terrorism, etc.,--the big story, the show.

Then, when the Pope became gravely ill and faced his own death, the media virtually dropped the story and moved on to the next big story, the next show.

I can't help but think that Terri Schiavo would have preferred to die more like my mother did, with her loved ones quietly and privately with her right to death's door.


* Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist and author. He is a retired senior lecturer in journalism and media studies at UW-Milwaukee and writes frequently about applying general semantics to media literacy.
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Author:Hoffmann, Gregg
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Previous Article:Uncertainty and death.
Next Article:Uninvolved involvement.

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